livery companies

livery companies, London trade guilds incorporated by royal charter, deriving their name from the assumption of distinctive dress (livery) by their members. Edward III granted the first charters in the 14th cent., and most of the existing companies had been incorporated by the 17th cent. Several, however, have been formed in the 20th cent., including the Scientific Instrument Makers and the Air Pilots and Navigators. Liverymen were not artisans or journeymen but rather the controlling elite of their trades. In addition to regulating conditions of apprenticeship and standards of work, they elected the local government of the City of London and had the sole power to confer on members the freedom of the city, a necessary prerequisite to the practice of any trade. They still elect the lord mayor of London, now a purely ceremonial office. By the 18th cent. more competitive trade practices and early industrial expansion eroded the guilds' practical power over their trades, but they retained their roles as administrators of trusts and benefactors of educational institutions. The Mercers founded St. Paul's School as early as 1509, and to the present day the companies continue to endow colleges and scholarships, particularly in the field of technical education. There are currently close to 100 livery companies. Twelve of them, according to an order of precedence established by Henry VIII, are known as the great companies—the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners, and Clothworkers.

See W. Herbert, The History of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of London (1937, repr. 1968); W. F. Kahl, The Development of London Livery Companies (1960); G. Unwin, The Guilds and Companies of London (4th ed. 1964).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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