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"A great modern Livery Company can only be built from a lot of small things done well...”

It is in the last 1,000 years that we must look today to discover what it takes to be a great livery company for the next 1,000 years....


Reflecting on the road the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants must travel to become a great modern Livery Company I was struck by the quotation from Lao Tzu[1], ‘Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step’. This article is about twelve small things we must do well if we are to become a great modern Livery Company.

In the 25 years since 1992, when I attended the first dinner of what was then just an idea for a modern City company to represent Management Consultants, much has been achieved. I am very proud to have played my part in our progression to become the 105 livery company by precedence. It has so far been an extraordinary journey and the WCoMC is the only organisation I am part of which thinks in terms of a 1,000 year legacy. It is in the last 1,000 years that we must look today to discover what it takes to be a great livery company for the next 1,000 years.

Supporting our Almoner is the first of the small things which must be done well. During the 10th century in early medieval times a number of guilds had begun to form in London and other towns in England and Europe when men and women working in the same crafts or trades (known as ‘misteries’) joined together in informal associations or fraternities for mutual benefit and protection. Members of guilds paid a fee and in return, the guilds looked after members and their families if they fell on hard times, paid for members’ funerals, and represented members in legal actions and settled trade disputes. Whilst our Company no longer pays for funerals of our members we have an Almoner who helps members who are sick and our Objects require us to look after members who fall upon hard times.

Taking part in the governance of the City and other civic duties is the second small thing which must be done well. In the 12th century some towns and cities were communes, which meant that they had secured the right to self-government by elected aldermen, often in the face of opposition from kings like Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband, who disapproved of towns being independent from the crown. London which in the 12th century had a population of 35,000 was by far the largest and most important city in England. Its chief citizens were known as Barons. The Barons were a politically active clique who wielded considerable influence. After Henry II’s death, in 1189, Eleanor of Aquitaine, seeking financial support for her son Richard I’s crusade, declared the City a commune and the City elected its first mayor Henry FitzAilwin.

Paying your Annual Livery Fine and making an Annual Charitable contribution of at least £200 is the third small thing which must be done well. London’s Livery Companies are the direct descendants of the medieval guilds. The Anglo Saxon word ‘gild’ meant ‘payment’ and the members of the guilds raised funds which could be used for social, charitable and trade purposes. One of the important uses of the funds was to make a contribution to the Exchequer in return for which a Charter confirming certain privileges, rights or liberties would be granted by the King. It is the recording of such a payment which establishes the Weavers as London’s oldest Company, the Pipe Roll of 1130 has an entry of a payment of £16 by Robert Levestan on the Weavers’ behalf[2].

Supporting the Objects of the Company’s Royal Charter of Incorporation, taking your place on the Court of the Company and ensuring proper Governance of the Company’s affairs are the fourth, fifth and sixth small things which must be done well. In 1155 the Weavers’ Guild was granted a charter by Henry II which stated, ‘Know I have conceded to the Weavers of London to hold their gild in London with all the liberties and customs which they had in the time of King Henry my grandfather’. These liberties and customs included the rights to elect Bailiffs, supervise the work of their craft, punish defaulters and collect the ferm (tax). It is clear that by the mid-12th century the Weavers’ guild had established a monopoly of its craft in London and control of its members through its own Court.

Supporting the Common Council[3], Livery Committee[4], Financial Services Group[5] and other City wide bodies and initiatives are the seventh small thing to be done well. As the original textile guild, the Weavers were very powerful, for the cloth trade was the basis of England’s economy through the middle-ages. Both King John and the other trades in the City became jealous of the pre-eminence of the Weavers’. In the early years of the 14th Century the Weavers’ Guild submitted to the authority of the Mayor. In time it lost its pre-eminence as other textile guilds developed, many of them powerful merchant companies like the ~Mercers, Drapers, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers and Clothworkers.

Ensuring the Company’s traditions such as the Company oath, livery[6] and clothes of office are maintained and respected is the eighth small thing to be done well.  In the 15th century the greater guilds were incorporated and so officially recognised as companies. The senior members of these companies were clothed in the livery and the companies became known as Livery Companies. It was the custom of all members of the guild to appear in livery at guild functions and on public occasions, such as great processions through the City. As time passed, the wearing of livery became the privilege of the senior members of the Companies, such as the Masters of the craft who could sustain the expense and responsibility of running the Company. The Court of Assistants chose the Clerk and Beadle and formulated general rules for government of their craft. They also selected the Liverymen from among the general body of Freemen.

Keeping the excellent reputation of the Company for hospitality is the ninth small thing to be done well. In the 12th century the guilds met to conduct their business in churches, monasteries or hospitals. Over the years as the Livery Companies became wealthier they acquired their own buildings or halls. Our Company has as part of its objects a requirement to seek a building as its Livery Hall[7] though this may take a few centuries to achieve. Dinners and feasts were originally held in private homes or in local taverns and it became an important part of the reputation of each Company that it should provide excellent hospitality[8]. Like our Company those Companies which do not have halls customarily book the use of another hall for their formal gatherings, giving members and guests the opportunity to visit and enjoy different City livery halls by rotation. This has the disadvantage of subjecting our Company to significant cost pressure from external caterers. This is resisted by ensuring that the Wine Committee and the Clerk are engaged, by policy of the Court, in every decision to book a Company event. Ceremonies such as singing at Livery dinners and the Loving Cup became an important part of the movement as it brought together the different trades in a common code of conduct. Many of the older Livery Companies have built their own Wine Cellars and are able to enjoy excellent wines at low prices. Our Company is building its own Wine Cellar through the efforts of the Wine Committee and the Wine Club Members who provide interest free loans to the Company. Today the Company Cellar is its largest asset at some £15,000.

Taking part in elections of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs is the tenth small thing to do well. In time the guilds within the walls of the City of London gained regulatory powers over their individual crafts and trades. They made sure that standards were maintained, proper wages paid and working conditions satisfactory. Most importantly they controlled entry into their trades by apprenticeship. In 1215, when the City obtained its charter from King John, it became essential for anyone who planned to trade in the City or who wanted to participate in civic life, or to hold civic office to be a Freeman of the City;  and that status was gained, before the19th century, by becoming a freeman of a Livery Company. Liverymen still retain voting rights for the senior civic offices, such as the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and City of London Corporation - the municipal authority with extensive local government powers.

Ensuring that your activities within the Livery Company are restricted to charitable, educational and social matters and you do not discuss business is the eleventh small thing to do well. Before the Reform Act of 1832 voters in Common Hall exercised their franchise by being freemen of the City and members of Livery Companies but these were mutual organisations playing a public role. It was seen as un-demographic that Liverymen had the exclusive right to elect four members of Parliament representing the City. Between 1832 and 1918 being a Liveryman was one of a number of franchises which could qualify a parliamentary elector in the City of London Constituency as it was preserved as an ancient borough franchise under the 1832 Act. It is true that in 1700 nominal servitude remained one standard way to qualify to join a Livery Company. Yet for various reasons including social distinction, sociability, charitable assistance and the right of voting itself had led to a large increase in the number of people seeking to join the Livery Companies and more and more people were admitted by patrimony and redemption. This led to many companies becoming unrepresentative of the trades whence they once sprang. As social organisations with political rights and other charitable functions the Livery Companies had in effect an optional membership, regulated by individual choice and a sufficiency of wealth and social standing which was unacceptable under the Reform Act. This 18th century expansion was furthered by the institution of a number of new Livery Companies so that by 1832 there were 77 active livery companies. After the Reform Act of 1832 no further Livery Companies were given a grant of Livery by the Court of Aldermen until 1932[9]. Our Company today is careful to ensure that members’ business is kept outside of the Company e.g. the Professional evenings are not run by the Company but by a group of members and others who choose to come together for professional networking and discussion. Today the livery companies keep their heads well below the parapet. They are still afraid if they set themselves up they’ll be knocked down. But a significant legacy remains. The expression ‘to be at sixes and sevens’ derives from a dispute between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners as to who would take sixth and seventh position in the annual parade from Guildhall to the Royal Courts of Justice. The 13 loaves of the Baker’s dozen also originated with the livery companies and up until the 1850’s only Freemen of the livery companies had the right to trade in the City.

Attend company events and undertake charitable and Educational activities as a Liveryman and Freeman of the Company is the twelfth small thing to do well. In 1876 Joseph F B Firth argued[10] that livery companies had outlived their usefulness since they had originally been set up to regulate trade and to contribute to the governance of the City but in his view both of these functions had been taken over by governmental bodies. Firth was also critical of the livery companies which appeared to exist to give dinners to Liverymen and great benefits to members of court[11]. The Prime Minister Disraeli and his Conservative majority in the house were not in favour of the suppression of the Livery Companies. However, in 1880 the Liberals won the general election with Gladstone becoming prime minister again. A month after they came to power a Royal Commission was established which reported in 1884. This proposed that legislation be introduced to ensure that a considerable part of the Companies’ income be applied for useful purposes. Gladstone warned that if Britain were to remain a world leader and preserve its triumvirate of throne, altar and empire, the companies needed to refocus their resources on developing Britain’s traditional skills base[12]. The Liberal government fell before any legislation could be passed to implement the Commission’s recommendations and when Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government came to power the City was safe. The sceptre of the 1884 Royal Commission hangs over the Livery Companies to this day and all Livery Companies are required by the Court of Aldermen to restrict their activities to Charitable and Educational matters.







Patrick McHugh, Past Master


[1] Lao Tsu was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching, the founder of philosophical Taoism, and is a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. Although a legendary figure, Lao Tsu is usually dated to around the 6th century and reckoned a contemporary of Confucius.

[2] The Pipe Roll is a parchment on which payments to and from the Exchequer were noted.

[3] The Court of Common Council is the City of London's primary decision-making body, and meets nine times per year. It works through committees, like many other local authorities, but it is unique in that it is non-party political. Its main business focuses on the reports of committees, motions and Members' questions. There are 100 Common Councilmen and 25 Aldermen representing the 25 Wards of the City of London. Each Ward elects between 2 and 10 Common Councilmen, depending on the size of the electorate. The Common Councilmen are elected every 4 years and the next elections will be held in March 2017.

[4] This Committee was created over 150 years ago to oversee the arrangements for the elections of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs at Common Hall - a role it continues to fulfil to this day but it now plays an equally important role in acting as a link between the Livery and the City of London Corporation, and facilitating communication between all the various constituencies that make up the civic affairs of the City. Amongst these are the City Briefings and other courses it arranges at Guildhall.

[5] The Financial Services Group of Livery Companies aims to support the Lord Mayor in his overseas visits, his meetings in the City with overseas delegations, and his role of promoting "the City" brand of UK financial and other business services.

[6] Originally the term ‘Livery’ described an allowance of food and clothing (granted to his household by a nobleman or bishop) but it has come to mean distinctive clothing. In the prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, writing in the 14th Century described, ‘A Haberdasher, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Weaver and a Carpet-maker were among our ranks, all in the livery of on impressive guild fraternity’.

[7] 39 of the 110 City Livery Companies own premises in London. Amongst the earliest Companies known to have halls are the Merchant Taylors and Goldsmiths in the 15th century, and, uniquely, the kitchen and crypt of Merchant Taylors’ Hall survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, the kitchen having been in uninterrupted use for over 600 years.

[8] For example Serlo Le Mercier was a wealthy merchant and property owner. He served as Sheriff of London in 1206 and 1207 and was Mayor in 1215 during the crisis with King John, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s son, leading up to the Magna Carta. Although the Mercers’ company did not exist as a formal association at this time it was common for people like Serlo to take the name of their trade as their surname. In a property deed of 1235 which confirms an earlier gift by Serlo Le Mercier to the priory of Haliwell, there is a reference to an area known as the ‘mercery’ in the parish of St. Mary-le-Bow. The mercery was a market area which contained many shops, stalls and houses of people engaged in the trade of mercery as well as goldsmiths, drapers, food sellers and traders of other merchandise.

[9]  The City of London welcomed the new Company with great warmth and on 1st January 1932 the Court of Aldermen conferred on the Company of Master Mariners the status of Livery. It was the first time in over 200 years that the ancient doors of the Guildry of London had been opened to a new Company. The Company became 78th in order of precedence in the Livery and is noted as the first “modern” Company.

[10] In 1876 Joseph F B Firth published his book Municipal London and put the case against livery companies in moderate language. However, his conclusions though were drastic: supress the livery companies and confiscate their assets.

[11] Firth wrote, ‘The responsibility of a seat on a court carries with it a salary; the meetings of court are duly paid for; some courts have dinners of some kind as often as once a week and lucky are the committeemen of such companies, for in addition to their salaries they sometimes find a banknote delicately secreted under their plates and sometimes a large box of bonbons upon them. It is indeed a good thing to be on the court of such a company’.

[12] City and Guilds of London Institute is a vocational education organisation which was founded in response to the criticism on 11 November 1878 by the City of London and 16 livery companies – to develop a national system of technical education, the Institute has been operating under Royal Charter, granted by Queen Victoria, since 1900. The Prince of Wales later King Edward VII was then appointed the first President of the Institute.