Stand on Dowgate with your back to Cannon Street station and you can see the entrances to three of the halls of the City’s oldest guilds – from right to left, the Tallow Chandlers, the Skinners and the Dyers.
These days Guilds are charitable, social and networking institutions, but their origins go back to at least medieval times and quite possibly predate the Norman Conquest. They were ‘trade bodies’ like the fraternities or ‘mysteries’ found throughout England and Europe in the middle ages. You paid to belong: the word comes from the Saxon ‘gildan’ – to pay. Within the City of that time you would find tradesman living and working in the same areas, worshiping in the same churches, drinking in the same alehouses and so forth – so for example, Cannon Street used to be called Candlewick Street as that is where one would find candle makers; an obvious link to Tallow Chandlers – so it must have been a natural step to meet and discuss business. (As an aside, the Tallow Chandlers’ Hall is built where once the Roman Governor’s palace stood, more evidence of the incredible – and literal – depth of history in the City.)
The Guilds came to control who could enter their trade – they bought the rights or ‘patent’ to control their business within the City – so anyone who wanted to become, say, an ironmonger or tallow chandler had to serve an apprenticeship to a master first. Once qualified an apprentice became a Freeman and could join the Guild and then work for any master or set up in business on their own. This ensured that standards were kept up, but also that the numbers of people joining any trade was limited, so prices and wages could be kept high. They also acted as quality control, fining members who sold shoddy goods, and as insurance companies, helping members who had fallen ill or on hard times, providing for their widows and children, and building almshouses for the elderly.
The Guilds are sometimes known as ‘Livery Companies’ as each guild had a distinctive clothing and badges that distinguished them from other guilds and other citizens. And new guilds are still being formed – there are now 110 of them, the most recent being the Guild of Arts Scholars.
There was often a great deal of rivalry between the Guilds, with violent, sometimes fatal, disputes breaking out between rival groups of apprentices. One of the most intense was between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners over who had order of precedence – who led whom in processions, who sat closest to the Lord Mayor at banquets. This culminated in a fight during the Mayor’s River Procession in 1484 as each Guild tried to overtake the other. Apprentices were killed and the Lord Mayor was brought in settle the dispute. He was obviously a shrewd man as he came up with the wonderful solution that each of the two Guilds alternate precedence. In even years the Skinners are sixth and the Merchant Taylors seventh, and in odd years this flips round. You might hear it said that this is the origin of “to be at sixes and sevens”, but that phrase appears in Chaucer a hundred year earlier – although it might be that the dispute helped popularise the expression.
As the City’s trade grew – and as London spread beyond the square mile – the power of the Guilds waned. They couldn’t keep their monopolies across the whole of London, but they successfully evolved as charitable bodies; many of the older Livery Companies are quite rich from historical endowments and tens of millions of pounds are given each year to charities and education – schools, colleges, universities (there’s an obvious link with Goldsmith’s College for example, and of course the City and Guilds vocational training).
They also kept their power. To be Lord Mayor you have to have been a member of one of the dozen senior guilds, and the two Sheriffs of London (sort of Deputy Lord Mayors) are elected by Liverymen, and one of those Sheriffs is always a member of one of the Guilds.