The courtiers assembled, on hearing the news of the death of the Rt. Honble. Wm. Beckford, depicting Sir Fletcher Norton (possibly the 5th figure from the right, with the horns)
This is the second of a two-part post on the recent update to the Records of London’s Livery Companies Online project. Check out Part I.
Amongst the records of the Bowyers’ Company added to ROLLCO we find the clergyman and astronomer Thomas John Hussey, DD. He was made free by patrimony of the Company in 1839, his father having been a Bowyer before him. Hussey seems to have led an altogether more retiring life than Admiral Smith, as is perhaps fitting for one of his occupation, contenting himself with his theological texts (culminating in the publication of a two volume revised edition of the Bible in the 1840s) and his privately owned telescope built at his Rectory in Hayes. Hussey’s interest in astronomy led to a wide-ranging correspondence with leading scientific, philosophical and literary figure of the day – including Charles Darwin, who didn’t seem to appreciate Hussey’s conversation - and to the publication of detailed star charts in 1831. His observations of the progress of Uranus across the skies led Hussey to theorise on the existence of a hitherto undiscovered planetary body affecting its orbit. Sadly, the leading astronomers of the day appear to have disagreed with the enthusiastic amateur, and dismissed his theories as being based on ‘observational errors’, leading Hussey to abandon his search for the hidden planet. Shortly before he joined the Bowyers’ Company, Hussey was forced to give up his hobby entirely due to some physical injury, and he sold his observatory ‘dome and all’ (Dewhirst, D.W. (1982), ‘The correspondence of the Rev. B.W.S. Vallack’, Quarterly J. Royal Astronomical Soc. 23: 552-555.). However he might have quietly enjoyed the finale of his astronomical endeavours as it was his star charts which – with the intercession of two fiercely competing scientists – led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846.
Finally we come to Sir Fletcher Norton, 1st Baron Grantley, freeman of the Girdlers’ Company and – as his freedom admission notes – “Right Honorable Speaker of the Honorable House of Commons” between 1770 and 1780. Following a well-trodden society path in the period, Norton trained as a lawyer before taking his seat as Member for Appleby. He was involved in a number of high profile political trials during the mid-eighteenth century, before being appointed as the Speaker in 1770. Throughout his political career he was known for his ‘choleric disposition’, and stirred controversy and ill-feeling during a number of run-ins with high profile political figures, including the elder Pitt and George Grenville. He certainly seems to have been no respecter of reputations. On one occasion his acerbity resulted in a six hour parliamentary session, the sole business of which was to induce Speaker Norton to apologise for harsh words he had uttered against another member (no apology was forthcoming). Norton’s moment of supreme free speech, however, occurred in the very year he was admitted to the Girdlers’ Company, 1777, when presenting for the royal assent a money bill relating to the civil list debt. This event marked a crucial turning point in his relations with the administration and his rising popularity with the opposition who were able to make political capital out of it. In the course of his speech he said that the Commons ‘have not only granted to your Majesty a large present supply, but also a great additional revenue, great beyond example; great beyond your Majesty’s highest expense’ (Cobbett, Parl. hist., 19, 1777–8, 213) (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/20342?docPos=1).
His popularity with government waned somewhat after this, and he spent the remainder of a long and energetic political career revelling in his opposition to the administration (and providing inspiration for satirists, who had titled him Sir Bull-Face Double Fee, “a slur on both his appearance and his integrity”).
Characters such as these three figures, well known (even infamous) in their fields and gifted with different talents, connections and visions, were members of institutions which – even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – still played a hugely important role in the governance and society of London. And these men were not by any means rare cases of high profile characters within the Livery Companies – at the dinners and committees in the Livery Halls they rubbed shoulders with business leaders, royalty, generals, lawyers and courtiers, and would have felt entirely at home.
The next ROLLCO update, due in a few weeks, will feature the records of a further three Companies: the Tallow Chandlers’, the Founders’ and the Musicians’. We shall eagerly wait to see what characters emerge from these.
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).