Report of the Commissioners: Part 2

Pages 20-25

City of London Livery Companies Commission. Report; Volume 1. Originally published by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1884.

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Constitution and Privileges.

The second part of your Majesty's Commission relates to the constitution of the Livery Companies of the City of London, and to the privileges which are enjoyed by those who belong to them. The text is as follows:—"To inquire into and ascertain the constitution and powers of the governing bodies of the said Companies, and the mode of admission of freemen, livery, and other members of the said Companies, and the number of freemen, livery, and other persons constituting the said Companies, and the gains, privileges, or emoluments to which all or any of such persons are entitled by reason of their being members of such Companies."

We proceed to describe the (1) constitution of the Companies as individual Corporations, (2) their connection with the municipality of London.

Grades of membership.

1. There appear to have been always three grades of membership, (1) mere membership, the possession of the freedom, which makes a "freeman" or "freewoman," (2) membership of what is called "the livery," (3) a place on the "court" or governing body.


The "freedom" of the London Livery Companies has been from time immemorial obtainable in two ways (1) by apprenticeship. (2) by patrimony.


A system of apprenticeship was an essential element in the guilds from which the Companies sprang. After their incorporation, the term of service, the premium, and the status and duties of apprentices were regulated by byelaws framed by the courts, and submitted by them (1) to the judges, (2) to the municipality. The youths were articled on these terms as apprentices to freemen for a period of seven years, at the expiration of which, upon proof that they had duly served their masters during the seven years, they became entitled to the freedom of the Company.

Two ceremonies were involved in this method of admission, (1) that of binding, (2) that of conferring the freedom at the expiration of the articles. Each took place at the hall of the Company, or, if the Company had not a hall, at the Guildhall, a name which is itself a memorial of the importance of the guilds of London in early times. The father or guardian of the apprentice paid the Company a nominal fee and some small sums to the officers and servants in respect of the binding, and when the apprentice was admitted to the freedom, he also paid a nominal fee to the Company, and some small sums to the officers and servants in respect of his admission.


Of patrimony we have already spoken. Every son or daughter of a person who has been duly admitted to the freedom has always been entitled by to claim, when of age, his or her admission to the freedom upon proof of (1) his or her legitimacy, (2) the membership of his or her father at the time of his or her birth. The ceremony of admission took place at the hall of the Company, or at the Guildhall, and the novice paid an entrance fee and small charges of about the same amount as in the case of admission by apprenticeship. It was far more usual for sons to follow their fathers' occupations during the middle ages than it is at present; but guilds into which members were admitted by patrimony must always have contained persons of no occupation, or of occupations different to those from which the guilds derived their names.

Apprenticeship to other trades.

Apprenticeship also seems to have been by no means confined to the trades of the guilds. From an early period a practice prevailed of bestowing the freedom on persons who had been bound to any of the members, irrespective of their callings. Such bindings were foreign to the ordinances of most of the guilds, and involved an infringement of the rights of the guilds which represented the trades, if any, of the apprentices. Also from an early period purely colourable bindings were allowed, that is, youths were bound as a matter of form to persons whose trades they did not mean to follow, and who undertook no obligations as regards their protection or education, in order that they might on coming of age be able to claim the freedom of the Companies of their nominal masters.

Redemption.; Honoris causâ.

From a very early period, moreover, the freedom of the Companies has been (1) sold, (2) conferred, like the freedom of the City, as an honour upon personages of distinction. The former method of admission is called admission by redemption, the latter admission honoris causâ. The former method does not at present exist in the Grocers' Company, but exists (with a limitation to members of the trade in those few Companies which still have a trade, such as the Apothecaries and the Stationers) in all the other Companies. These, (1) apprenticeship real or colourable, (2) patrimony, (3) redemption, (4) election honoris causâ, are the four present modes of admission to a London Livery Company. The court is and has for centuries been the admitting authority.

The entrance fees paid in respect of admission to the freedom by redemption seem to have always varied with the civic and general standing of the different companies. At present the more conspicuous Companies charge considerable sums, in some cases as much as 100l.

The livery.

Above the mere freemen and freewomen have always been the members of "the livery," those who wore or as it was technically expressed "had" the "clothing" of the brotherhood or guild. They were either (1) craftsmen, employers of labour, or (2) non-craftsmen, persons of some wealth and position who had joined the company by patrimony or by purchase. (fn. 1)

Visiting jurisdiction of aldermen. Limitation of numbers of liveries.

From very early times the court of aldermen in the exercise of a sort of visiting jurisdiction claimed the right of authorizing the Companies to wear liveries and admit liverymen. Even at the present day they appear to prescribe the number of persons who are to be admitted as liverymen. By an Act of the Court, dated 27th July 1697, it is enacted "that no person shall be allowed to take upon himself the clothing of any of the 12 Companies unless he have an estate of 1,000l.; of the inferior Companies, unless he have an estate of 500l.," and the spirit of this property qualification is still observed, for the present members of the liveries are always persons of some means.

"Calls" to the livery.

The court possesses, as a general rule, the sole power of admitting or "calling," as the technical phrase is, to the livery. Fees are payable of larger amount than in the case of admission to the freedom. A distinction is sometimes made between the case of persons who have entered by patrimony or by servitude, and that of persons who have entered by purchase, the latter class being compelled to pay higher for the new privilege. The fees or "fines" payable on promotion to the liveries vary according to the standing of the Companies. In some of the more popular companies, as much as 100l. is charged.

Quarterage. (fn. 2)

In addition to the fees and fines which have been mentioned, each freeman and liveryman has always paid quarterly to the common purse, a small sum called "quarterage."

Courts or governing bodies.; Master. Wardens. Assistants.

The courts or governing bodies of the Companies consisted originally of the persons, the principal employers or capitalists, whose names occur in the first charters. As vacancies took place by death, these persons elected members of the liveries to fill them. The courts early assumed the form of a master or prime warden, several other wardens, the junior of whom was the renter warden or bursar, and a number of "assistants." (fn. 3) At the present day the governing bodies are called "the courts of assistants." A new member on election by co-optation generally took office as warden, often as renter warden, an onerous position. He was promoted from wardenship to wardenship till he became prime warden or master. After having "passed the chair" he became an ordinary assistant for life. At nearly all the steps, a fee or fine was charged. At the present time the system is similar, and most of the assistants have served as wardens and have "passed the chair."

Expense of rising to the mastership after having joined by purchase numbers.

The fees payable in respect of the several promotions are now considerable, often amounting to 100l. At the present day, a person joining a considerable London Company as a freeman by purchase might, in his progress from the position of a mere freeman to the mastership, have to pay 200l., or even upwards of 300l. in fees and fines. The numbers of the courts vary from about 12 to between 30 and 40 at the present day.

Privileges of different orders of members.

The "privileges" which the members of the City Companies at present posséss, apart from their position as voters on the Municipal Register of London, are as follows:—


(1.) Freemen and freewomen (of whom, however, there are now scarcely any), and the widows and orphans of freemen are entitled in case of poverty and in old age (1) to be received into the almshouses of the Companies which have almshouses; (2) to pensions and casual relief out of the trust funds which have been left to the Companies for that purpose. They are also commonly relieved out of the Companies' general income, i.e., that part of the Companies' income which is in the eye of the law not trust income.


All the great Companies and several of the small Companies have endowed almshouses. Originally, in many cases, the almshouses adjoined the halls; nearly all were within the City or its liberties. But as the value of building land in the City has rapidly increased during the present century, the Companies have sometimes found it profitable to let the sites of these foundations for the construction of warehouses and offices, and to rebuild the almshouses on less expensive sites in other parts of London or in the country.

Amount of trust and general income thus expended.

The trust funds for the sustentation of these almshouses and the relief of poor members, their widows and orphans are, as we shall see more in detail hereafter, (fn. 4) very ample. They are supplemented by a considerable contribution from the general income of the Companies.


As a rule, a claim to relief in case of poverty is the only privilege which the possession of the mere freedom of a Company confers. In a single case, that of the Clothworkers' Company, the freemen are invited to an entertainment. In that Company, also, and in two or three others, the freemen are enabled to educate their children on advantageous terms, owing to admissions to Christ's Hospital, which some of the Companies have bought for the purpose, and to the Companies' own schools.


(2.) The privileges of liverymen as regards charitable relief are similar to those of freemen, but the pensions voted to them and their widows and orphans are larger in amount. They have also generally a legal right to a place at those banquets of the Companies which are chartered franchises, and they are invited by the Courts as a matter of favour to other entertainments, sometimes in the more opulent Companies to two or three banquets in the course of a year. In most of the Companies, when a liveryman petitions successfully for relief from the trust or corporate funds, he has to resign his position on the livery, and has the amount of his livery fine returned to him. The pensions voted to decayed liverymen, their widows, and orphans vary, according to the wealth of the Companies, from 50l. to 150l. a year. There are, as has been stated, a few Companies, the Ironmongers and Joiners' Companies, and for some purposes the Mercers' Company, in which the livery (and not merely the Master Wardens and Assistants) constitute the Governing Body.


(3.) The governing bodies or courts have in their hands the entire control of the Companies' affairs, the appointment of the staffs of salaried officials which the Companies employ, the management of the Companies' corporate property, the admissions to the freedom, livery, and court, the administration of the Companies' charitable trusts, the appointments of the incumbents of the Companies' livings, and of the masters of their schools. They are also the entertainers, and have, as of course, a place at all the Companies' banquets. In the great Companies a member of the livery is seldom elected to the Court till after he has been on the livery for 15 or 20 years; but seniority is not the only criterion of fitness. Regard appears to be paid to social position, business capacity, and interest in the charities of the Companies. Also in some of the Companies a liveryman is at once promoted to the court on his election as an alderman of one of the wards of the City of London.

Pensions to members of courts.

Members of the courts, their widows and orphans, are, like freemen and liverymen, eligible for pensions and charitable relief out of the trust and corporate funds of the Companies in case of poverty. The highest pensions commonly voted to such persons amount to 200l. The average amount is from 50l. to 100l.

Retirement now necessary.

At the time when the Municipal Commissioners reported, in 1837, it was not necessary for a member of the Court to retire on making an application for a pension. This is now necessary, and the same course is followed as in the case of liverymen; the applicants are removed from the Court, and their fees are returned to them. The practice of members of the Courts voting pensions to themselves was animadverted upon by the Municipal Commissioners.


With rare exceptions, all the proceedings of the Courts are secret. Their accounts are not published, and the liverymen and freemen have not access to the records of their proceedings. (fn. 5)

Municipal position.

2. As regards the position of the Companies in relation to the Municipality of London. The substitution of the Companies for the wards as divisions of the Municipality of London lasted only a few years in a very early epoch. The householders in the wards being freemen of the City, are now and have always been, except during this short interval, the electors to the Courts of Aldermen and of Common Council respectively. But, as has been stated, till the year 1835 the freedom of the City could only be obtained through a livery company. In that year the Municipality of London decided to confer it irrespective of the Companies on certain terms through the City Chamberlain. But the freemen of the Companies have still the right to claim as such the freedom of the City, and it is not uncommon for them to pay the City fee to the officers of the Company on joining, for payment over to the Chamberlain. On promotion to the livery, this is still more usual, However, since the year 1835, the freedom of a Company and the freedom of the City have not been convertible terms, and the Municipal Commissioners, reporting to the Government in 1837, state that "the Corporation possesses a very slight, hardly more than a "nominal, control over the Companies."

Common hall.

This "slight" or "nominal" control is incident to the existence of the body called the "Common Hall," which consists of those liverymen of the Companies who are also freemen of the City. (fn. 6) This body still proposes to the Court of Aldermen two Aldermen, one of whom the Court elects Lord Mayor, and itself elects the Sheriffs, the Chamberlain, the Bridgemaster, and the auditors of the City and bridge-house accounts. The election of the Lord Mayor takes place on the 29th September, that of the other officers on Midsummer Day.

Parliamentary franchise.; Reform Bill.

Prior to the Reform Bill (2 Will. IV. c. 45.), the liverymen of the Common Hall constituted the Parliamentary constituency of London. Every voter had to be a freeman of the City, and a liveryman of a Company. The Reform Bill preserves the franchises of the liverymen in conjunction with those of the ordinary electors, with the limitation that, in order to vote as a liveryman, it is necessary to have taken up the freedom of the City prior to 1st March 1831, or to have obtained it subsequently by servitude or by patrimony through a person qualified in one of those ways, and also to have been resident within seven miles of the Mansion House for the six months preceding registration.

Minor privileges.

In addition to the vote in Common Hall and the Parliamentary suffrage, those members of the Companies who have become free of the City possess the other rights of citizens. These were formerly much more important than they now are; but even at the present day none except freemen can claim the benefit of the customs of the City of London.

Civic burdens.

The part played by the Companies in early times in civic pageants has been alluded to. At the present day, on Lord Mayor's day, the Companies to which the Lord Mayor and the sheriffs belong join in the procession.

Number of Members.

Number. Freemen.

As regards the number of the members of the London Companies. There is great difficulty in forming an estimate of the number of mere freemen. They are often never heard of after they have taken out their freedom. They change their residences and cease to pay quarterage, when their names are erased from the lists. Sometimes years after this has been done, the Companies are reminded of their existence by a claim to charitable relief. It seems not improbable that there may be 10,000 freemen altogether. There are perhaps upwards of 1,000 connected with the Goldsmiths' and Drapers' Companies respectively. The number of those belonging to the other great Companies is much smaller.


The number of liverymen on the City register for 1882 was 7,319. They were distributed as follows:—

Society of Apothecaries 50
Armourers' Company 64
Bakers' Company 187
Barbers' Company 92
Basket Makers' Company 28
Blacksmiths' Company 63
Bowyers' Company 29
Brewers' Company 49
Broderers' Company 44
Butchers' Company 139
Carmen's Company 5
Carpenters' Company 108
Clockmakers' Company 51
(fn. 7) Clothworkers' Company 132
Coachmakers' Company 106
Cooks' Company 69
Coopers' Company 139
Cordwainers' Company 100
Curriers' Company 93
Cutlers' Company 89
Distillers' Company 28
(fn. 7) Drapers' Company 237
Dyers' Company 66
Fanmakers' Company 82
Feltmakers' Company 59
(fn. 7) Fishmongers' Company 452
Fletchers' Company 16
Founders' Company 98
Framework Knitters' Company 35
Fruiterers' Company 87
Girdlers' Company 69
Glass Sellers' Company 43
Glaziers' Company 39
Glovers' Company 14
Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers' Company 37
(fn. 7) Goldsmiths' Company 143
(fn. 7) Grocers' Company 178
Gunmakers' Company 26
(fn. 7) Haberdashers' Company 373
Horners' Company 7
Innholders' Company 59
(fn. 7) Ironmongers' Company 46
Joiners' Company 79
Leathersellers' Company 117
Loriners' Company 386
Makers of Playing Cards' Company 50
Masons' Company 29
(fn. 7) Mercers' Company 97
(fn. 7) Merchant Taylors' Company 188
Musicians' Company 34
Needlemakers' Company 107
Painters' Company 115
Patten Makers' Company 39
Pewterers' Company 69
Plaisterers' Company 48
Plumbers' Company 40
Poulters' Company 65
Saddlers' Company 84
(fn. 7) Salters' Company 119
Scriveners' Company 31
Shipwrights' Company 171
(fn. 7) Skinners' Company 150
Spectaclemakers' Company 356
Stationers' Company 260
Tallowchandlers' Company 101
Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company 73
Tinplate Workers' Company 68
Turners' Company 193
Upholders' Company 33
(fn. 7) Vintners' Company 193
Waxchandlers' Company 27
Weavers' Company 77
Wheelwrights' Company 92
Woolmens' Company 22

"Great Companies." "The twelve."

Of these Companies, those, the names of which are printed in italics, are the "great companies," the first "twelve," which are arranged in order of civic precedence as follows, viz.:—Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners, Clothworkers.

The more important minor Companies.

Some of the minor Companies, however, as this report shows, are in point of numbers and wealth equal to the less opulent of the great companies. Such are the Armourers, Carpenters, Leathersellers, and Saddlers' Companies.

Large recent increase in numbers of some of the minor Companies.

Several of the minor Companies have been resuscitated within the last few years, e.g., the Needlemakers, Basketmakers, Turners, Shipwrights and Fanmakers' Companies.

Loriners. Spectaclemakers.

Two of the largest liveries are those of the Loriners' and Spectaclemakers' Companies, bodies membership of which appears to entail little advantage beyond the Municipal and Parliamentary franchises.


Of these 7,319 liverymen, about 1,500 form the "Courts" of the Companies.

Considering the amount of their patronage, the importance of the trusts which they administer, and the large funds which they have in some cases under their absolute control, the constitution of the Courts of the Companies is an important matter.

Effect of patrimony.

We have examined the register of the City for 1882, and we find that the liverymen, from whom the members of the Courts are selected, are a body, consisting chiefly of persons following professions, persons engaged in commerce, or persons who have retired from business. A considerable number are men of some eminence. Many members of the House of Commons are liverymen. The City is represented by the aldermen, most of whom belong to several Companies, and the common councilmen. The Courts consist, speaking generally, of liverymen of some 15 years' standing, mostly promoted according to seniority. We have observed too, that admission by patrimony produces a natural effect on the constitution of the liveries and on that of the Courts. Where a family continues prosperous from generation to generation, it acquires a position of considerable importance on the court and livery of a Company. A remarkable instance is that of the Mercers' Company, the Court of which is recruited from a livery of 97, on which certain families are represented by as many as 9 or 10 members.


  • 1. From some early ordinances it appears that the liveries in the Plantagenet times consisted of an undress every day costume, an upper and an under garment called a "coat and surcote," and a full dress uniform for ceremonies and special occasions, when a cloak and hood were worn over these garments. The "yeomen" i.e. the handicraftsmen or labourers who had the freedom were not allowed to wear the livery of the guild. This was only permitted to the "full brothers," the members of the livery; but one garment, the hood, which resembled a monk's cowl, appears to have been allowed to the common freemen as a badge on state occasions. The colours employed in the robes were various, and the patterns were often changed. The gay gowns of the liverymen are frequently mentioned in the accounts of the pageants which took place in London during the Tudor period. The cognizances of the different mysteries (i.e. ministeria callings) were embroidered on the cloaks of the full members. The arms of the twelve great Companies are engraved in the work of Mr. Herbert. The mottoes are mostly religious, but occasionally industrial. The emblems all have reference to manufactures or commerce. Thus the branches of the trade in wool or woollen articles are dedicated to the second person of the Trinity as the "Holy Lamb," and to the Virgin the mother, and St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of the "Holy Lamb." The Grocers' arms contain a camel laden with spices; in the Mercers' a ship is prominent; in the Drapers', bales of wool. Several represents shops and sales of wares.
  • 2. A charge of the same kind and name is made in many of the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
  • 3. "Assistants are to be traced in the councils of 12 of the Saxon guilds, and in the eschevins and elders of the Norman era. The first hint of them in the Livery Companies occurs in the records of the Grocers, under the year 1379, when six persons were chosen to aid the wardens in the discharge of their duties." Herbert on the Companies, I., p. 53.
  • 4. See Part IV. Property and Income.
  • 5. The Joiners' Company publish their accounts; the livery of the Ironmongers' Company is the governing body.
  • 6. See Pulling, Laws and Customs of London, pp. 83, 84. They are presided over by the Lord Mayor and four aldermen, but these personages have not votes.
  • 7. Great Companies.