London’s trade guilds date back a thousand years and have billions of pounds in assets. But have they forgotten one of their original purposes – to spend money on the public good?
Among the glass skyscrapers of London’s financial district, and ancient centre, are nestled some very grand-looking low-rise halls, and a clue to the home of some of the city’s more unlikely pockets of wealth.
Livery companies, once a combination of lobbying organisations, regulators and trade unions, are now quite different organisations, focused also on fellowship, education and charity.
They represented the old industries that used to dominate the city. Many have names which are easy to recognise, such as the Butchers, who can trace their beginnings back to the year 975, and the Fishmongers.
Others bear the names of lost trades, like the Mercers and Bowyers, who traded cloth and made longbows. All would set standards for their goods and often held exclusive rights over their trade in the city, thus wielding political power.
The other side of their work was welfare and charity: funerals for deceased members, hospitals, and homes for the poor.
Today, they sit on billions of pounds of assets, donated by members over many centuries, including the fortune of Dick Whittington, the former lord mayor.
They were ordered as long ago as 1884, after a Royal Commission’s investigation, to spend more on the public good or risk their existence.
But did they? And are they now?
David Ferris is a member of the Vintners – or Worshipful Company of Vintners, to give it its full title – and very much a fan of the companies’ history and potential. But he thinks they are not.
“What I like best about them is these are ancient institutions, well alive in our midst, with wonderful old traditions,” he says. “They are cultural gems.”
However, he says, many of the most ancient have forgotten one of their prime reasons for existence from medieval times: the public good.
“They became gentlemen’s clubs generally from about 1700,” he says, “and they have a great deal of wealth.”
It’s the older institutions that Mr Ferris feels may not be pulling their weight.
Many have investments in companies listed on the stock market. Some have large land holdings. Among the richest are the Mercers, which owns a number of blocks in Covent Garden.
No public accounts
In fact, the Mercers and Goldsmiths are the 55th and 73rd largest landlords in London respectively, according to Datscha, a commercial property data firm. Together, they are bigger landowners in the city than supermarket chain Sainsbury’s or the National Grid.
But the companies do not have to offer accounts for public inspection, and many older ones do not.
Still, public records partially covering eight companies and their charities showed £1.1bn of assets, BBC research found. Mr Ferris estimates the 110 livery companies in total might have assets worth at least £5bn.
His own livery, the Vintners, spent £210,000 of its 2017 expenditure of £2.1m on charitable giving, according to its annual review. This is too low, says Mr Ferris.
Although there are no rules the companies must follow when it comes to charitable spending, the Vintners told the BBC a better figure to look at was its income, of which it spent 20% on charity, and that it aimed to increase its charitable endowment over time.
It said that it let out its hall to charities for free, and that doing so has raised £2.5m in the last three years.
Mr Ferris has raised his concerns before. He says he was suspended from events at his company for five years and was ordered to “cease to question the company’s governance and administration in any way” in a letter seen by the BBC. He won’t, he says. And so his suspension continues. The company declined to comment.
Each company has different aims and varying relevance in industry, so it would be foolish to lump all livery companies together when it comes to their performance.
The Haberdashers and Merchant Taylors, for instance, support schools that bear their names. The Gunmakers tests firearms for safety.
The Goldsmiths still has a large role in London’s jewellery trade, where its Assay Office hallmarks precious metals, and it supports apprentices.
Castro Smith, a jeweller who hand-makes rings, says of the Goldsmiths’ role in today’s industry: “It [plays] a massive part, especially in training new people. It takes a long time, this sort of skill.
“They help financially, and in training, and it’s a hub, an umbrella, a network.”
For the newer livery companies, it’s a different picture still. Tapping a long history and sense of permanence gives the company a base from which to attract donors for their charities, and a sense of credibility. They are transparent, chatty, and keen to show their works.
And many, such as the Arts Scholars, are careful to keep company money – raised from members – separate from funds raised for charitable ends.
“We do encourage education. That’s really [our] mainstay,” says Georgina Gough, Upper Warden of the Arts Scholars, the youngest livery company. It brings together academics, experts and dealers.
For David Ferris, though, the older guilds must reform themselves.
Their secrecy may not be helping them. What goes on in meetings of their courts – a governing committee similar to a modern company’s board – is kept confidential, Mr Ferris says.
It is also usual to become a member through patrimony – literally, because your father was a member. Newer and more forward-thinking companies say they try to avoid this.
“We need to remember that the source of our assets is the benevolence of people in medieval times,” says Mr Ferris. “They would be deeply shocked if they found out only a paltry amount was going to the public good.”