Modern Livery Companies

This week I have attended the 6th Annual Security Lecture hosted by the Security Professionals at the RAF Club; the AGM and Annual Civic Luncheon of my Ward Club, Cripplegate at Guildhall; attended a meeting of our Trust; and chaired my first Business Court meeting as Master. But perhaps one of the most interesting events was the biannual dinner of the Modern Livery Companies, this time hosted by the Chartered Architects at Cutlers’ Hall.

The idea of Modern Livery Companies emerged in the 20th century. The 77th Company in order of precedence is the Carmen. Its history is long and complex but it was the only company to be granted livery status in the reign of Queen Victoria in 1848. The 76th Company is the Fan Makers and it was incorporated in 1709 in the Reign of Queen Anne. Thus for over 200 hundred years there were hardly any additions to the ranks of the Livery Companies. It was as if the City decided that there were no new professions and suddenly turned round in the 20th century and realised just how many had developed, but it was not really like that. It was more that people had forgotten how to form a Livery Company. We are therefore indebted to the founders of the 78th Company, the Master Mariners, which is generally recognised as the first of the modern livery companies.

At the annual shipmaster’s dinner in Liverpool on the 2nd March, 1921, the Member of Parliament for Wallasey, Mr Robert Chadwick, suggested that the profession was entitled to form, and was capable of forming, a Guild or Company very much on the lines of the City of London companies. A man of some influence, his vision was realised on 25th June 1926 with the formation of the Company of Master Mariners.

The City of London welcomed the new Company with great warmth. Uniquely among the City livery companies, that is until the Air Pilots  was granted its Royal Charter in 2014, the Master Mariners is entitled to use the prefix ‘Honourable’, the others being ‘Worshipful’ ( a title originating in the Middle Ages meaning ‘deserving of respect’). His Majesty King George V had been very moved by the great loss of life that resulted from the sinking of so many merchant ships during the First World War and, in recognition of the sacrifices made at that time, accorded the Company the right to use the title ‘Honourable’.

HRH Edward, Prince of Wales, became the First Master in 1928, only resigning the post on his accession to the throne. (He felt that there might be a conflict of interest if, as Master, he had occasion to petition himself as King!) HRH the Duke of Edinburgh was Master from 1954-1957 and then became Admiral of the Company, a post he holds to the present day. HRH Charles, Prince of Wales was Master from 1988-1990 and HRH The Princess Royal was Master from 2005-2007. In 1932 the Court of Aldermen conferred the status of Livery on the Company.

Still there was no rush to grant new Livery Companies status. No 79, the City of London Solicitors Company had been formed in 1908 but was only granted Livery Status in 1944 and its Royal Charter in 1958. No 80, the Farmers arrived in 1952, the Air Pilots in 1956. The next in line, the Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders was first incorporated by Royal Charter granted by King James 1 in 1619, with responsibility for regulating the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes. In 1643, following the outbreak of the English Civil War, the Company forfeited its Charter through non-payment of its annual rent to King Charles 1. The Company was restored by King Charles II in 1663, but was declared bankrupt in 1868 after its powers of regulation over tobacco pipes makers were abolished and its income from its members declined significantly. The Company was reincorporated as the Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders in 1954 by members of the Briar Pipe and Tobacco Trades, and in 1960 became a Livery Company once more.

Such mixed fortunes are not uncommon among the history of livery companies. While we all have the vision that our companies should live in perpetuity some have fallen by the wayside such as the Silk-throwers, Silkmen, Pinmakers, Soapmakers, Hatbandmakers, Long-bow Stringmakers, Woodmongers, Starchmakers and Fishermen. While the recent order of precedence does follow chronological lines the early ones do not. We cannot be sure which is the oldest Company although the Weavers, only no. 42,  lay claim to the earliest reference in 1130. After centuries of rivalry and struggle precedence was finally settled in 1515 based on wealth rather than history. The Mercers was established as Number One and it is no doubt still the wealthiest company. The Grocers was Number Two but the current Master Grocer told us at a recent dinner that the Great Fire not only burnt down its hall as it did most of the Livery Halls but also most of its property and it was left with substantial debts. If the order of precedence had been settled 150 years later than it was the Grocers would not have been ranked so high.

The Lightmongers is another Company that has been revived but now ranks 96th, behind such more obviously modern companies like the Scientific Instrument Makers, Chartered Surveyors, Chartered Accountants, Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, Builders Merchants, Marketors, Actuaries, Insurers, Arbitrators,  Engineers and Fuellers .

While the designation Modern Livery Companies clearly refers to those granted livery status after 1926 some older Livery Companies want to also be seen as modern. Some have very effectively reinvented themselves. The Horners, (no. 54), due to the decline in trade of horn working decided in 1943 to support the new plastics industry as it continues to do. The Fan Makers (no. 76), recognizing that fans are now made by machine not craftsmen, sought to recruit those who use ‘fans’ in other applications such as aircraft engines and air conditioning. The Stationers, which started as those who sold paper and pens from ‘stations’ next to St Paul’s Cathedral, at one time held a monopoly on all publishing.  Now its members are drawn from the modern visual and graphic communications industries which have evolved from the company’s original trades. As those evolve again with the digital revolution, it seeks to present itself as bang up-to-date and its website describes itself as ‘A Modern Livery Company’.

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