As part of the process of a Guild Apprentice becoming a Guildman, each is required to write an essay on an aspect of the City of London or of the Guild which may be of interest to members.

Jessica Elliot’s excellent analysis of the changing role of Guilds is reproduced below:

A history and analysis of the changing role of guilds in the lives of their members


Passing round the ‘Loving Cup’ at my first Annual Installation Dinner epitomised the many traditions upheld by the Guild of Mercer’s Scholars since it first began in 1948. Sat in the glorious Grocers hall, I found myself questioning the role of the Guild for those such as myself, keenly entering as an apprentice just four years ago.


As an institution that has been around for over 60 years, the Guild still retains many of its traditional practices. Joining as an apprentice, I was initially charmed by the Guilds’ illustrious history and my own initiation into the Guild did not disappoint. Following my Apprentice Binding Ceremony, we were told tales of how we were legally able to walk a heard of sheep over Tower bridge and be put up in a hotel if we are found drunk and disorderly in the City by a policeman. Indeed, the Guild is no doubt one of the most intriguing societies I have had the privilege of being invited into, but a privilege it has been to get involved with such an esteemed institution.


It is in fact outlined in the constitution of the Guild of Mercers’ Scholars to encourage former pupils of Mercers’ Foundation schools, such as myself, to uphold the ancient customs and ceremonies of the City of London. As well as being immersed in these customs from my very first day as an apprentice, I was further enthralled by the prospect of becoming a full Guildman and a Freeman of the City of London. As well as this, the Guild encourages its members to become part of livery companies, joining over 23,000 people who are already members of these exclusive groups. It is the continuing popularity of these extraordinary institutions in our modern society and the increasing plurality of guilds year on year that prompts the question of what role they play in the lives of their members.


There is no doubt that throughout history, guilds have formed a prominent part of life for many. Whilst their prominence has remained the same, the role of these guilds has evolved over time. It was during the medieval era that some of the guilds can trace their origins to, where guilds were seen as associations of merchants in control of their craft in a particular town. In London, such guilds were formed to the benefit of both their members and their customers through controlling the manufacture and selling of goods and services in the square mile. Indeed, the guilds covered a range of occupational avenues from the Guild of Needlemakers to the Guild of Scriveners (writers of court letters and legal documents). Through control of trade in the town, members of these guilds became powerful often securing influential positions in the city. In this period, the chief spokesman of the guilds became the Mayor of London, the leading delegates became the Aldermen of London and other members became the burghers of London. Guilds at this time effectively ran the city. In fact, by the early 14th century, no-one could practice a trade, take apprentices or open a shop without being admitted to a livery company.


In addition to regulating trade, another overarching purpose of guilds in the middle ages was the training of new members and provision of support and welfare. It is this aspect of the Guild of Mercers to which I am most acquainted through my own apprenticeship and the aspect that has undoubtedly been the most preserved throughout the ages. Indeed, when I became a member of the Guild four years ago, I was indentured to a master just as was the case in the medieval period. However, in the past apprenticeships were a means of delivering vocational training and were critical in the process of leaving home and becoming socialized into adulthood. Yet the contemporary master-apprentice relationship is much less directed. Since livery companies lost control over regulating entry into their craft work, the number of apprentices stagnated and the range of social backgrounds narrowed. Indeed apprenticeships became more and more restricted to males with affluent backgrounds who became indentured to the more prestigious companies. Yet in the present day these ancient livery companies have retained little or no connection with their ancient trade or craft and the trend towards a restricted apprentice profile is no longer pertinent. Yet even though there is a much looser connection between these well established companies and their professions, year on year there are new additions such as the Guild of World Traders, Hackney Carriage Drivers and Tax Advisers, which all in fact have a much closer link with their professions.


In order to form a new company, a significant number of members must be engaged with the particular trade of the Guild. Yet it is evident that not all livery companies hold a strong connection to their founding profession, thus one must ask what the benefits are of being a member of a modern day company? Indeed for myself as a medical student, this was my dominant query on joining the Guild of Mercers’ Scholars. My journey through the Guilds’ apprenticeship has held many a memory for me from my first day in the Guildhall’s courtroom, to the installation dinner and it is the opportunity to attend such a range of events with the Guild that has been the most engaging aspect of my apprenticeship. Aside from being fun, events organized by the Guild provide the opportunity to network with other members of a wide variety of ages and backgrounds. This is no doubt one of the most valuable aspects of the Guild as it has greatly increased my confidence in networking with different types of people, a skill that is invaluable in the field of medicine.


Furthermore Guilds have a history of playing a major role in the provision of charity. Indeed their popularity in the 18th century was no doubt aided by the support they were able to offer members and their widows in old age and in hard times. In fact the modern relevance of Guilds unquestionably extends to the support they continue to offer to their members, such as the Guild of Mercer’s Charitable Trust. This is open to all apprentices and members of the Guild to apply for grants each year. In addition to this financial aid the Guild can offer, the number of events organized throughout the year serve to support education activities and provide an opportunity for members to increase their understanding of the City through visits to a number of sites throughout the City; an aspect I am keen to indulge further on attaining my full membership of the Guild. To conclude it is evident that whilst the role of the guild has undoubtedly changed over the years, being part of the Guild of Mercer’s Scholars does play an exceptional role in the lives of its members.


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