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Planet-Predictors, Action Heroes and Free-Speakers: the membership of London’s Livery Companies – Part I

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492px-Admiral_Sir_Sidney_Smith_(1764-1840)_-_Louis-Marie_Autissier

Admiral Sir Sidney Smith by Louis-Marie Autissier, 1823

This post was written for us by the Centre for Metropolitan History’s Mark Merry.

The numerous Livery Companies of the City of London have evolved from their medieval forbears. Originally established as craft guilds to regulate specific trades, the Companies supervised the training of apprentices, policed standards of craftsmanship, controlled internal conflict and protected craftsmen from competition. Over the course of the centuries – for some earlier, others later – the role of most Companies became detached from their original craft foundations, and instead shifted their energies into the realm of charitable and educational endeavour. This development is clearly evident in the changing nature of their membership over time, something which can be traced through the Records of London’s Livery Companies Online (ROLLCO) database.

ROLLCO has been designed to enable researchers and family historians to search the rich records of London’s ancient Livery Companies, to help them find information about apprenticeships and admissions to Company freedoms from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the twentieth century. The detailed records drawn from Company archives allow users to reconstruct individual careers, families and trade connections, whilst providing fascinating insight into the social and economic roles of the Livery Companies, and by extension, the history of London’s development.

The latest update to the ROLLCO database has seen the addition of the membership records of the Bowyers’, the Girdlers’ and the Salters’ Companies to those of the project’s existing partners, the Clothworkers’, Drapers’, Goldsmiths’ and Mercers’ Companies.

The update comprises 7,061 new apprenticeship bindings and 3,468 freedom admissions added to the database, covering the period 1600-1900, providing details of a further 22,972 individuals, most of whom enjoyed membership of one of the Companies. This brings the total number of individuals appearing in ROLLCO to 320,941.

Sadly only a very small proportion of these individuals were entered into the Companies’ registers with any record of their occupation (something like 3%), but a greater number were afforded the privileges of rank through often detailed clarifications of their status. Titles, honorifics, military and clerical ranks and other descriptions of the loftier positions in society occupied by members are carefully noted by Company Clerks where appropriate. Most of the men and women who appear in the ROLLCO records were modest individuals working within their trades, but it is easy to trace the increasing participation in Company affairs of more notable personages as Companies became more and more divorced from their occupational origins.

Many of these individuals are well-known London and national figures – men like the goldsmith Sir Thomas Vyner, who was born in Gloucestershire, sent to London aged twelve in 1600 and apprenticed into the goldsmiths’ trade. He was made free of the Company in 1611, and then over the course of the next three decades, Vyner rose through the ranks of the Company and the City (as Sheriff then Lord Mayor) in a career that encompassed the major historic events of the early seventeenth century. He was present at the execution of Charles I and then knighted by Cromwell, and subsequently knighted a second time by Charles II at the Restoration, after persuading the new king he had been loyal all along.  At his death in 1665, in the midst of London’s last great plague epidemic, Vyner left a part of his considerable fortune to support London goldsmiths who fell on hard times.

In the new batch of ROLLCO records we find similarly impressive figures.  Representing the Salters’ Company, the fourth of the Great Twelve Livery Companies to join the ROLLCO project, is Admiral Sir (William) Sydney Smith, naval officer, sailor-for-hire, spy, rival of Nelson and the scourge of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In December 1801, after returning to England following the successful siege of Acre, Smith was admitted to the freedom of the Salters’ at the age of 37, at a time when he was receiving honours and pensions for his service to the State. The record of his admission (which renders his forename with a ‘y’ rather than an ‘i’) describes Smith as “Captain in Royal Navy and Knight Commander Grand Cross of the Royal Military Order of the Sword of Sweden”, the latter order having been awarded by the Swedish Crown for his exploits in the Swedish Navy fighting the Russians during the 1790s, exploits which were controversial and which made him unpopular amongst his British naval peers. In the elections of 1801 Smith became the M.P. for Rochester, an Admiralty borough, although his political career foundered for lack of support from influential figures – perhaps as he voiced opposition to government policy on matters military, or perhaps as he was rumoured to be having an affair with Caroline, Princess of Wales. The disaffection of his peers was something that appears to have dogged Smith throughout his career, but there is no denying the stature of the kind of individuals being recruited into the Livery Companies in this period. As his biographer Roger Morriss suggests,

The height Smith’s reputation had achieved after Acre was never attained again. Rather, his career hereafter was constrained by a reputation for impulsive activity that was not completely trustworthy because it was unconventional; an added restraint was the fear and irritation Smith engendered by his tendency not to consult or inform when his energy outran his discretion. The agreement of al-‘Arish did much to discredit him, while his own high opinion of his merits and long accounts of his adventures annoyed other officers
(Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25940?docPos=2).

Read on in Part II