The Woolmen

In 2014 Court Assistant Andrew Cross sent me a copy of the certificate he had received for driving sheep across London Bridge in the annual ceremony organised by the Worshipful Company of Woolmen. It was signed by the Master, one Richard Excell. If it had been John Smith I would have thought no more about it but Richard Excell is a more distinctive name and was the name of my first boss at Procter & Gamble which I joined straight from university in 1971. I looked up the Company’s web site and, sure enough, it was the same man.

Our then Master-Elect kindly agreed to invite Richard and his Clerk, Major Steve Wake, to his Installation at Goldsmiths’ Hall. As Senior Warden-elect I looked forward to welcoming him as one of the guests, not having seen him for about forty years. Unfortunately he was taken ill and so could not attend. In my speech I made something of returning a book on marketing that Richard had left me and I had inadvertently kept all those years. In a feeble attempt at compensation I also gave him, via his Clerk, a copy of my book The Twenty Ps of Marketing. I again invited him to my own Installation and this time he was able to attend.

Richard then kindly returned the honour by inviting me in my year as Master to their Installation service and dinner which took place this week. Unusually the Installation takes place at the beginning of their Annual Church Service at St Michael’s Cornhill, one of the finest churches in the City. This year Alderman Peter Hewitt was installed as Master and one of his two wardens is another Alderman, Vincent Keaveny.

The honorary Chaplain Rev Dr Peter Mullen in his address spoke wittily of the importance of wool in the life of the City of London and society at large.  Some of our place names like Ramsgate, Woolwich and Shepperton reflect its importance in the agro-economy. It also appears in every day speech. We can be dyed in the wool, spin a yarn and lose the thread. We can be crooked, fleeced, cloth-eared and sheepish. We can fabricate evidence and unravel a plot. We can be mutton dressed as lamb and even our broken bones can knit together. We might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Our arguments are often woolly, perhaps because we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes. But we eat shepherd’s pie and retain a taste for homespun wisdom. I imagine some of my remote ancestors were pretty handy with a bobbin.

After the service we processed through the City led by officers of Our Queen’s Own Yeomanry to the Guildhall for a reception in the Art Gallery and a fine dinner in the Library. All the usual features were there with Sung Grace, the Loving Cup Ceremony, the Rose Water, good food and wines laid on by the Cook & Butler, all accompanied by yet more talented musicians from the Guildhall School of Music.

The Rt Hon Sir Edward Garnier QC MP, former Solicitor General and a school friend of the new Master, proposed the toast to the Company. He also told us of the importance of wool in the history of the country. It was the bedrock of the economy for centuries; indeed Sir Edward likened its importance to the English economy in the middle ages to that of oil to Saudi Arabia today.

The Worshipful Company of Woolmen is one of the oldest of the Livery Companies of the City of London tracing its roots to 1180.  Originally it was the body that oversaw woolpackers and wool merchants to ensure consistent standards for wool producers and wool merchants throughout the wool industry. It provided successive kings with a huge share of their income as the taxes on wool were steadily and sometimes drastically increased.  In 1275 Edward I applied a particularly vicious wool tax known as “The Great Tax” which inspired the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep. The first London Bridge was built on the riches of wool as indeed were countless churches around England. In this anniversary year of William Shakespeare’s death it is interesting to recall that his father made his fortune out of wool and then illegally laundered it by ‘selling’ below cost houses to his family all around Stratford thus evading tax.

In those medieval times the Woolmen must have been one of the richest companies but these taxes took their toll and they slipped down the pecking order with senior places going to many of those involved in the downstream of the business such as the Drapers and the Clothworkers and even the Mercers who traded in wool as much as silk. But their products have continued to this day and the Company has a number of initiatives to promote the uses of wool.

It now combines its ancient history and traditions with an active role with the $80bn Global Wool Pipeline Industries through its City Wool Alliance linking the City of London Financial and Professional sectors with the Global Industry.  Equally importantly through its Charitable Trust  it  supports research into appropriate wool related procedures and practices; provides bursaries for students of wool, textile, design, wool marketing and retailing and it awards prizes and medals for sheep shearing at the major agricultural shows.

It works closely with its three Strategic Wool Industry Partners, the British Wool Marketing Board, the Australian Woolmark Company and the Campaign for Wool which has His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales as Patron.

The High Commissioner of New Zealand, the Deputy High Commissioner of Australia and the Ambassador of Turkey were all present at the dinner and the Company intends to invite leading figures in other wool-producing nations to become Honorary Freemen.

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