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
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
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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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
(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
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
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)
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."
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
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
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.
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|
|Basket Makers' Company||28|
| (fn. 7) Clothworkers' Company||132|
| (fn. 7) Drapers' Company||237|
| (fn. 7) Fishmongers' Company||452|
|Framework Knitters' Company||35|
|Glass Sellers' Company||43|
|Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers' Company||37|
| (fn. 7) Goldsmiths' Company||143|
| (fn. 7) Grocers' Company||178|
| (fn. 7) Haberdashers' Company||373|
| (fn. 7) Ironmongers' Company||46|
|Makers of Playing Cards' Company||50|
| (fn. 7) Mercers' Company||97|
| (fn. 7) Merchant Taylors' Company||188|
|Patten Makers' Company||39|
| (fn. 7) Salters' Company||119|
| (fn. 7) Skinners' Company||150|
|Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company||73|
|Tinplate Workers' Company||68|
| (fn. 7) Vintners' Company||193|
"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.
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.