The City Livery Companies
History & Origins: Trade and craft associations have flourished all over Europe for many centuries, but the City of London companies, now collectively known as the Livery, are unique in their survival, number and diversity.
The social and economic conditions which gave birth to the original guilds have long since been overtaken by the development of industry and commerce, but the livery companies still flourish today as living institutions. Their survival has been achieved by doing what they have always done: fostering their trade in a wide context, serving the community, and embracing modern skills and professions. Today there are over 100 livery companies in the City of London.
The livery companies probably had their origins in this country before 1066. Guilds (or mysteries, from the Latin ‘misterium’, meaning professional skill) flourished throughout Europe for many centuries. The development of guilds in Britain was not confined to London. The Cutlers of Hallamshire in Sheffield, the Merchant Venturers of Bristol and the Fellmongers of Richmond in Yorkshire are examples of those still in existence around Britain.
The early companies were the medieval equivalent of trading standards departments, checking quality of goods and weights and measures. They also controlled imports, set wages and working conditions and trained apprentices.
Charity & Education: One of the first charitable tasks undertaken by the early guilds was to care for their members in sickness and old age. Many livery companies still support or maintain almshouses for elderly people throughout the country. As guilds grew wealthier in the Middle Ages, rich liverymen left specific sums for the provision of shelter and food for their own members who were in need.
Almost from their earliest times the ancient guilds also undertook a responsibility for the education and training of young people. Training apprentices in the skills of their craft or trade was an important part of a liveryman’s duties.
The Livery has been involved in university education for many centuries, support continues with the supply of scholarships and bursaries for young people to study for scientific and technical careers. Many livery companies have also formed close links with schools, providing project expertise to pupils or by providing financial help for things the school budget cannot fund.