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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).

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livery companies

livery companies were organizations of master tradesmen which developed in the city of London during the Middle Ages. Their purpose was to control the numbers and character of new entrants. Originally livery referred to the special clothing of retainers and servants, but later the term became associated with distinctive costumes for grand occasions worn by high-ranking members of the companies. Prosperous companies erected their own guildhalls and endowed churches dedicated to the patron saint of their crafts, with chapels for their use. Most companies provided benefits for members and their dependants such as widows and children. The influence of the companies grew as their wealth increased: most of them made loans to the crown in exchange for privileges for their members. Such privileges ranged from the right to wear livery to having a role in the government of the city of London.

Livery companies lost control of specific trades by the 19th cent., but being a freeman conferred prestige. The companies continued to have political influence, only slightly modified by Victorian local government reforms. They have retained their independence to the extent that, currently, members of a company have the status of freemen of the city of London. They serve with the aldermen, sheriffs, and the lord mayor on the Court of Common Hall and participate in the selection of the lord mayor for each year. By 1979 there were 84 livery companies. Over time new companies have emerged, one of the most recent being the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators.

Ian John Ernest Keil

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