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The story behind the City of London’s Livery Halls

Published 8 February 2010

Venues such as the Goldsmiths Hall, the Fishmongers Hall and the Glaziers Hall ring a bell in people’s memory but very few know why. The reason is historical. These are among the ancient Livery Companies that dominated the trading of goods, imports, and the training of skilled workers in the medieval times.

Their names remain fresh in the collective mind because, among others, they are commonly used for business and social meetings. All of them are recognised and listed by the City of London council as venues for private hire.

The City of London Livery Companies are unique within all of Europe. Dated from the 12th century, they are alive and still playing the same role at the start of their formation -promoting their guilds and professions.

From just merely being guilds associations they have turned into social clubs, charity entities and a training centre for apprenticeship on a wide range of specialised technical skills.

A total of 108 Livery Companies exists nowadays. Most of them are placed in the perimeter formed by London Bridge, Mansion House, St. Paul’s, Barbican, Moorgate, Liverpool Street and Tower Hill underground stations.

Street names such as Milk Street, Bread Street or Ironmonger Lane are trademarks of this part of the London’s history that shaped the business-style of the City.

Back to the origin

Nine centuries ago, the Livery Companies’ role was of a trading standard department. They were responsible for checking the quality of goods, weights used, and measures. They acted as workers unions too as they watched for wages and working conditions. The very first Livery Company to be properly established was Mercers back in 1515.

The book “London’s Livery Companies: History, Law and Customs”, by David Palfreyman, Bursar and a Fellow of New College, Oxford University, gives an insight about these entities. He explained that the Guilds Companies “were part of the social glue that kept medieval society together. Also, the senior men in the Companies overlapped with the Lord Mayor and Aldermen on running the City Corporation”.

Palfreyman added: “By the nineteenth-century the Companies were less important economically, but still of significance socially as clubs and also politically. Now they are generous charitable operations, but still the 25,000 or so liverymen elect the Lord Mayor”.

The modern role

The special feature of the City of London Livery Companies is their survival and diversity.

Mr Palfreyman explained that the key to their survival was their adaptability. They evolved “from guilds with social and economic purposes, to companies with similar purposes, to clubs and charities and even today, still with economic purposes by way of craft/trade training”.

Another feature of the Liveries is that “they are very English, like Oxbridge colleges: quaint, quirky, eccentric, eclectic but also useful”.

“In many other European countries the all-powerful State crushed the guilds in the nineteenth-century. In a more liberal, less interfering England, they survived as the livery companies,” he emphasised.

Experiencing this part of the City’s history is quite easy. Walk down the streets in the City and you are bound to come across a street or buildings associated with a livery company, or attend one of the events held at Livery Halls to experience a leap back in time.

Livery Hall address: Throgmorton Avenue, London EC2N 2DQ
Telephone enquiries: 020 7588 5001
Website: http://www.thedrapers.co.uk/Banqueting/5a_livery_hall.html

Written by Murielle González Oisel. You can read more at her blog, IM Photopress.