This exhibition, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, traces the history of the City’s Livery Companies. By the sixteenth century these trade guilds were very powerful bodies; today, there are 108 companies still in operation. Over the years, the occupations served have changed. The Worshipful Company of Bowyers might not be so familiar to modern visitors, whilst the Company of Management Consultants was founded only twenty years ago.
The exhibition is spread across three rooms. The first room gives an introduction to the guilds and their work. The second room looks at craft, trade and identity, including contemporary examples. The annexe has a few more trade exhibits and a small area for the pomp and pageantry associated with the companies.
The introductory information in the first room is very interesting, showing the shields of the different companies and giving a very brief history of the origins of guilds - it’s possible that they go back as far as the Roman period, although the earliest written record still surviving is from 1155. The Charter for the Weavers’ Company, granted by Henry II, is on display here, although I almost missed it; I was distracted by the much more showy Carpenter’s Charter from 1640 with its enormous wax seal and handsome illuminated border. There are also some beautiful company books on display from the fifteenth century, featuring religious illustrations. I preferred these to the cups, salts and jewels featured, but I was interested to learn that most of these are still in frequent use in their respective companies.
The charitable work was very interesting; the focus of the companies seems always to have been on education and almshouses, some of which establishments continue today. Richard (Dick) Whittington, a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, was a major philanthropist, building Greyfriars Library, a ward for unmarried mothers at St. Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding Guildhall and establishing a public drainage system. One of the few women mentioned in the exhibition, Dame Alice Owen, was part of the Brewers’ Company. She founded almshouses and the Dame Alice Owen School.
The second room focuses on the trades themselves. One thing that really caught my eye was a butcher’s shop model from 1880, made to sit in the shop window when it was closed. It’s a detailed model, showing the abattoir as well as the shop front. It was a little macabre for a vegetarian like myself, but fascinating. Another striking exhibit is a shop sign lent by the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers from c.1800 painted onto a huge turtle shell. On a smaller scale, but no less eye-catching, is a portable case for surgical instruments from c.1570, lent by the Worshipful Company of Barbers. Its elaborately decorated case includes the company’s arms, and is exquisite. There are some modern exhibits too, such as a Manual Micro-Manipulator made this year from the Worshipful Company of Scientific Instrument Makers. This contraption reduces and smooths out hand movements for use under a microscope. It is an impressive looking piece of equipment, although I was glad its function was explained. More immediately accessible are the clothes, hats and shoes on display. In the small annexe a display cabinet has a wonderful array of hats and shoes, including a pair of children’s pattens from the mid-nineteenth century. The Billingsgate Market Porter’s hat from 1890 is a great object. At first I thought it must be a model or blank, but on reading the information card it becomes clear; it is heavy and flat to enable the men to balance huge cases of fish on their heads. These little titbits of information are what really made the exhibition for me.
The pomp and pageantry display is small, but has a gorgeous suit of clothes called Doggett’s Coat and Badge from 1903. It comes from the Worshipful Company of Watermen and Lightermen and is awarded to the winner of the 4.5 mile rowing race from London to Chelsea. The focus of these few exhibits is the river processions that began in the 1400s. The barges floating down the Thames is where we get our word ‘floats’ from, now used on land in village processions across the country.
This exhibition has some lovely exhibits and interesting snippets and I enjoyed the leisurely hour and a half I spent in it. I do think the storytelling aspect could be a bit stronger; I got more from it once I had sat down in the second room and read through the guidebook. I also recommend keeping your eyes peeled, as I nearly missed some of the smaller pieces that turned out to be the most interesting. It is a splendid opportunity to learn more about what Livery Companies are and what they do, as well as see a range of objects not usually accessible to the public.