The Origins of the Livery Companies
The origins of the ancient Livery Companies are lost in the mists of time but some, like the Coopers, can trace their descent from the medieval 'misteries' or Trade Guilds.
Guild derives from the Saxon word 'gildan', to pay, since members paid for belonging to the fraternity. They were craft or trade societies who tended to congregate in a common area for both practical and material convenience and it is easy to think of many streets within the modern City of London and its immediate suburbs whose names reflect this origin, for example, Ironmonger Row, Coopers Passage, Apothecary Street and Staple Inn - meeting place of the forerunner of the Woolmens' Company.
The Livery Companies
The Livery Companies have had an important influence on national life, on industry, social patterns and even language - phrases like 'on tenterhooks', 'to be at sixes and sevens' and 'hallmarked' owe their origin to the Companies. The Guilds protected alike customers, employers and employees by searching out inferior work and goods of bad quality and weight and punishing offenders. By preventing unlimited competition a standard of wages and conditions was preserved. Trade and domestic disputes were settled by arbitration at their Halls which served as meeting places and centres of recreation. There was also a close religious connection, each Guild having a Patron Saint. Moreover, with a great stress laid upon the dignity of a Christian burial, a particular privilege in being a Liveryman was the right to the use of the Company's Pall or coffin cloth, some examples of which still survive.
The term 'Livery' used to mean the allowance of food and clothing to retainers and officers of great households, colleges or crafts and the wealthier merchants' guilds but gradually came to be restricted to the wearing of distinctive clothing as a symbol of privilege and protection by which the allegiance of the wearer could be recognised. The wealthier companies used to provide a surcoat for their Freemen with the addition of a hood for Liverymen and, perhaps, a hat for the Master! Gradually, the use of this distinctive clothing became the privilege of Liverymen only and this privilege survives today in the ceremony of admission to the Company at which a Freeman is 'cloathed' as of the Livery.