Wandering in Cheapside, I came across some massive emblazoned coats-of-arms over great doorways, and found they always announced the halls of the City Companies of London, those great mediaeval trade unions that survive today -so taken for granted by the Londoner that few people remark their amazing existence.
Yet most of the real history of the old City is bound up with the tale of the rise to wealth and power of these great companies. They once numbered a hundred, and about seventy-six still survive. I see that in one recent guide-book the Pattenmakers are quoted as extinct, but though this ancient guild, founded in 1300, might be supposed to have received its deathblow a hundred years ago, when the improvement in the streets made pattens unnecessary, they are still made for country use and the company has recently renewed its vitality by association with the rubber boot and shoe industry.
I like the quaint names of the companies that are now no more. The occupation of the Bowyers and the Horners is fairly obvious, but who would guess that the Fletchers were makers of arrows, or the Lorriners makers of bridles and bits, and I leave you to discover the lugubrious meaning of the Worshipful Company of Upholders.
They were the trade unions of the Middle Ages, but they had this great difference, that they were a combination of the masters for the benefit of their particular industry, whereas now the trade unions are composed of the workmen, who combine for their own benefit even if it ruins the industry. Comparisons may be odious but they are inevitable. Our present trade unions, which seem to be growing almost as powerful as their forerunners, are exclusively concerned with the question of wages, but the guilds, whilst jealously guarding the privileges of their members and craftsmen, not only guaranteed a fixed wage, but administered even-handed justice as between master and men, and, more important still, insisted on a high standard of workmanship. Nothing but the best satisfied them, and they built up the tradition of English excellence which our present distaste for honest work puts us in a fair way to lose.
For in this matter we compare badly with our forefathers. Their ruthless methods might well be copied in this age of the meretricious and shoddy. In 1311 there was a bonfire in Cheapside (at the instance of the Hatters’ and Haberdashers’ Company) of forty grey and white and fifteen black “bad and cheating hats,”which had been seized in the shops of dishonest traders, and other defective goods were publicly burnt in the same place from time to time, but so rarely as to show how high was the usual standard of trade honesty. Nowadays, such seizures would provide almost enough fuel to tide us through another coal strike.
The City Companies were an autocracy, but, given the conditions of the time, they were a benevolent autocracy, and the guilds laid the foundations of the vast commercial wealth which has made London what she is. For centuries the Lord Mayor, their civic head, has been chosen almost always from amongst the members of the twelve great companies, and enjoys a prestige abroad only second to that of the king, as anyone who has lived in France can testify. Trade in England has always been honourable. The merchants of the Middle Ages belonged almost exclusively to families of good position; often they were younger sons of the landed gentry, for whom a commercial life, in days when there were no engineers, journalists, or bankers, was the usual opening if they did not go into the Church or Law. Whittington was the son of a Gloucestershire knight: Sir Thomas Gresham, that finest type of City magnate and honoured friend of Elizabeth, came of a good old stock and was educated at Cambridge. For centuries our kings and queens have been pleased to come to banquets in the Guildhall and the halls of the greater companies, though they might not nowadays look favourably upon that lord mayor with whom Charles II. dined, who became so drunk that when the king got up to leave he rushed after him and dragged him back, good-naturedly protesting, “to finish t’other bottle.”
The old power of the guilds has gone, but in what other country would you find bodies of merchants, each with a vast revenue at its disposal of which it need give account to no man, using that wealth, generation after generation, for the public good instead of for private profit? They spend it either in maintaining excellent schools or in generous gifts to various charitable objects, or in subscriptions for the advancement of science (the City Companies are responsible for the City and Guilds Institute), but in whatever they do they uphold the best traditions of integrity and generosity of the City merchant.
The centre of all this civic activity is the Guildhall. From Oxford Circus a tube to the Bank or any bus along Holborn takes you along Cheapside and past King Street, at the end of which you see the Guildhall. If you start from the neighbourhood of Charing Cross any train to the Mansion House brings you to Queen Victoria Street, out of which Queen Street, a few minutes’ walk to your right, leads through directly to King Street.
Of course the great civic event of the year is the well-known and oft-described procession and the banquet given on the 9th November by the new lord mayor, chosen on Michaelmas Day, and the sheriffs to the members of the Cabinet and other distinguished guests. No women are permitted to be present and to hear the important political speeches often made at these dinners, but there are other times when their presence is tolerated. I have seen the big wooden figures of Gog and Magog in the gallery of the great hall look down on a recruiting meeting early in the war-on the gathering of one of those organisations that now and then are the temporary guests of the City Corporation, and on the ceremony of presenting the Freedom of the City to an overseas Prime Minister.
The hall is open to the public at the usual hours, 10-5.30, so go in and nod to Gog and Magog and look at the fifteenth century two light window in the south-west corner-the only old one in the hall.
Coming out of the Guildhall on the left is the passage leading to the Museum and the Library. The latter is a fascinating place, with less red tape about consulting the books than in any other place of the size in London. You simply write your name and the book you want on a slip of paper, and the affair is done. If you seek information on a certain point, and do not know where to find it, the courteous director and his no less willing staff take the greatest trouble to help. I went there lately on such a quest, and book after book was produced for me by three assistants till the director in charge, who had evidently been doing some private research on my behalf, appeared triumphantly with the volume that gave the solution to my problem. It is a long, pleasant room, as indeed all book-lined rooms must be, with seven book-lined bays on either side. The collection contains about 200,000 volumes, besides many manuscripts. If you are a Shakespearean enthusiast you will find there among its rare treasures, the first, second and fourth folios of Shakespeare’s plays and a document bearing Shakespeare’s signature. Naturally the library rather specialises on books about London, and the museum in the basement beneath (entered from Basinghall Street) is nearly filled with London relicsRoman antiquities, mediaeval shop-signs, some of the lovely Jacobean jewellery found in Wood Street, the rest of which is in Lancaster House, instruments of torture from Newgate, and many other things that tell of the City life in mediaeval days.
Round about and within a few minutes’ walk of the Guildhall cluster the halls of the City Companies. The most important in the order of precedence are the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners and Clothworkers. Their halls are not supposed to be open to the general public, but it is possible to see most of them on application.
The history of the guilds is such a long one that their beginning is lost in Time’s mist. Mr. Muirhead says that “the chief object of their foundation was to afford religious and temporal and social fellowship, and trade supervision and help to the members of their fraternity or mystery,”-but they were not incorporated till the reign of Edward. Most of their halls date from the days of Henry VIII., when, grown rich and powerful, they looked about them for a home and were glad to buy from the avaricious king the houses of fugitive monks or favourites fallen into disgrace. But property so acquired was doomed to perish, and in the Great Fire of 1666 the ancient halls, almost without exception, were burnt to the ground. “Strange it is to see Clothworkers’ Hall on fire, these three days and nights in one body of flame, it being the cellar full of oyle,”says Pepys, who was a Master of the company. They have a fine collection of gold plate only used at state banquets, with a gold tray presented by Pepys in 1677 and also an immense loving-cup richly chased, that is now shown in a glass case on the sideboard, as it began to show signs of much handling.
The halls were rebuilt afterwards,-some, like the Vintners’ in 68 Upper Thames Street, and possibly the Haberdashers’ in Gresham Street, by Wren,-but by the beginning of the eighteen hundreds most of them seem to have fallen into such disrepair as to require rebuilding again.
One at least, the Merchant Taylors’, the largest hall of all, which faces Threadneedle Street, stands as originally erected, with its little crypt beneath it, in the latter part of the fourteenth century, for though the roof and walls were damaged by the Great Fire, the main building is still intact. This is a rich and proud company, with its income of L60,000 a year, and its fine gallery of royalties and distinguished personages, numbering many kings among its freemen. Yet not so proud as the Mercers’, first on the list, which will not admit visitors to its hall in 87 Cheapside. Whittington and Sir Thomas Gresham were mercers. Within the walls is kept the famous Legh cup (1499), always used at City banquets and supposed to be one of the finest pieces of English mediaeval plate in existence. The chapel adjoining the hall, whose handsome front, erected immediately after the Great Fire, you may inspect at any rate, is on the site of Thomas a Becket’s house.
Close by in Prince’s Street, opposite the Bank of England, is the hall of the Grocers, once called the Pepperers, a guild with advanced notions for the Middle Ages, for they apparently believed in the equality of women. The wives of the Grocers were members as well, and were even fined if they were absent. from the banquets for any avoidable reason. “Grocer “is one of those words that have grown less honourable with time, for a grocer formerly meant one who dealt en gros (wholesale).
The halls of the Goldsmiths’ and the Fishmongers’ Companies have so many mediaeval relics that they well repay a visit, and a card of admission is usually granted on application. The Goldsmiths are in Foster Lane, Cheapside, just behind the G.P.O., and amongst their plate you may see the cup from which Queen Elizabeth is said to have drunk at her coronation. In the Court Room is an old Roman altar, found when the present foundations were dug. The Goldsmiths still keep their ancient privilege of assaying and stamping all articles of gold and silver manufacture in Great Britain, just as the Fishmongers still have the less remunerative right to “enter and seize bad fish.”The hall of this guild is, appropriately enough, on the banks of the river, just at the north end of London Bridge, and in one of the rooms is a chair made out of the first pile driven in the construction of Old London Bridge, said to have been under the water for 650 years.
The hall of the Stationers’ Company in Paternoster Row was stone-faced a mere 121 years ago, but the attics still have horn-paned windows and part of it was built before the Great Fire. Visitors are shown the hall and the old relics, and every good American likes to see the compositor’s stick that Benjamin Franklin used when he came to London as a journeyman printer and lived in Bartholomew Close.
Stationers’ Hall is the headquarters of the Royal Literary Fund for assisting Authors in Distress, and among their treasures are the daggers used by Col. Blood and his accomplice when they tried to steal the crown jewels in Charles IL’s reign.
Most of the bare facts about the other chief companies can be found in any London guidebook, but if a reader wants to know more of these interesting survivals of the day when the craftsman loved his craft, he will find a detailed account in Mr. P. H. Ditchfield’s The City Companies of London, 1904, and Mr. George Unwin’s The Gilds and Companies of London.