Town Guide

City Livery Companies

In the Middle Ages, tradesmen and craftsmen started forming groups in order to promote their trade and to provide support and assistance to members of their trade in times of need. The members would pay a fee called a 'gild' in order to join the group and so they became known as 'guilds'.

The guilds soon became very powerful for they formed the governing body of The City (the district of London that was the centre of trade and commerce). The structure of the The City's administration was that after seven years' apprenticeship in a trade a man could join the appropriate guild and then he would be granted 'freedom of The City'. Only 'freemen' could hold civic office or take part in the government of The City, and so being a member of a guild was very important.

By the 15th Century there were over 100 guilds in The City. The wealthiest ones built elaborate halls where their members could meet, and the guild leaders wore luxurious costumes. These costumes were known as liveries and so the guilds also became known as Livery Companies.

By the late 18th Century most of the old crafts guilds were no more, but many of the Livery Companies continue right to the present day. Whilst their power is no longer so strong, many do still govern their trade and others provide excellent charitable services.

Livery Companies still play a big part in the Government of The City. For example, the only people who can vote in the annual elections of two Sheriffs (in June) and the Lord Mayor (in September) are Livery Company members. And in order to stand for office you must still be a 'freeman', although your 'freedom' can now be purchased.

Many of the Livery Halls were destroyed, either in the Great Fire or in the Blitz, however some have been restored and can be visited by the public. But they are only open for a few days each year, tickets are very limited and are sold out very quickly so it can be difficult. For more information visit The City Information Centre near St Paul's Cathedral.

You will probably have more luck if you visit the Guildhall, the central hall for all the Livery Companies, which is open daily.

Some of the most interesting Livery Halls include:

Apothecaries' Hall
Blackfriars Lane, EC4
Nearest Tube: Blackfriars

The original hall, built for the guild that represented members of the medical profession, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and the present building dates from around 1690. It contains a beautiful staircase, a Great Hall and a collection of pharmaceutical equipment.

Fishmongers' Hall
King William Street, EC4
Nearest Tube: Monument

This building dates from the early 18th Century and amongst the items of interest is the dagger that the then Lord Mayor William Walworth used to kill Wat Tyler during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381.

Goldsmiths' Hall
Foster Lane, EC2
Nearest Tube: St Paul's

Although this building only dates from the 1830s, inside the Court Room is panelled with the original panelling from the 1669 hall.

Merchant Taylors Hall
Threadneedle Street, EC3
Nearest Tube: Bank

This is one of the oldest Livery Halls, dating from the 14th Century. You can visit the 15th Century kitchen that has been in continuous use since 1425.

Vintners' Hall
Upper Thames Street, EC4
Nearest Tube: Mansion House

Built for the guild that represented members of the wine trade, this is a magnificent hall that dates from 1671, making it the oldest Livery Hall, and it remains almost unchanged. It contains original panelling and a beautiful 17th century staircase.

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