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Filling the Gaps: Livery Company Archives and the ROLLCO Project

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The 'FM' plate. Image courtesy of the Salters’ collection

Image courtesy of the Salters’ collection

This post was kindly written for us by Katie George, archivist of The Salters’ Company, with the help of the CMH’s very own Mark Merry.

September sees another new update to the Records of London’s Livery Companies Online (ROLLCO) project, with the publication of the membership records of two new Livery Companies and the expansion of the records of two already participating Companies. We welcome the apprentices and Freemen of the Musicians’ and Tallow Chandlers’ to the ROLLCO database across the period 1620 to 1900, as well as those which expand the Goldsmiths’ (from 1700 to 1708) and Salters’ (to cover the period 1636-1656) Companies’ records.

The records in this update form a good example of both the vagaries of archival survival amongst the Livery Companies (and indeed more generally), and of the way in which the ROLLCO project has obtained information about membership of the Companies across their long history. The apprenticeship and freedom records of the Musicians’ Company show a number of significant gaps during the 17th century, at least until the 1690s from which point they seem to have survived in a more complete form. This is by no means uncommon amongst the Livery Company archives. What this archive lacks in quantity, however, it more than makes up for in quality, especially later in the 18th and 19th centuries when the records are laden with consistently rich detail about the individuals making up the membership of the Company. The Musicians’ were clearly one of the Livery Companies where the members did not pursue their ‘craft’ as their principal means of making a living, as a glance at the occupations recorded in the registers indicate. Most numerous amongst the Musicians’ membership  were individuals – men and plenty of women too – identifying themselves as victuallers (142), but almost every other occupation can be found too, from haberdashers to farmers, from butchers to apothecaries, and from perukemakers to tripe dressers. Only 56 out of the 6829 named individuals in the records are listed as musicians by occupation, although there are 12 musical instrument makers, 6 music sellers, 2 music masters and a Professor of Music. Another pattern that emerges from the Musicians’ records, and one that would perhaps bear closer inspection, is that a surprising number of their members gave as their address the name of an inn or tavern. Whether this was their place of abode or place of employment is unclear, but the pattern might suggest the broad involvement of the Musicians’ members in what we might now call the ‘service industries’ of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The 9,650 apprenticeship and freedom records of the Tallow Chandlers’ Company begin in the 1620s, and do not appear to have been materially affected by the vicissitudes of the mid-17th century, despite the Company losing its Hall to the Great Fire. The information contained on the 22,162 individuals mentioned in these records benefits greatly from a vast and ongoing research effort undertaken by members of the modern-day Company, and the ROLLCO project is very grateful to Liveryman Lorraine Green in particular for making her work available. As with the Musicians’ records, the Tallow Chandlers’ are full of the kind of biographical detail that researchers crave – places, occupations, and career information are available for a high proportion of individuals mentioned in the registers. Many inter-generational and family connections can be traced in the records of the Tallow Chandlers’ membership. One such ‘dynasty’ can be seen in the Turner family, which included Benjamin Brecknell Turner (apprenticed to his father in 1830 and made free of the Company seven years later), one of Britain’s first photographers, a specialist in rural compositions whose work can be found in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Hale family is another example, which includes the twice Master of the Company and Lord Mayor of London Warren Stormes Hale, made free in 1814.

The new Salter’s records for 1636 to 1656 have been drawn from a manuscript volume catalogued under the title Index to Freedom Register No Longer Existing, 1636-1656, a calendar of now lost volumes offering a tantalising glimpse of the life of the Company and its members. Historical researchers are used to working with incomplete archives, and hints and clues and theories – indeed the detective work is one of the attractions for many – and often indexes which survive in place of their parent volumes can form vital sources for crucial periods. As Katie George, archivist of the Salters’ Company, suggests, slender volumes such as this Index are vital components of reconstructing ‘history in the gaps’:

‘When I needed to identify some mysterious initials, ’FM’, on a very beautiful 17th century delftware plate belonging to the Salters’ Company, the equally mysterious ‘Index to Freedom Register No Longer Existing, 1636-1656’, held in the Company’s archives, gave me the lead I sought, and thus enabled me, with the help of external source material and the invaluable assistance of others, to gradually reconstruct the life of a hitherto unknown Salters’ freeman.  Francis Mercer, (made free in 1638), lived in Southwark.  He was a mealman and soldier by trade, serving as an officer in the civil wars.  From 1654-56 he served in Barbados and Jamaica as part of Cromwell’s Western Design expedition, in 1658 married widow Elizabeth Townsend in Southwark and in 1660 was arrested under suspicion of involvement in an anti-restoration plot.  In the 1660s he and his wife finally settled for a quieter (but no doubt quite lucrative) life of delftware production in Southwark.  He died in 1669, survived by his widow and three children, including a married daughter from an earlier, mystery relationship.  A colourful life indeed!’

For many Livery Companies the middle decades of the 17th century comprised the period of the greatest expansion in their membership, trade activities and influence within London and further afield. For some Companies, this is also the period when sporadic gaps appear in their archives, for reasons of administrative, political and actual physical crisis. The Salters’ archive has fallen victim to the destruction of their new Hall in the Great Fire of 1666 for example, but as Katie has commented, it is interesting to note that the Index was one of the records saved, when others were not. One can almost visualise the Clerk and colleagues dashing into the Hall by the church of St Swithin as the fire approached, rapidly determining which records were important to save and which could be sacrificed…

You can explore the records on the ROLLCO website.

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