All members of the middle station belonged by necessity to a parish or a precinct, but most also belonged to parallel organizations which could offer similar social and political opportunities. These were the livery companies, some ancient, some of comparatively recent vintage, which in theory combined many of the functions of both a trade association and a trade union, as well as providing a clubbish ambience of fraternity in which the members of a craft or trade could express their appreciation of each other. Our period, however, sees the virtual demise of the livery companies as effective controllers of the City economy. They had once controlled entry to the various trades, the numbers of apprentices, the conditions and quality of work and a host of other matters relating to the social and moral as well as the economic behaviour of their members. Many were still doing some of these things in 1700 but all of them were moving, some slowly, some fairly rapidly, towards becoming the wealthy dining clubs with important charitable functions which most of them are today.
The conservative and corporate nature of the livery companies was contrary to the individualist spirit of the age, a spirit which was reflected in the law courts, where those who challenged the companies found that they could often gain a favourable decision. As a result, many of the powers granted or taken for granted in Elizabethan times were to be lost in the next century. The most important power was the right of search, essential if companies were to control their trades and maintain their monopolies. The growth of the metropolis had long made such a right difficult to enforce in Westminster and the suburbs. By the end of the seventeenth century, doubts about the legality of searches meant that, even in the City, companies were increasingly reluctant to act for fear of prosecution for trespass.
The loss of ancient rights was compounded for most companies by serious financial problems. They had been weakened by demands made on them by both King and Parliament ever since the 1620s, but it was the Great Fire of 1666 which dealt the hammer blow. This not only destroyed their ancient halls, which had to be rebuilt at great cost, but also much of the property on which they relied for their income and the support of their charitable obligations. The property was rebuilt, but at the cost of lowering annual rents and extending leases, with the result that for most of our period the companies had diminished incomes, which made prosecution of offenders even less attractive in the face of doubts of success in the courts. It also had a serious effect on the morale of members, who looked to their companies for extravagant pageantry and bountiful dinners. The Fire also made it necessary to relax or abandon restrictions on unfreemen, in the building trades to encourage provincial workmen to come to London to rebuild the city, in the shopkeeping and craft trades to encourage people to take up the new-built property as fast as possible. Such decisions were not easily reversed and the Fire was very much a turning point in the fortunes of the companies.
There was one last problem facing the companies. Much of their logic depended on their members having in common some particular trade or occupation; the Mercers were supposed to be mercers and the Fishmongers fishmongers. However, from quite an early date, this uniformity of occupation began to be undermined as people changed their trades or as sons acquired the freedom through patrimony but did not practise their father's trade. Attempts to regularize this situation were not very successful and were seriously undermined by a legal decision of 1614 which in essence said that anyone free of any London company could practise any trade that they wished. The result, by our period, was that a livery company label was by no means a good indication of a man's occupation, especially for members of the older, larger and more prestigious companies. Some idea of the confusion can be seen in Table 9.4 overleaf, which lists the occupations of members of the sample belonging to companies with at least ten representatives. A few companies, such as the Apothecaries, Distillers and Vintners, could still be said to represent a trade but most were so
heterogeneous in their membership that little loyalty to craft or occupation can have remained.
Given all these problems, it seems amazing that the livery companies survived at all, but survive they did and most of the
London business community belonged to one, though some people opted out. Many merchants and wholesalers who required no shop premises in the City never bothered to acquire the freedom or join a livery company. Neither did an increasing number of shopkeepers in Westminster and the suburbs. Nevertheless, the number of freemen bore up quite well, declining only slowly from a peak figure of over 2000 new freemen every year in the late 1670s, when entry restrictions were temporarily relaxed, to 1250 a year in the 1740s. Relative decline was more serious, as population grew, but the decline was probably greater amongst those destined to be journeymen than in the business community itself. Prospective masters, even those in Westminster and the suburbs, continued to be apprenticed to a freeman and to become free of their companies as a matter of course, because it was the normal thing to do or because it saved trouble or the possibility of trouble.
For many people, the acquisition of the freedom was the last active interest that they took in their companies. They were indifferent to company business and felt, quite rightly in most cases, that the activities of the Court of Assistants who ruled their company had no significance for them as individuals. However, indifferent or not, many of the apathetic had no choice but to move up to the next stratum of their companies by joining the 'clothing' or livery. This was because most companies had found that the easiest way to raise much-needed cash was to increase the numbers of the livery and to charge high fines, from £10 to £30, for the privilege of joining it, threatening to prosecute those who refused to comply. Many men begged to be excused, as can be seen from the Committee Book of the Grocers' Company, the most prominent committee being that which raised the livery fines and listened to the petitions of those who tried to wriggle out of them. Some got away with it on such grounds as 'inability', 'age', 'small trade and must repair his house which will cost £100'. Most did not; not even Joseph Stone whose plea that 'he has but half a trade being concerned with his mother who has losses and troubles' had no effect on the hard-hearted committee.
Liverymen had no actual duties, though they had the right to vote in parliamentary elections and could attend certain dinners and processions, as well as being entitled to wear a
handsome livery gown. They were, however, liable to be appointed to such posts as Steward or Gentleman Usher, which could be a heavy strain on their holder's purse, since they often involved the obligation to pay for a dinner for the liverymen and it was a nice point whether the dinner or the fine exacted for refusing the office would be cheaper. As time went on a minority of liverymen would find themselves called to the ruling body of their company, the Court of Assistants. Most companies had some twenty to thirty assistants and, although they included a few keen or politically active men in their thirties and forties, the great majority were elderly men, the 'antientest' of their company.
What did these elderly members of the middle station talk about at their meetings, and what indeed was the business of the livery companies in our period? A partial answer to this question may be provided by examining the accounts and court minutes of a few companies in which our sample were well represented, concentrating on the 1690s and I 700s. A start can be made with the Society of Apothecaries, whose membership consisted almost entirely of apothecaries and whose society was the best run and most actively interested in the promotion of the trade of those whose records have been examined. The apothecaries were very much on the crest of a wave in the late seventeenth century, just about to win their long running battle with the physicians and attracting new freemen at the rate of twenty-five a year. The society had only been founded in 1617 and had none of the accumulation of property which was a feature of the older livery companies, so that most of its income came from fees for apprenticeship and freedom, fines and from the two shillings a year that its members paid as quarterage. Outgoings included interest on loans and legal expenses but were concentrated on basic housekeeping—the maintenance of the hall, salaries for beadle, clerk and bargemaster, and on 'feasts and other entertainments and refreshments', such as the Midsummer's Day and Election Day dinners. A few widows and elderly members of the society were supported by pensions but there was none of the heavy involvement in charity which is to be found in other companies.
As a new company, the Apothecaries were very conscious of their dignity, very upset when not accorded what they thought
was their proper order of precedence on great public occasions, keen to acquire all the paraphernalia of the older companies, such as a handsome hall, a barge and plenty of silverware. Such matters attracted considerable attention at Court meetings, as did the business of admitting members, electing officers and fining those who refused office, business which was done by all companies. However, what is striking about the records of the Apothecaries, when compared with other companies, is the impression that this was a real professional association, interested in promoting the business of its members and the education of its apprentices. In the early 1690s, the society was actively engaged in defending its members' interests against both the surgeons and the physicians, and was still using the powers given by its charter to enter premises and search for defective drugs and medicines. The search of 1695, for instance, resulted in five apothecaries being summoned before the Court for having bad medicines on their premises. However, these men were discharged without fine, which suggests that, even in this active society, the search was not the important part of its activities which it had been in the past.
Much more important in the minds of the Court were the six annual 'herbarizing' or botanical excursions, which were laid on in the summer months for the education of apprentices. These expeditions combined the attractions of a fraternal picnic with a genuine zeal in botanical matters. The party often set off to a riverside destination in the society barge, wandered through the fields identifying herbs for the benefit of the apprentices and then ended up with a dinner. Two other activities specific to the Apothecaries also engaged much of the time of the Court and its sub-committees. In 1672, the society had established an 'elaboratory' for making chemical medicines, a successful experiment run on a joint-stock basis for its subscribers, who received a dividend and were also able to buy stock for their shops at low prices. In the following year, the energetic society inaugurated the Physic Garden on its land at Chelsea, which by the 1690s had become an important botanical collection, 'very necessary for the honour and dignity of its members and the education of its apprentices', though its management was giving the Court so many headaches that some members were
in favour of giving it up and letting the land to a professional gardener.
The Distillers' Company was also very active in the early 1690s in promoting the trading interests of its members, for example, by lobbying parliament for or against any legislation which might affect the trade. This company was even newer than the Apothecaries, first chartered in 1638 but not enrolled by the City government until 1658. They had no hall and, although like all companies they had plenty of dinners, one feels that business rather than ceremonial was what really interested the Court. Here, the search was still an active business, the metropolis being covered by seven search parties. Defaulters were regularly summoned before the Court, where many were fined, and the company were quite prepared to take matters further if necessary. Mr Walsingham Heathfield, for instance, was summoned 'for abusing the Master and Warden Henning upon a search and giveing them very bad language'. He was fined £3 for contempt and, when he refused to pay, was sued in the Court of Common Pleas, an action which led Heathfield to submit and declare 'himself to be very sorry for his offence', as well he might be since now he had to pay £13. 10s. to cover the company's costs.
The company was also prepared to prosecute those who refused to pay livery fines or fines for avoiding such offices as steward, but it was most active in defence of its monopoly of distilling. In the early 1690s, person after person was summoned 'to show his right to the trade'. Charles Loving, summoned in April 1694, was just one of many who 'confesses he does distill fruit and molasses but hath noe right'. He was ordered to desist by midsummer or be indicted and, when he called the company's bluff, he was in fact sued in the following year. However, just a few years later, the company was beginning to have doubts about its legal position and, in 1704, a committee was set up 'to advise with Councell touching prosecuting interlopers'. Meanwhile, a profitable trade was being conducted in selling the freedom of the company to interlopers rather than sueing them, the normal price being £25.
By the reign of George I, one fears that the company was fighting a losing battle as the Gin Age encouraged the multiplication of back-street distilleries and the smuggling of French
brandy became a major English industry. In 1715, the company still showed an interest in defending the monopoly, but there are few further signs of activity in succeeding years. The Court was now showing more interest in its investments in South Sea stock, the list of pensioners supported by the company was growing and it was beginning to look more and more like any other livery company, with few interests outside its property, its dinners and its charities. Early in 1723, there was a debate in the Court on 'whether the searches be continued for the future' and, although this was not resolved immediately, there do not seem to have been any more searches after that date. In the following year, the changing nature of the company is nicely symbolized by the Court's decision to invest £4000, the accumulated balance of many years of livery fines and selling the freedom, 'in the purchase of freehold lands or houses in the City of London'. The company still acted as a lobby for the spirits trade, but had abandoned most of the other activities and powers for which it had fought when it first acquired its charter in the 1630s.
A rather similar story can be told of the Vintners' Company, which as can be seen from Table 9.4 (p. 252) was largely composed of tavern-keepers. The company was of medieval foundation and its members had many important privileges, including that of selling wine without licence in the City and liberties. Past members had left property which the company administered as trustee, and rents comprised 56 per cent of the company's income in the early 1690s. However, nearly all this rental income was specifically tied to charitable purposes and the Vintners shared the problems of all the ancient property-owning companies of honouring their charitable commitments in the difficult half-century following the Fire. Livery fines, very high at £31 each, were the backbone of the company's non-property income, while the tavern-keepers seem to have been better payers of quarterage than the members of most companies.
The company still carried out searches in the early years of the reign of Queen Anne. In May 1704, for instance, some wine found in the cellar of William Lewellin of Pudding Lane was 'tasted and tryed by severall members and found to be defective and not fit for the body of man to be drunk'. However, the
Vintners, like the Distillers, were doubtful about the legality of their searches and sought legal opinion in 1704 and again in the winter of 1706 on the subject. It is not known what advice was given by 'eminent Councell', but matters seem to have come to a head in 1708 when the Master was faced with a mutiny, the majority of those summoned for the search failing to turn up. Eventually, most of the mutineers appeared before the Court to purge their contempt at a cost of 3s.4d. a head in the poor box (or 5s. for late-comers) but, from this date onwards, searches were few and far between and seem to have been give up altogether by the reign of George 1. The company continued to lobby on behalf of its members but its main business was property management, charity and more than usually good dinners.
The last two companies which will be considered had reached this position much earlier. These were the Grocers and the Fishmongers, second and fourth in the order of precedence of the 'Twelve Great Livery Companies', both companies having a heterogeneous membership, as was seen in Table 9.4. In the early 1690s, one can still find a faint flicker of the control of the London fish trade which the Fishmongers had acquired in the middle ages. The first Monday in Lent was traditionally the 'view day for this Company's land and the search for corrupt fish' and this was still being carried out, some traders being fined for 'exposing to sale unseasonable salmon', but cases were rare and the main attraction of the search day was the 'moderate dinner' laid on by the renter warden. The Court is also found occasionally establishing a committee of 'all the Assistants being traders in fish and others as they shall thinke fitt' to hear the grievances of 'severall traders in fish of this company', but this was a very pale reflection of the famous fishmongers' hallmoot which sat once a week to settle disputes in the fourteenth century.
References to fish are in fact hard to find in the indexes of the court minutes and are totally overwhelmed by the company's main business, which was managing its extensive property and administering several important charities and trusts, such as the free grammar school at Holt in Norfolk and St Peter's Hospital at Newington in Surrey, which housed forty-two poor men and women free of the company, petitions for places
forming a recurrent theme in the minutes. Every year, just before Christmas, a party of assistants went down to St Peter's to distribute doles to the almsfolk, first admonishing them 'to live in the feare of God and to avoid drunkennesse and to be helpefull one to another'.
Managing property and carrying out the testamentary wishes of former Fishmongers meant that the wardens, clerk and beadles were busy men, collecting rents (often in arrears), repairing property and paying out over a hundred separate legacies and doles to the poor of this or that parish, to hospitals and to particular individuals, many of these doles requiring a selection process to decide which particular worthy, poor and ancient man or woman should be the lucky recipient. Some idea of the problem can be seen from a typical entry in the renter warden's accounts: 'paid for coles and faggotts distributed to poore and needy fishmongers in St Michael Crooked Lane and elsewhere according to Mr Pendlebury's last will, 20s.' Collectively, the charities administered by the older livery companies must have handed out amounts of money, coal and bread which compared in total with the parallel system of poor relief provided by parishes, but it was all scattered around in bits and pieces and must have been a tiresome burden to administer.
There was still a faint odour of fish in the deliberations of the Fishmongers, but one would never know that the Grocers had any connection with sugar and spice if the company had not borne that name, despite the insistence of the historian of the company that 'the excellence and purity of foodstuffs' was still one of its primary concerns in the 1690s. This statement is based on the revised bye-laws of 1690, which still provided for an inspection of grocers' shops 'once or oftner in every year . . . to search view and essay all raisins, currants, prunes, figs, almonds, sugar, pepper etc.' and included a scale of fines for 'rotten, false or counterfeit wares'. However, it is clear from the court minutes and accounts that these searches were not carried out and there is virtually no reference to business relating to the grocery trade in the excellent index to the minutes.
What interested the Grocers was their appalling financial position, they probably being the worst hit of the big companies by accumulated indebtedness before the Fire and the effects of
the Fire itself. This did not stop them splashing out on two pageants for the Grocer Sir John Fleete's 'Triumph' as Lord Mayor in 1692, the money on this occasion as on others being raised by appointing a large number of new liverymen. A couple of years later, the company's financial problems were solved by Sir John Houblon, the first governor of the Bank of England and himself a Grocer, who rented Grocers' Hall for the use of the Bank in return for a fine of £5000 and a loan of the same amount. Otherwise, the Grocers' records show that their activities were very similar to those of the Fishmongers: dinners and ceremony, property management and the administration of charities and gifts, including Oundle and other schools, almshouses, scholarships and exhibitions at Oxford and Cambridge and the normal profusion of doles in kind and money.
The Grocers were already in the 1690s what all the other companies would be by the end of our period, 'a Nursery of Charity and Seminary of good Citizens', as their clerk put it in 1689. Most of their income was spent on charity, though some was used 'for defraying the charge of sober anniversary festivals in moderate entertainment of the members, to maintain and increase mutual friendship and Christian conversation in the fraternity as well in ease as for encouragement of the members'. George Ravenhill's words nicely sum up the meaning of the livery companies to those of their members who actively supported and enjoyed what they did. One suspects that by our period this would only have been a minority of those of the middle station, though occasional attendance at such fraternal festivities remained an important part of civic life.