Trade guilds, which would later become livery companies, probably began to form in London during the 12th Century when men and women, working in the same crafts or trades (also known as ‘misteries’ from the Latin ministerium meaning occupation), began to join together in informal associations or fraternities. They originally functioned as social, religious and benevolent organisations looking after members and their families, paying for funerals, and representing members in legal actions. In time they also came to regulate their trades within the walls of the City of London by ensuring standards were maintained and by controlling entry by apprenticeship.
On ceremonial occasions the Members began to wear distinctive clothing and badges or liveries from which the term Livery Company originates. Companies also began to build halls in which they could meet and dine together, as well as conduct company business. Members and others made donations to the companies for charitable purposes and others were asked to administer bequests. In particular many companies became involved in the administration of almshouses for the elderly, and schools for the young. The companies also became important in the government of the City of London, responsible, among other things, for the election of the Lord Mayor.
As their charitable role grew the involvement of livery companies with their trades began to wane. In part this was because of changing social patterns. Membership of a company tended to be based upon family, but fewer children were following their parents into the family business.
The Modern Era
Between 1809, when the Fanmakers (established 1709) became a livery Company, and 1932, when the Master Mariners (established 1926) became a livery company, no new livery companies were formed. Since then there has been a steady increase in the number of companies which now stands at 110. The most recent is the Worshipful Company of Arts Scholars, which became a livery company on the 11 February 2014.
While many livery companies have links with a trade, the defining characteristics of a livery company in the 21st Century are charity and fraternity. The Liverymen of the City continue to have the right to elect the Lord Mayor of London.