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The Livery Companies of the City of London

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In London from the late Middle Ages until the 19th century the livery companies controlled trade in the City of London.

They were responsible for checking the quality of goods, weights and measures, and imposed severe penalties on those who broke the rules. They controlled imports and immigrant labour, set wages and working conditions. They trained the young and looked after members in sickness and old age.

Until about 1800, an adult male practising a trade or craft in or around the City of London would almost certainly have been a member (freeman) of one of the City of London livery companies. Almost all of which are known as the "Worshipful Company of..." their relevant trade, craft or profession.

A tradesman or a craftsman would probably have served an apprenticeship and been a member of a company corresponding with his occupation. A merchant or a professional man could become a member of almost any livery company.

Membership of a livery company was gained by one of three means.

Apprenticeship: An apprenticeship was usually of seven years’ duration, and started between the ages of 14 and 21. The young person served his apprenticeship under a master who was a member of the company and on completing his apprenticeship he would become a member of the company.

Patrimony: Children, born after their fathers' admissions to the freedom, were entitled, on reaching the age of twenty-one years, to be admitted by patrimony.

Redemption: Paid a sum of money in order to obtain membership.

When a person became a member of a livery company he was said to have obtained his freedom, and was referred to as a Freeman of that company. In most cases he would, at the same time, apply for and be granted the Freedom of the City of London .

A person wishing to become a Liveryman (i.e. a senior member) of a Livery Company must first be a Freeman both of that Company and of the City of London. A person who is a Freeman of both the City and a Livery Company is referred to as "Citizen and [Livery Company name] of London".

The livery companies are governed by:

  • A Master (elected from the Wardens)
  • A number of Wardens holding various titles such as the Upper, Middle, Lower, or Renter Wardens, (elected from the Court assistants)
  • Between 10 and 20 Court Assistants (elected from the Livery), responsible for company business and electing its Master and Wardens.
  • The Clerk to the Company is invariably its most senior permanent member of staff, who as chief executive officer runs its day-to-day activities.

There are currently 110 Livery Companies in the City of London but, of these, only 77 existed in the 18th Century.

After many years of fierce dispute, an order of precedence for Livery Companies was finally settled in 1515/16, based on the Companies' economic or political power. As a result of controversy over the sixth place, the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners change places every year. (This gave rise to the saying "at sixes and sevens".) The first twelve Companies are known as the Great Twelve.

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List of the Great Twelve Livery Companies of the City of London in order of precedence:

  1. Worshipful Company of Mercers (general merchants)
  2. Worshipful Company of Grocers (spice merchants)
  3. Worshipful Company of Drapers (wool and cloth merchants)
  4. Worshipful Company of Fishmongers
  5. Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (bullion dealers)
  6. Worshipful Company of Skinners* (fur traders)
  7. Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors* (tailors)
  8. Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (clothiers in sewn and fine materials, eg. silk & velvet)
  9. Worshipful Company of Salters (traders of salts and chemicals)
  10. Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
  11. Worshipful Company of Vintners (wine merchants)
  12. Worshipful Company of Clothworkers

A complete list of the 110 Livery Companies in the City of London is available here: Livery company

Further reading: Searching for members or those apprenticed to members of City of London livery companies