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Merchant and Craft Guilds
A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades
Part I. Chapter III - The London Guilds


THE London Guilds or Livery Companies are the oldest Craft and Merchant Guilds in Europe. According to the Report of a Royal Commission that inquired into their condition in 1534, they were in their original constitutions not so much trading societies as trade societies, instituted for the purpose of protecting the consumer or the employer against the incompetency or fraud of the dealer or the artisan ; and also for protecting the workman trained to his art, according to notions of early times, by preventing his being undersold in the labour market by an unlimited number of competitors. Further, the Companies acted as domestic tribunals—adjudicatina, or rather arbitrating, between master and man and settling disputes. They were also in the nature of benefit societies, from which the workmen, in return for the contributions which they had made when in health and vigour to the common stock of the Guild, might be relieved in sickness or when disabled by the infirmities of old age. In all these respects they formed a model after which the Guilds throughout England and Scotland were formed.

The London Companies were originally almost wholly Craft Guilds; and one of the most striking features in their history is the mastery which at a very early period they obtained in the municipality of the city. Even to this day the Guilds of London possess more power and a greater control in the municipal government than in any other city in the world. Two causes led to this mastery. They were invested with the sole right of conferring the freedom (in nearly all other places the granting of the freedom was vested in the governing body or municipality) ; and they early became possessed of great wealth, and, as a natural consequence, exercised a powerful influence among the general body of citizens.

The London Guilds were thus able to assert and maintain their independence to a far greater extent than the Guilds throughout England and Scotland ; they preceded the constitution of the city itself, and never Iost their original power and influence. "England," says Brentano, "must be considered as the birthplace of Guilds, and London, perhaps, as their cradle. At least there is documentary evidence that the constitution of the city was based upon a Guild." The London Guilds still retain much of their predominance in regard to municipal afairs; and no small amount of their present troubles is die to the fact of their having clung too tenaciously to the ancient rights and privileges they possessed. They have not been wise in their day and generation in yielding tip the controlling power they exercised in connection with the government of the city. They have stubbornly refused to conform to the reforming spirit of the age; and there is now every probability that the hand of reform will be applied more drastically than it would have been had they been less tardy in reading the signs of the times. A keen struggle of a double character seems to be impending. On the one side, the citizens of London will make every effort to obtain as large a slice of the enormous wealth of the Companies as they can; and, on the other, the London Companies will struggle to retain as much of their ancient power and influence as possible. Into these questions, however, we have no desire to enter; it will be sufficient for our purpose to give a brief sketch of those great companies with the view of assisting us to understand the nature of the Guilds which were formed after the model of the early London Guilds. It may be here noted that the name Livery Company was adopted in consequence of the members of the governing bodies wearing elaborate robes or livery, the members who were entitled to wear these robes coming to be known as liverymen.

The Royal Commission which was appointed in 1880, consisting of Lord Derby, the Duke of Bedford, Lord Sherbrook, Lord Coleridge, Sir Richard Cross, Sir Nathaniel Rothschild, Sir Sydney Waterlow, Alderman Cotton, Mr. Albert Pell, Sir Henry James, Mr. J. B. Firth, and Mr. Thomas Burt, had authority to enquire into the circumstances and dates of the foundation of the Companies, the objects for which they were founded, arid how far these objects had been carried into effect; and into any Acts of Parliament, charters, trust deeds, decrees of Court, or other documents founding, regulating, or affecting the said Companies. They were also empowered to inquire into the constitution and governing bodies of the Companies, and the mode of admission of freemen, liverymen, and other members; to ascertain the extent and nature of the property of, or held in trust for or by, the Companies, both real and personal, and the mode in which the property is managed and the income is expended. The powers of the Commission were fully exercised, and it is to the credit of the Guilds that they loyally responded to the demand made upon them for information, which they had hitherto been exceedingly jealous of affording. Five huge blue books were filled with the results of the labours of the Commission, containing a vast amount of interesting and valuable historical matter.

There is a remarkable blank in history respecting the period between what may be termed the Roman London, and the London of the thirteenth century. An attempt has been made to trace an unbroken connection between the two periods, but the attempt has been only partially successful. It is only from the rudimentary municipal constitution which Alfred planted that any connection can be traced with the mediaeval and modern Corporations. We have already referred to the Craft Guilds that were undoubtedly in existence among the Romans themselves; but it is only from the similarity of the Guilds known in the medieval period that we can even assume that the Romans founded them in this country. There is no positive trace of a connection between them, at least so far as London is concerned, and great diversity of opinion exists among historians on the point.

As the Craft Guilds and Merchant Guilds were the germ of the municipalities of Europe, so were they also the germ of the municipality of London. In Scotland the connection maintained between the Guilds and public bodies was of a very fragmentary character, and of slight account compared to what exists in London. At the present day, notwithstanding the alterations which have taken place on the constitution of the Companies of London, the body known as the Common Hall, and which is composed of members of the Livery Companies, continues jointly with the Court of Aldermen to elect the Lord Mayor and certain other important civic functionaries; while for five hundred years, up to the year 1835, membership of a City Company was compulsory before full citizenship of the city of London could be enjoyed. The difference in this respect between the London Guilds and the Guilds in Scotland is very marked. The power of granting the freedom was very early conferred on the Town Councils in Scotland; the Crafts Guilds simply tested the qualifications of the applicants; but in London the Guilds both tested the qualifications and granted the freedom.

In the London Guilds there have always been three grades of membership—(1) simple membership, the possession of the freedom which snakes a "freeman" or "freewoman;" (2) membership of what is called "the livery;" and (3) a place on the "court" or the governing body. The freedom of the Companies has been obtainable in two ways—(1) by apprenticeship; and (2) by patrimony, the latter anode accounting for the fact that so many of the freemen and liverymen of London are not bona fide craftsmen. A system of apprenticeship, however, was an essential element in the Guilds in their earlier history. All apprentices had to serve with a freeman for a period of seven years, at the end of which time they were admitted to the freedom of the Company. The "liverymen" are simply a superior grade of freemen, consisting (1) of craftsmen who are employers of labour, and (2) persons of some wealth and position who have joined the Companies by patrimony or by purchase, and who need not necessarily be craftsmen. The number of liverymen is limited, an Act of the Court, dated 27th July, 1.697, being still in force, to the effect " that no person shall be allowed to take upon himself the clothing of any of the 12 Companies unless he have an estate of £1000; or of any of the inferior Companies unless lie have an estate of £500." In some cases as much as £100 has to be paid by an individual who is "called" to the livery. At the present day a person joining one of the leading London Companies as a freeman by purchase might, in his progress from the position of a mere freeman to full membership, have to pay upwards of £800 in fees and fines. Apart from their privileges and position in connection with the municipal government of London, freemen and the widows and orphans of freemen are entitled, in the case of poverty and in old age (1) to be received into the almshouses of the Companies which have almshouses: and (2) to pensions and casual relief out of the trust funds which have been left to the Companies for that purpose. They are also relieved out of the general income, i.e., that part of the Companies' income which is in the eye of the law not trust income. Liverymen and their widows receive pensions varying from £50 to £150 a year.

The Companies, while they exercise a considerable amount of control in the municipal affairs of London, have through their courts or governing bodies the entire control of their own affairs, the appointment of their officials, the management of their property, the admission to the freedom, livery, and court, the administration of their charitable trusts, the appointment of incumbents to the Companies' livings, and of the masters of their schools. Although the municipality of London can now confer the freedom irrespective of the Companies, the Corporation possesses a very slight, hardly more than a nominal, control over the Companies. In short, they retain full possession of, and control over, their enormous property, valued by the Royal Commissioners several years ago at not less than fifteen millions sterling, and which it was calculated would in the course of twenty years be increased to twenty millions if the existing rate of accumulation continued.

The London Guilds are at present divided into two classes, namely, twelve Great Companies — the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners, and Cloth Workers, and sixty-two minor Companies; but some of the so-called minor Companies are wealthier than their great neighbours. The total membership is only something like 10,000, about 1500 of whom form the Courts of the Companies. On an examination of the register for 1882 it was found that "the liverymen, from whom the members of the Courts are selected, are a body consisting of persons following professions, persons engaged in commerce, or persons who have retired from business. A considerable number are men of eminence; and many members of the House of Commons are liverymen. The Aldermen who represent the City belong to the several Coinpanies, and are Common Councilmen."

The admission by patrimony has produced a most striking effect on the membership of the liveries and the constitution of the courts. Where a family has continued prosperous from generation to generation, and its members were able to join the liveries, they very soon came to possess a position of paramount influence. A remarkable instance of this is to be found in the case 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. Before leaving this part of the subject it may be of some interest to state that the Royal Commission, to which reference has been made, recommended that the State should intervene (1) for the purpose of preventing the alienation of the property of the Companies; (2) securing the permanent application of a considerable portion of the Corporation income to useful purposes; and (3) declaring new trusts in cases in which a better application of the trust income of the Companies has become desirable.

The London Companies do not now pretend to be bodies of craftsmen. One of their leading members, Alderman Cotton, informed the Commission that for 400 years the larger number of the members did not pretend to have followed the crafts of their Companies; and from this fact he argues that "any forced devolution of their funds in aid of such trades would be a gross injustice." The corporate or non-trust income—that is, income apart from revenue from bequests, and mortifications—amounts to about £600,00() per annum, £175,000 of which is spent on "maintenance," £100,000 on entertainments, and about £150,000 on benevolent objects. £40,000 a year is paid to the members of the governing bodies as "court fees," and £60,000 on salaries. The highest fee paid for attendance at a meeting is five guineas, and the lowest half a guinea; and in some cases as much as £300 a year is paid to one individual. The salaries are also on a liberal scale. The clerks receive about £700 a year, and the higher officials from £1500 to £2000. The entertainments given by the Companies, and which cost £100,000 a year, are of two kinds—(1) banquets to the liveries, and (2) dinner parties which take place on the days on which the courts meet. In the larger Companies two or three of the former kind are held annually, while numerous entertainments are given to persons of eminence and royal personages both at home and from abroad. In addition to the £150,000 spent out of the corporate revenue on benevolent objects there is a trust revenue of about £200,000 available for similar purposes. Out of this large sum £85,000 is applied for the relief of old and decayed members, about £1,000 less than is spent on entertainments, and within £25,000 of what is required for salaries. The Companies have been wisely bestirring themselves for some time back in educational matters. They support between thirty and forty schools, chiefly middle class and classical. The City and Guilds of London Technical Institute is also supported by the Companies, and is doing a large amount of good work in promoting technical education throughout the kingdom.


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