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The Origins of the City Guilds

In the absence of firm contemporary evidence this has to be a matter of some speculation. It would appear that the Church played a significant part in the early days. The connection between Church and Trade would appear to be a geographical one. In early times there were religious fraternities associated with particular saints who had chapels dedicated in their honour in local City churches. It was also the custom of various trades and crafts to group themselves in discreet locations within the City as evidenced by surviving street names; Bread Street, Goldsmiths Row, The Vintry etc. Such being the case, it is likely that a particular local religious fraternity would be composed largely of members of a particular trade or craft.

The pre-Reformation Companies were designated in their Charters as being a Guild in honour of a particular Saint and the Saint’s name took precedence over the trade in the charter. After the Reformation the emphasis was rather more on the trade aspects of the Guild although religion continued to play a significant part in their activities.

From their religious and fraternal beginnings the Guilds developed the business supervision of their trades and crafts. Such supervision is evident as early as the twelfth century and later became embodied in Charters and Ordinances, regulations concerning the binding and training of apprentices, the inspection of finished goods to ensure a quality standard (backed by the right to search) and the development of a ‘closed shop’ principle so that only freemen could carry on a particular trade or craft within the City and for a prescribed distance around it.

All this served to protect customers from poor quality goods, employers against bad workmen and workmen against bad employers. The early Guilds were in fact a combination of employer’s federation, trade union and friendly society as they were also devoted to assisting any of their members and their widows who may have fallen on hard times.

The height of the power of the Guilds was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. As the economy of the country expanded maintenance of control became more difficult. Although new Guilds were formed in the seventeenth century, including the Clockmakers, their absolute powers were beginning to decline. By the end of the eighteenth century the Guilds’ original functions were largely inoperable although they have never legally been rescinded. However the City Companies, as the Guilds became known, were able to adapt to the changing conditions and they found new life in promoting general and technical education through charitable means related to their respective crafts. Many continued to take an interest in members and widows who were suffering hardship.

Although in their original charters various names were used to describe a particular group of craftsmen e.g. ‘fraternity’, ‘commonalty’, ‘society’ and in the case of Clockmakers ‘ fellowship’ gradually the term ‘Company’ (meaning assembly) came to be adopted as the common title. The preceding word ‘Worshipful’ which formed part of the descriptive style of some of the early Guilds is strictly a courtesy title meaning ‘dignified’ or ‘honourable’.

The term ‘Livery’ comes from the distinctive dress or livery originally worn by craft members on formal occasions. The colours were usually taken from the two chief tinctures in the Company’s coat of arms. In the case of Clockmakers they are gold and black.

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New 88 page edition of “The Clockmakers of London” now published by Sir George White, with substantially revised text and a large number of stunning new illustrations. Read more about it  …. & you can buy it for £15 on this link.

Antiquarian Horological Society (AHS) Lectures

A formal affiliation was signed in 2014 between the WCC and the AHS. WCC Liverymen and Freemen are encouraged to attend the excellent AHS Lectures, which are free to WCC members and include teas before and wine afterwards, so are very social and interesting events. List of forthcoming lectures in London is on the AHS site.

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