What is the relevance of the livery companies today?

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The Strength of the Livery Company in the City of London – Past, Present and Future – it’s history and benefits.

If they want to survive, staying relevant is essential to every institution and organisation. It’s been one of the great strengths of the City of London over the centuries - adapting to the times and meeting the commercial needs of the UK - these days there is less sheep herding over London Bridge

The livery companies have a history almost as long as the City’s own; they have been both a stabilising root in tradition as well as champions of different professions. With the average age of the livery company’s members at 60+, it’s even more important that they continue to support members of their various professions in a way that’s relevant to those at the start of their careers - the question is how?

The Livery of the past

Although existing in some form since the Saxon times, livery companies saw their first golden age of formation as Medieval Guilds - beginning in the 11th century. The various trades and crafts normally gathered in specific areas of the City – today’s Ironmonger Lane, Poultry, Milk Street, Mason’s Avenue - with the local craftsmen and merchants likely attending the same Catholic church… hence the term ‘worshipful’ companies.

These craftsmen formed religious guilds, met to socialise, to settle disputes, to set rules, accept apprentices, elect leaders and to provide alms to the poor. They began to wear livery, a uniform originally worn by a noble’s servants, to acknowledge their craft affiliation. Successful Guilds then went on to build halls in which to meet and to publicly advertise their power. They also actively supported the monarchy with the provision of trained bands of soldiers, arms and financial support.

In short, these original livery companies built powerful, state-backed, trading monopolies. Critically, they also actively responded to the needs of their times. They acted as guarantors of product quality, educated and cared for their members and their families, and ultimately, over hundreds of years, served as vehicles for their member’s personal and company philanthropy.

The Livery of the present 

Today, some of these ancient companies continue in their traditional role. For example, the Goldsmiths are still associated with testing the quality of gold, silver and platinum (and as of 2010, Palladium), and the Vintners still control the quality of wines.

Others have reinvented themselves, adapting and evolving in the modern world. For example, the Fan Makers are now associated with air conditioning and turbo engines, while the Horners with the plastics industry.

The livery companies don’t just work independently, they also collaborate. Indeed, there have been several new additions to the livery ecosystem: The Livery Climate Action Group was formed in 2021 to assist City of London Livery Companies and Guilds to manage their impact on climate change and the environment; the Livery Charity Chair’s Group was founded to help improve the effectiveness of our charities. 

They too work collectively on the issues of the day. For example, 50 companies responded to The Livery Kitchen Initiative and provided 160k meals to NHS workers and 16 deprived boroughs during the pandemic; they have also sent around £1m in emergency aid to Ukraine since the war began. On a more general note, the livery companies collectively give around £70m and 75,000+ hours (minimum) in pro-bono work each year, including £8m to education alone.

The Livery of the future 

The true strength of the livery companies lies in three things:

  • The wide community of mutual support
  • The wealth of experience and knowledge amongst its collective membership 
  • The valuable time those experienced members are willing to give to others

The future of the Livery lies in the next generation and it’s up to us to nurture that. We can do this by giving them access to these three things. For many young people coming into the City for the first time, the livery companies provide access to people they would not ordinarily have meaningful access to in the workplace alone. Not all learning is done in the classroom - so much is done by osmosis - being around those who are experienced in their roles, listening to them, observing them and talking to them; it takes time.

We ourselves can also learn something from the next generation of Vintners, Goldsmiths, Marketors, Fan makers and so forth. Listening to their vision of the future, their values, knowing their current interests and skills is invaluable for us too - such is the nature of evolution.

We see this dialogue, this sharing of community and time already happening in lots of ways. For example, The Brokerage is dedicated to supporting social mobility within financial services in the City of London. In particular, they seek to encourage young people from BAME backgrounds into the field.

However, it’s important to keep doing more, and it doesn’t always need to be so structured. I know from experience that the livery is for life. The connections, friendships, mentors and guidance you receive from this rich, intelligent, supportive community is invaluable. 

As with any organisation, the livery needs to attract young people, continuously in order to thrive. There are some incredible initiatives around, but it comes down to one thing - time. Passing on that type of knowledge it’s not something that can be boiled down to a Zoom call or a course or a single networking event. It’s about building relationships, seeking to understand one another. Encouraging and supporting our successors.

No doubt there will be some moments when younger members question the wisdom of those of us with a few more grey hairs - it would be strange if they didn’t. However, a little time spent and they may see some merit in what we have to offer, and hopefully one day they too will be the ones passing on their knowledge, enhancing what we have to pass on for a new generation. Such is the magic of time.

I would be thrilled if you would register your support for my candidature for non-Aldermanic Sheriff for 2022-23, via the following link.