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Livery company

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Fishmongers' Hall on London Bridge, the home of the Fishmongers' Company
The arms of the Mercers' Company above a house on Mercer Street

A livery company is a type of guild or professional association that originated in medieval times in London, England.[1] Livery companies comprise London's ancient and modern trade associations and guilds, almost all of which are styled the "Worshipful Company of" their respective craft, trade or profession.[2][3] There are 111 livery companies in total. They play a significant part in the life of the City of London (i.e. the financial district and historic heart of the capital), not least by providing charitable-giving and networking opportunities. Liverymen retain voting rights for the senior civic offices, such as the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and Common Council of the City Corporation, London's ancient municipal authority with extensive local government powers.[3]

The term livery originated in the designed form of dress worn by retainers of a nobleman and then by extension to special dress to denote status of belonging to a trade. Livery companies evolved from London's medieval guilds, becoming corporations by royal charter responsible for training in their respective trades, as well as for the regulation of aspects such as wage control, labour conditions and industry standards. Early guilds often grew out of parish fraternal organizations, where numerous members of the same trade lived in close proximity often congregating at the same church.[4] Like most organisations during the Middle Ages, these livery companies had close ties with the Roman Catholic Church (before the Protestant Reformation), endowing religious establishments such as chantry chapels and churches, observing religious festivals and hosting ceremonies as well as well-known mystery plays. Most livery companies retain their historical religious associations, although nowadays members are free to follow any faith or none.

Livery companies invariably established a guild or meeting hall, and though these halls faced destruction in the Great London Fire of 1666 and during the Blitz of World War II, over forty companies still own or share ownership of livery halls, some elaborate and historic, others modern replacements for halls destroyed or redeveloped. Most of these halls are made available for use by other companies not having a livery hall of their own.[4]

Most ancient livery companies maintain contact with their original trade or craft. In some cases, livery companies have chosen to support a replacement industry fulfilling a similar purpose today, e.g. plastics replacing use of horn or ivory in the case of the Horners' Company and fashion for the Haberdashers' Company. Modern companies are mainly represented by today's professions and industry and operate in close association with these. Many ancient crafts remain as relevant today as when their guilds were originally established. Some still exercise powers of regulation, inspection and enforcement, e.g. the Goldsmiths' Company Assay Office, while others are awarding bodies for professional qualifications. The Scriveners' Company admits senior members of legal and associated professions, the Apothecaries' Society awards post-graduate qualifications in some medical specialities, and the Hackney Carriage Drivers' Company comprises licensed taxi drivers who have passed the "Knowledge of London" test. Several companies restrict membership to those holding relevant professional qualifications, e.g. the City of London Solicitors' Company and the Worshipful Company of Engineers. Other companies whose trade died out long ago, such as the Bowyers' Company, have evolved into being primarily charitable foundations.[3] Some companies, such as the Pinmakers, disappeared entirely in the Victorian era.[5]

After the Carmen's Company received City livery status in 1848 no new companies were established for 80 years until the Honourable Company of Master Mariners in 1926 (granted livery in 1932).[3] Post-1926 creations are known as modern livery companies. The Nurses' Company, the newest, was granted livery status in 2023, making it the 111th City livery company in order of precedence.[6] The Honourable Company of Air Pilots is exceptional among London's livery companies in having active overseas committees in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand and North America.


Training and industry[edit]

Livery companies were originally formed, starting in the 12th century, to guarantee that a member was trustworthy and fully qualified, and that the goods they produced were of reputable quality, the two-fold aim being to protect the public and to protect members from charlatans. After the Middle Ages, they continued to be established until the 17th century, when political upheaval in England, the growth of London outwards from the City rendered many such livery companies, which only controlled trade within the Square Mile, less competitive. The City adapted with Britain's role in the expansion of global trade by establishing exchanges which later became guardians of business conduct.

From the 1870s however, there was a revival, with livery companies extending their original educational purpose to technical education, supporting new industries and providing the necessary training, most notably through the City and Guilds of London Institute.[7]

Charity and education[edit]

From their inception, livery companies cared for their members in sickness and old age by the giving of alms. Today, they continue to support both their members, and wider charitable aims and activities such as education and training.[7]

Numerous educational establishments in England were founded by and retain association with livery companies, among the best-known being the Haberdashers', Merchant Taylors' and Skinners' schools.

Support for the Armed Forces[edit]

Most livery companies maintain proud affiliations with regular and reserve units of the British Armed Forces,[8] providing links between civilian and military life.

City of London governance[edit]

The livery companies have always been a constituent part of the governance of the City of London. The senior members of the livery companies, i.e. liverymen, elect the City's Sheriffs, Bridge Masters, Ale Conners, Auditors, members of the City Livery Committee, and approve the aldermanic candidates for election to the office of Lord Mayor of London.[7]


Entry to a livery company may be by one of four routes:

  • By invitation to become an Honorary Freeman/Liveryman/Assistant. This is rare, and is considered a great honour.
  • By apprenticeship or servitude. This is nowadays less common. In earlier days, someone wishing to enter a trade would bind himself as apprentice to a member of his chosen trade. As such, he was required to do as he was instructed, and in return for strict adherence to the master's rules the apprentice learned his trade, while his master was required to provide such training that, at the end of the apprenticeship (usually seven years) the apprentice would be sufficiently knowledgeable to become a member – and a Freeman of the City of London – free of the obligations of apprenticeship.
  • By patrimony. Generally, a member's son/grandson (or now also a daughter/granddaughter) who was born after the parent became a member of a company are entitled to become a member by patrimony.
  • By redemption. Redemption is the path to the freedom for all others who do not qualify for apprenticeship, patrimony or by invitation and requires the payment of a fine (fee) as well as an interview or other admission procedure.

Regardless of method of entry, membership carries the same duties, responsibilities and privileges. Membership of a livery company may combine with the freedom of the City of London, now an essential formality, though in the past the Freedom carried benefits, such as being able to drive a flock of sheep across London Bridge[9] at no charge.


Livery companies are governed by a Master (alternatively styled Prime Warden in some companies, or Upper Bailiff of the Weavers' Company), a number of Wardens (holding various titles such as the Upper, Middle, Lower, or Renter Wardens), and a court of Assistants (board of directors), responsible for company business and electing its Master and Wardens. The "Clerk to the Company" is the most senior permanent member of staff, who as chief executive officer runs its day-to-day activities.

The livery companies elect a majority of the members of the Livery Committee, a body administered at Guildhall. The committee oversees the elections of Sheriffs and the Lord Mayor, educates liverymen regarding the City Corporation's activities and represents the livery companies in communications with the City.[10]

Membership generally falls into two categories: freemen and liverymen.


One may become a freeman, or be admitted to the "freedom of the company", upon fulfilling certain criteria: traditionally, by "patrimony", if either parent/grandparent were a liveryman of the company; by "servitude", if one has served a requisite number of years as an apprentice to a senior company member; or by "redemption", upon paying a fee. Most livery companies reserve the right to admit distinguished people, particularly in their sphere of influence, as Honorary Freeman/Liveryman/Assistant. Freemen may advance to become liverymen, after obtaining the Freedom of the City of London, and with their court of Assistants' approval. Only liverymen are eligible to vote in the annual election of the Lord Mayor of London, the Sheriffs and various other City civic offices, including the Ale Conners and Bridge Masters.


Memorial to City liverymen killed in action during WW1, at Stationers' Hall

A liveryman is a full member of his/her respective company.

When a freeman is promoted liveryman, the candidate is said to be 'clothed in the livery': indeed, a livery gown is placed on him at the Court meeting which he wears to the subsequent formal or social occasion. Thereafter only the Master, Wardens and Assistants wear livery gowns at company functions. Masters wear them at the City's formal events, e.g. the two Common Halls and the United Guilds Service, and Lord Mayor's Show, wherever they may participate. Ordinarily, liverymen wear ties or brooches at formal functions and each company differs by allowing men/women to wear distinct items subject to the occasion, such as a tie, scarf, badge or brooch.

Freemen are expected to advance to become liverymen by a vote of the court of each company. Liverymen no longer have any local government franchise in the City, but retain the exclusive right of voting in the election of the Lord Mayor (Michaelmas 'Common Hall' 29 September) and for the Sheriffs (Mid-Summer 'Common Hall' 24 June) held at Guildhall as a ceremonial occasion. The votes are made by 'acclamation' subject to a challenge/demand from the floor for a ballot which would be held a week later. Any two liverymen may nominate a candidate for the freedom of the City.

Former parliamentary election rights[edit]

Before the Reform Act 1832 the liverymen had the exclusive right to elect the four Members of Parliament (MPs) representing the City. Between 1832 and 1918 being a liveryman was one of a number of possible franchises which could qualify a parliamentary elector in the City of London constituency, as it was a preserved ancient borough franchise under the terms of the 1832 Act.

Livery halls[edit]

Grocers' Hall in Princes Street, home to the Grocers' Company

Today 39 out of 111 City livery companies own premises in London, as well as the Watermen and Lightermen which although not strictly a livery company, retains headquarters still in regular use. Among the earliest companies known to have had halls are the Merchant Taylors and Goldsmiths in the 14th century, and, uniquely, the kitchen and the crypt of Merchant Taylors' Hall survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, the kitchen now having been in uninterrupted use for over 600 years.

Besides part of Merchant Taylors' Hall kitchens, the oldest interiors extant of a livery hall proper are those of the Apothecaries' Society, most rooms of which date from 1668 to 1671; significant portions of the fabric of this building are also medieval, from the 13th-century priory, part of which became Apothecaries' Hall. Several companies that do not have a hall of their own share office premises within the hall of another company on a semi-permanent basis, examples being the Spectacle Makers' Company, which uses part of Apothecaries' Hall, and the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, which co-habits with the Ironmongers.[3] Many livery halls can be hired for business and social functions, and are popular for weddings, commercial and society meetings, luncheons and dinners.

Three livery companies (the Glaziers and Painters of Glass, Launderers and Scientific Instrument Makers) share a hall in Southwark, just south of and outside the City of London, while the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers has long been based at Proof House in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Companies without halls customarily book use of another livery hall for their formal gatherings, giving members and guests the opportunity to visit and enjoy different City livery halls by rotation.[3]

Blue plaques throughout the City of London indicate where companies formerly had halls. Whilst several livery companies may aspire to owning or regaining their own hall it is appreciated that any increase in the overall number of livery halls would inevitably lead to some dilution of use of the existing halls. There is also attraction in belonging to a company which is peripatetic.[3]


In 1515, the Court of Aldermen of the City of London settled an order of precedence for the 48 livery companies then in existence, based on those companies' contemporary economic or political power.[3] The 12 highest-ranked companies remain known as the Great Twelve City Livery Companies. Presently, there are 111 City livery companies, all post-1515 companies being ranked by seniority of creation.[3]

The Merchant Taylors and the Skinners have long disputed their precedence, so once a year (at Easter) they swap between sixth and seventh places. This mix-up is a favourite theory for the origin of the phrase "at sixes and sevens", as has been pointed out by at least one Master Merchant Taylor; however, it is possible that the phrase may have been coined before the dispute arose,[11] as it comes from the companies both receiving their Charters in 1327 with no proof surviving as to which was granted first.

List of companies in order of precedence[edit]

The Fishmongers' Company rank fourth in precedence
The Gunmakers' Company, 73rd in precedence, has been based at Proof House since 1675
  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 (fish and seafood merchants)
  5. Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (bullion dealers)
  6. Worshipful Company of Skinners[a] (fur traders)
  7. Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors[a] (tailors)
  8. Worshipful Company of Haberdashers (silk merchants and clothiers in sewn and fine materials, e.g. velvet)
  9. Worshipful Company of Salters (salt and chemical traders)
  10. Worshipful Company of Ironmongers
  11. Worshipful Company of Vintners (wine merchants)
  12. Worshipful Company of Clothworkers
  13. Worshipful Company of Dyers
  14. Worshipful Company of Brewers
  15. Worshipful Company of Leathersellers
  16. Worshipful Company of Pewterers (pewter and metal manufacturers)
  17. Worshipful Company of Barbers (surgeons and dentists)
  18. Worshipful Company of Cutlers (knife, sword and utensil makers)
  19. Worshipful Company of Bakers
  20. Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers (wax candle-makers)
  21. Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers (tallow candle-makers)
  22. Worshipful Company of Armourers and Brasiers (armour makers and brass workers)
  23. Worshipful Company of Girdlers (belt and girdle makers)
  24. Worshipful Company of Butchers
  25. Worshipful Company of Saddlers
  26. Worshipful Company of Carpenters
  27. Worshipful Company of Cordwainers (fine leather workers and shoemakers)
  28. Worshipful Company of Painter-Stainers (artists)
  29. Worshipful Company of Curriers (leather dressers and tanners)
  30. Worshipful Company of Masons (stonemasons)
  31. Worshipful Company of Plumbers
  32. Worshipful Company of Innholders (tavern keepers)
  33. Worshipful Company of Founders (metal casters and melters)
  34. Worshipful Company of Poulters (poulterers)
  35. Worshipful Company of Cooks
  36. Worshipful Company of Coopers (barrel and cask makers)
  37. Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers (builders)
  38. Worshipful Company of Bowyers (long-bow makers)
  39. Worshipful Company of Fletchers (arrow makers)
  40. Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths
  41. Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers (wood craftsmen)
  42. Worshipful Company of Weavers
  43. Worshipful Company of Woolmen
  44. Worshipful Company of Scriveners (court scribes and notaries public)
  45. Worshipful Company of Fruiterers
  46. Worshipful Company of Plaisterers (plasterers)
  47. Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers (journalists and publishers)
  48. Worshipful Company of Broderers (embroiderers)
  49. Worshipful Company of Upholders (upholsterers)
  50. Worshipful Company of Musicians
  51. Worshipful Company of Turners (lathe operators)
  52. Worshipful Company of Basketmakers
  53. Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass
  54. Worshipful Company of Horners (horn workers and plasticians)
  55. Worshipful Company of Farriers (horseshoe makers and equine veterinarians)
  56. Worshipful Company of Paviors (road and highway pavers)
  57. Worshipful Company of Loriners (equestrian bit, bridle and spur suppliers)
  58. Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (physicians and pharmacists)
  59. Worshipful Company of Shipwrights (shipowners and maritime professionals)
  60. Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers
  61. Worshipful Company of Clockmakers
  62. Worshipful Company of Glovers
  63. Worshipful Company of Feltmakers (hat makers)
  64. Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters
  65. Worshipful Company of Needlemakers
  66. Worshipful Company of Gardeners
  67. Worshipful Company of Tin Plate Workers alias Wire Workers
  68. Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights
  69. Worshipful Company of Distillers
  70. Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers (wooden-shoe makers)
  71. Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers
  72. Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers
  73. Worshipful Company of Gunmakers
  74. Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers (threadmakers for military and society clothing)
  75. Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards
  76. Worshipful Company of Fan Makers
  77. Worshipful Company of Carmen (vehicle drivers)
  78. Honourable Company of Master Mariners
  79. City of London Solicitors' Company (lawyers)
  80. Worshipful Company of Farmers
  81. Honourable Company of Air Pilots
  82. Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders
  83. Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers
  84. Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers
  85. Worshipful Company of Chartered Surveyors
  86. Worshipful Company of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales
  87. Worshipful Company of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators
  88. Worshipful Company of Builders' Merchants
  89. Worshipful Company of Launderers
  90. Worshipful Company of Marketors
  91. Worshipful Company of Actuaries
  92. Worshipful Company of Insurers
  93. Worshipful Company of Arbitrators
  94. Worshipful Company of Engineers
  95. Worshipful Company of Fuellers (energy traders)
  96. Worshipful Company of Lightmongers (electric lighting suppliers and installers)
  97. Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners
  98. Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects
  99. Worshipful Company of Constructors
  100. Worshipful Company of Information Technologists
  101. Worshipful Company of World Traders
  102. Worshipful Company of Water Conservators
  103. Worshipful Company of Firefighters
  104. Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers (licensed taxicab drivers)
  105. Worshipful Company of Management Consultants
  106. Worshipful Company of International Bankers
  107. Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers
  108. Worshipful Company of Security Professionals
  109. Worshipful Company of Educators
  110. Worshipful Company of Arts Scholars
  111. Worshipful Company of Nurses


  1. ^ a b The Skinners' and Merchant Taylors' Companies alternate their precedence each year.

Coats of arms of the Great Twelve Livery Companies[edit]

Type of business
Date of establishment;
Order of precedence
Image of arms Blazon
Worshipful Company of Mercers

(General merchants)

Gules, issuant from a bank of clouds a figure of the Virgin couped at the shoulders proper vested in a crimson robe adorned with gold, the neck encircled by a jeweled necklace crined or and wreathed about the temples with a chaplet of roses alternately argent and of the first, and crowned with a celestial crown, the whole within a bordure of clouds also proper.
Worshipful Company of Grocers

(Spice merchants)

Argent, a chevron gules between nine cloves six in chief and three in base proper
Worshipful Company of Drapers

(Wool and cloth merchants)

Azure, three clouds radiated proper each adorned with a triple crown or
Worshipful Company of Fishmongers

(Fish and seafood mongers)

Azure, three dolphins embowed in pale between two pairs of sea luces saltirewise proper crowned or on a chief gules six keys in three saltires ward ends upwards of the second
Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

(Bullion dealers)

Quarterly gules and azure, in the first and fourth quarters a leopard's face or in the second and third quarters a covered cup and in chief two round buckles the tongues fesse-wise, points to the dexter all of the third
Worshipful Company of Skinners

(Fur traders)

Ermine, on a chief gules three crowns or with caps of the field
Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors


Argent, a royal tent between two parliament robes gules lined ermine the tent garnished or with pennon and flagstaff of the last on a chief azure a lion passant guardant or
Worshipful Company of Haberdashers

(Silk merchants, i.e. clothiers in sewn and fine materials)

Barry nebulée of six argent and azure, on a bend gules a lion passant guardant or
Worshipful Company of Salters

(Traders of salts and chemicals)

Per chevron azure and gules, three covered salts argent garnished or overflowing of the third
Worshipful Company of Ironmongers

(Iron merchants)

Argent, on a chevron gules between three gads of steel azure, three swivels Or
Worshipful Company of Vintners

(Wine merchants)

Sable, a chevron between three tuns argent
Worshipful Company of Clothworkers

(Wool traders)

Sable, a chevron ermine between in chief two havettes argent and in base a teazel cob Or

City companies without grant of livery[edit]

Company without Livery is a status which applies during the period between when a guild is recognised by the Court of Aldermen and when it is granted the rights of a livery. A guild initially applies to be a London Guild, and may later apply to the Court to become a Company of the City of London. After an indefinite period, such a Company of the City of London can apply to the Aldermen for livery status; if granted, they can thereafter use the honorific prefix Worshipful Company.

Guilds and companies aiming to obtain the grant of Livery[edit]

Other companies and organisations[edit]

Neither the Company of Parish Clerks nor the Company of Watermen have applied or intend to apply for livery status, which remains a long-standing City tradition. This is granted by the City Corporation in effect to control a company. The Watermen and Parish Clerks are governed by statutes and royal charters with responsibilities outside the City. The Company of Watermen and Lightermen was established by Act of Parliament in 1555 to regulate the watermen on the River Thames responsible for the movement of goods and passengers and remains the only ancient City guild to be formed and governed by Act of Parliament. They are then strictly not 'companies without livery' at all but simply 'companies'.

The Ward Beadles of the City of London[13] are the elected officials, not representatives, of the City Wards so have constitutional standing. They are associated together for mainly communications and social activities; they are a corps rather than a guild.

City Livery Club, founded in 1914, is a livery-oriented organisation of over 1000 members based at Bell Wharf Lane near Southwark Bridge. The club's motto is uniting the livery, promoting fellowship.

The Guild of Young Freemen and the Guild of Freemen of the City of London, whilst not being livery companies, are popular associations amongst the freemen of the City.

The Honourable Company of Freemen of the City of London of North America (headquartered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) represents Freemen and Liverymen of the City of London living in North America.

The Southwark Manors[edit]

The City Corporation of London retains the lordship of three manors in Southwark (Guildable, King's and Great Liberty).

Now membership organisations, members are eligible to serve as ceremonial officers or jurors in their relevant manorial jurisdiction. These courts retain legal-standing under the Administration of Justice Act 1977, being in no way guilds never having been related to trading and occupational activities.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "What is a Livery Company?".
  2. ^ "Alphabetical list". City of London. Archived from the original on 18 April 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Engel, Matthew. "British institutions: livery companies". Financial Times. Archived from the original on 10 December 2022. Retrieved 22 December 2012.
  4. ^ a b "The Worshipful Company of Bowyers". bowyers.com. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  5. ^ "Worshipful Company of Pinmakers, London", The National Archives
  6. ^ "Why a Livery Company ? - The Worshipful Company of Nurses". www.companyofnurses.co.uk. 4 January 2016.
  7. ^ a b c "Livery companies". City of London.
  8. ^ "Livery Company Affiliations with the Armed Forces (Regular and Reserve)". Stepping Forward London.
  9. ^ "Mary Berry leads flock of sheep over London Bridge to promote wool industry – Farming UK News". farminguk.com. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  10. ^ "Livery Committee". City of London. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
  11. ^ "World Wide Words: At sixes and sevens". World Wide Words.
  12. ^ "Home". companyofcommunicators.com.
  13. ^ "City of London Ward Beadles". cityoflondonwardbeadles.org.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]