Livery Companies

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In London from the late Middle Ages until the 19th century the livery companies controlled trade in the City of London , acting under monopolies granted to them by the City authorities or the Crown. Geoff Culshaw researches these valuable company records in search of apprentices and freemen of the City livery companies.

If a person wished to carry out his craft or trade in the City of London he first had to become a Freeman of one of the livery companies. The records that the companies created in conducting their affairs can be of great value to family historians. My mission in this article is to show you how you may use them in your research, and the information that you may be able to obtain from them. I shall also demonstrate some of the ways in which these records link to other related sources. Most of the livery companies’ archives are held at the Manuscripts Section of the Guildhall Library in London , although a few of the companies still hold their own records. Details of their holdings can be found by consulting the Guildhall Library website ( ).

Admissions register
For most researchers the first record that you will seek will be the record of your man joining a livery company. Membership of a livery company was gained by one of three means.

Apprenticeship: an apprenticeship was usually of seven years’ duration, and typically started at the age of 14. The young person served his apprenticeship under a master who was a member of the company and on completing his apprenticeship he would become a member of the company.

Patrimony: membership could be granted by patrimony to a child of a member of the company.

Redemption: If your ancestor became a member of a company by redemption that means that he paid a sum of money in order to obtain membership.

When a person became a member of a livery company he was said to have obtained his freedom, and was referred to as a Freeman of that company. In most cases he would, at the same time, apply for and be granted the Freedom of the City of London . Thereafter, he would usually be referred to in records as ‘Citizen and [name of company eg Haberdasher] of London ‘. Up to 1832 only freemen of the City of London were allowed to vote in municipal elections (Aldous, V, 1999, p 13), so you should be able to find the names of freemen listed in poll books.

Whichever route your forebear took to membership the granting of his freedom should be recorded in the Freedom Admissions records for his company. This source is effectively a register of entrants to the company, and the entries are in chronological order. Typically it will tell you the name of the entrant, the date of his entry, and the method of entry. To quote a couple of examples from my own research:

Haberdashers’ Company Freedom Register 1642-1772 (Guildhall Library Source Ref Ms15,857/2)
Dec 13 1700
Thomas Grainger by Patrimony.

Carpenters’ Company Freedom Admissions (Guildhall Library Source Ref Ms4335/3)
6 Nov 1716
Joseph Rand bound to Cornelius Blackwell Citizen and Carpenter by Testimony of his sd. Master, was admitted to the Freedom, the 6th Day of November 1716.

These entries give a fair idea of the information you may expect to find in a Freedom Admissions register. Some of you may think that the information provided is a bit sparse, and wonder why we should value these records. Well, I have two points to make in response. Firstly, whilst the information may seem a bit limited, you need to take into account its context in estimating its value. The main value of these records is in the period up to the early 19th century – before the date of the earliest available census and the introduction of civil registration. Nominal records in this period are quite scarce, so a source such as this has great value for finding individuals named in records.

Secondly, depending on how active your man was within his company, these admissions can lead you on to more treasures within the company records. I’ll expand on this later in this article.

So what, apart from the bare information contained in the above examples, can we infer from the entries?

Well, looking at the entry for Thomas Grainger, we are told that his father was a freeman of the Haberdashers’ Company. This means that you can investigate the other records of this company, to see what you can find. For instance, you could look for the father’s entry in the Freedom Admissions records; on finding it you should learn whether he was apprenticed, or entered by one of the other means.

Bearing in mind that a lad was usually apprenticed at about 14 years of age, you could use the above entry to estimate his date of birth. Seven years’ apprenticeship plus aged 14 years at apprenticeship leads us to estimate Thomas Grainger’s birth data as circa 1679.

Apprenticeship Bindings
In the case of Joseph Rand, my next step would be to seek a record of his apprenticeship.

Once you have obtained the date of your man’s freedom from the Freedom Admissions Record, and bearing in mind that an apprenticeship was usually of seven years duration, you can estimate of the date of his apprenticeship. You can then consult the Apprenticeship Bindings records for the company in question. These registers take the form of chronological lists of apprenticeships, and the information they contain is likely to be similar to that shown in the following example:

Joyners’ (sic) Company Bindings 1763-1793. (Guildhall Library Source Ref Ms8052/7)
October 5 1779 .
William Hunt son of Thomas Hunt of the Parish of Saint John at Hackney in the County of Middlesex Gentleman bound to Stephen Ponder Citizen and Joyner of London for seven years by Indentures dated this day.
Consn. £30.
The Master is a Carpenter and lives at 30 Houndsditch and the apprentice lives with him.

If the event that interests you took place in the period 1681-1940 you are likely to be able to trace the relevant apprenticeship by consulting the City of London Freedom ‘s Register. This source is currently held at London Metropolitan Archives, Islington, and can be searched on microfilm. It lists the people who were granted their freedom in the above period and is categorised alphabetically in date order. As you will know the date of the entry that interests you, you should be able to find the reference to it fairly easily. You need to note the reference of the entry in question; this will enable you to order the relevant freedom record, which is likely to include the actual apprenticeship agreement, signed by your ancestor! Make sure you have your digital camera with you! What’s more, this source will hopefully name the location in which the apprentice’s father plied his trade. This may help you to identify the parish of residence of the family, and thus open up the possibility of more discoveries in the parish registers.

Apprenticeship presentments
If, having traced the entry in the Freedom Admissions records, you find that the Apprenticeship Bindings of the livery company in question are not available you need to look for a surrogate source. The records of presentment of apprentices to the governing body of the company – the Court of Assistants – could serve this purpose, as you can see from the following example:

Skinners’ Company Presentments 1694-1723 (Guildhall Library Source Ref Ms30,719/3
July 24 1706
Robert Mitchell son of Robert Mitchell Late Citizen and Ffeltmaker of London and apprd. To Onesiphorous Leigh Citizen and Skinner of London for Seaven Years.

If your ancestor obtained his freedom by redemption he will effectively have purchased his membership of the company by paying a fine, and therefore you will not usually be able to trace his family history via the records of his livery company.

The amount of money your forebear would have had to pay to obtain his freedom by redemption was not constant over time. To quote William Hazlitt, writing in 1892, the fee varies ‘with the civic and general standing of the several companies. At present the maximum seems to be about 108/-‘ ( The Livery Companies of the City of London , p 76). A reduction in the redemption fine could be a good way of boosting membership of a company in times of low levels of membership.

The records of the Freedom Admissions of the Haberdashers’ Company show that John Banks (c1652-1719), the half-brother of my ancestor Mary Mitchell, became free of the Haberdashers’ Company by redemption in 1673 (MS15,857/2 Haberdashers’ Company Freedom Admissions). His freedom points up an interesting feature of the membership of livery companies.

Using the information obtained from the Freedom Admissions register of the Haberdashers’ Company, and with the help of staff at the Corporation of London Records Office, I learned that the original record of his admission to the freedom states that Banks had served an apprenticeship as a carpenter ( Court of Aldermen Minute Book , 10 March 1673 . Corporation of London Records Office Source Ref Repertory 79, f.134). He was not a haberdasher at all; in fact he spent his lifetime earning his living as a builder in London – a good trade to pursue at a time when London was being rebuilt after the great fire of 1666!

Banks’ example demonstrates the point that people did not necessarily have to carry out the trade of the company they belonged to. To prove that his case was not exceptional, if we skip forward in time to 1806 we find that Samuel William Archer (1790-1870), a watchmaker of London , became free of the Bakers’ Company (COL/CHD/FR/02/1384).

The court minutes
If you are not successful in finding the information you seek about your ancestor in any of the sources I have mentioned so far, you can look for a relevant entry in the Court Minutes. These are the records of the meetings held by the governing body of the company – the Court of Assistants, and they typically contain frequent references to individual members of the company.

Most livery companies compiled membership lists, which can provide information such as date of apprenticeship binding, date of freedom etc. Where they survive – and many of them have survived – these can provide valuable information about the object of your research.

Company records can enable you to trace the progress of your man’s activities within the organisation. The next level up from being a freeman was to become a liveryman. If your man made this step he should feature in the livery lists that have been kept by most of the companies. The governing body of a livery company is the Court of Assistants, members of which were elected from among the liverymen. Many of the minutes of the meetings of Courts of Assistants survive and are available for public consultation. If the person in whom you are interested made it to this body, reference to him should appear in these minutes. Such references can range from a brief mention of his name to a more lengthy account of a contribution made at a meeting.

Masters & wardens
At the top of the livery company hierarchy were the master and his wardens. The people who occupied these positions were promoted from the Court of Assistants. If the man you are studying reached these positions not only can you expect to find records relating to him in the Court Minutes, but also in sources such as the Masters and Wardens Lists, which often survive. John Banks had a very full career within the Haberdashers’ Company, serving three times as a warden, and once as master. I have found many references to him in the company archives, and by way of closing this article I cite the Court Minutes for Tuesday 9 July 1706 (Ms 15842/5). At that time service as a warden cost the individual a significant amount of personal expense and it seems that many members of the Court refused office for that reason, preferring to pay a fine instead. Banks had been elected to serve as warden for the second successive year, and it is apparent that he was unhappy at being chosen to make a further financial sacrifice for the good of the company, while others on the court had avoided service. He therefore marked his election by addressing the meeting on the subject. He said that the costs of serving as warden were ‘… so very burthensome …’ that they deterred people from fulfilling these duties. He went on to say that ‘…no person will undergo the trouble and charge thereof when … to pass over the same …’ and pay a fine was a cheaper alternative. After some discussion of the matter Banks proposed that during their time in office wardens should be paid an annual sum of £25 towards the costs they incurred, in addition to the payments they already received. This was agreed by the Court.

For family historians there cannot be many sources available to us from 300 years ago that give such an insight into the character of a man. I am not suggesting that all of us will be so lucky in researching livery company records, but it must be worthwhile to explore the possibility.

Read up on it!
My Ancestors were Freemen of the City of London , V E Aldous, (Society of Genealogists, 1999)
Ancestral Trails , M Herber, (Sutton Publishing)
Discovering London’s Guilds and Liveries , J K Melling, (Shire Publications, 1988)

Many of the livery companies have produced a history of their company. Individual companies are usually happy to take enquiries re this from interested people.

Look online!
Most livery companies have a website, and these can usually be found easily using a search engine.
For a list of 107 city companies in existence today go to .

Geoff Culshaw

This article was published in Family Tree Magazine, August 2008 issue, pp 20-24 (ABM Publishing)

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  • This page was last updated on Saturday July 2nd, 2011.