The small thoroughfare of Threadneedle Street can lay claim to more than its fair share of history. It has been the home of the Bank of England since 1734, the Royal Exchange since it was opened by Queen Elizabeth I in 1571 and the notorious South Sea Company from the early 18th century until the mid-19th as well as St Anthony’s free school, where Sir Thomas More was educated, the Baltic Coffee House and, until 2004, the Stock Exchange.
But one building there could teach them all a thing or two about longevity. It is the Merchant Taylors’ Hall at 30 Threadneedle Street, which has been on the same site and suitably-named road since medieval times and has survived both the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in 1940.
When I first visited it I was stunned, having gone through an unassuming entrance modestly marked simply with its street number to see, among other things, a kitchen which has been in continuous use for almost 600 years since 1425 and underneath it part of the crypt of a late 14th-century chapel (pictures below).
The Merchant Taylors’ Company is one of the oldest and most spectacular of the City of London’s livery companies, which came into being as an early form of trade union, protecting jobs, encouraging training and maintaining standards, usually with religious connections. Many of them are doing a similar job today along with charitable works and having a role in the governance of the City.
The homes of these companies, along with churches, are some of London’s oldest structures. Their members wore their own distinguishing “liveries” to distinguish them from practitioners of other trades. Without the livery companies – there are 110 in all including twelve deemed “great” – and the churches there would be few visible traces of the City’s history left.
There is a rather sad difference between the two types of institution – the churches are open to the public most days while the livery company halls might as well be lost to us, as their historic interiors can only be seen by most of us on organised visits or occasional open days.
This may change in future because the City, in cooperation with its business improvement districts (BIDS), is keen to attract more visitors from home and abroad. At weekends the area is so quiet it is almost asleep. I have visited a number of livery halls, usually on trips organised by bodies such as London Historians, and have always been mightily impressed but also puzzled that these gems are not more easily accessible.
The Merchant Taylors’ Company was initially called the Fraternity of St John the Baptist of Tailors and Linen-Armourers and received its first royal charter in 1327. It set up its Threadneedle Street base in 1347, and claims to be the only livery company still on its original site.
The company was the regulatory body for tailoring industries in medieval London and is now a grant-making institution whose members are involved in volunteering, fundraising and supporting “transformative” causes. The company also promotes public events and education, not least with the Merchant Taylors’ School which it founded in in the City in 1561 and is now located in Northwood, Hertfordshire. Members dine in a magnificent hall.
The early history of livery companies was marked by rivalries, notably concerning the positions they were assigned in the order of precedence at ceremonies and in processions. In 1484 tensions between the Tailors and the more established Skinners’ Company over which deserved the higher ranking tipped over into such violence that Lord Mayor Sir Robert Billesden stepped in to decree that the two companies should change places each year.
In 1515 or 1516 – accounts vary – the order of precedence of the 48 livery companies of that time was formalised and fixed, based on their respective economic and political power. The top dogs were the Mercers, followed by the Grocers, the Drapers, the Fishmongers and in fifth place the Goldsmiths. The Merchant Taylors, as they had been renamed in 1503, and the Skinners were decreed to alternate between sixth and seventh. This arrangement has endured to this day. It is a bit like football’s Premier League, except that no one can change position or be relegated.
The compromise between the Merchant Taylors’ and Skinners’ companies is thought to account for the expression being “at sixes and sevens” and, as shown above, is curiously memorialised between two sets of windows in a building in nearby Cloak Lane. I wonder how many City traders would know that in a pub quiz.
This is the fifteenth article in a series of 20 by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in the Eastern City part of the City of London, kindly supported by EC BID, which serves that area. All the previous articles are here. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.