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A full list of archived event reports is available in the Members' area

Royal Commission on the Livery Companies 1884


In 1876, Joseph F B Firth published his book "Municipal London". He put the case against livery companies in moderate language. However, his conclusions were drastic: suppress the companies and confiscate their assets.

He argued that the companies had outlived their usefulness. They were originally set up almost as "departments of government" to regulate trade and contribute to the governance of the city. In his view, these activities were now taken over by governmental bodies. Much of the property was given in trust to the companies to pay for stipulated sums to charities, but although the values of this property had risen, the companies still only paid the stipulated sums to charity and spent the rest of the income on themselves. Firth further argued that the companies did not show their accounts even to their own members, and there was no public scrutiny.

Firth was critical of the relationship with the original trades and the role of the courts of assistants. Many livery men had little contact with the trades and the companies appeared to exist to give dinners to livery men and greater benefits to members of the court.

"The responsibility of a seat on a court carries with it a salary; the meetings of court are duly paid for; some courts have dinners of some kind as often as once a week and lucky are the committeemen of such companies, for in addition to their salaries they sometimes find a banknote delicately secreted under their plates and sometimes find a huge box of bonbons upon them. It is indeed a good thing to be on the court of a company."

The Bowyers Company was no exception. A recent analysis of the Wardens Accounts over the period of 164 years from 1764 to 1928 revealed that the bills for entertaining in various City Taverns, and latterly at the Savoy and the Café Royal, accounted for 33% of all expenditure. A further 14% was spent on Court attendance fees. In contrast 14% was spent on exhibitions at Oxford and Cambridge and only 1.66% on charitable giving. This included the annual sums given to the Master to be distributed as he thought fit, doles to the poor of Isley Walton and to the Parish Poor of St Nicholas Cole Abbey and the purchase of Yards of Cloth for the Parish Poor as stipulated by James Wood in his will of 1625. To give an idea of the sums involved, excluding exceptional items relating to the estate in Leicestershire, the total expenditure of the Company was £223 in 1764 rising steadily to a peak of £1,407 in 1898 which slipped back to £971 by 1928.

Why had the livery companies been able to long resist demands for their abolition? Firth asked. It was because they invited members of government and judges to their dinners. "No one who has partaken of those gorgeous banquets could find it in their hearts to treat his hosts hardly."

A number of MPs agreed with Firth: in May 1876 Walter H James (a Liberal MP for Gateshead) moved that a commission be set up to obtain a full return of the livery companies' income and property. The prime minister, Disraeli, and his Conservative majority in the House were not in favour of this idea, but James was given cautious support by the former prime minister, Gladstone.

Supporters of the livery movement rejected the basis of the arguments of Firth and James. They maintained that livery companies had not originally been "departments of state" and that they had not been formed to regulate their trades or to play any part in the government of the city. The companies were incorporations of private individuals who had come together. They formed a livery company and had provided it with funds from their admission fees in order to help each other in hard times. These points must have been difficult to sustain, one imagines.

In 1880 the Liberals won the general election with Gladstone becoming prime minister again. A month after they came to power a Royal Commission was established. Its chairman was the Earl of Derby who later became a minister in Gladstone's cabinet. Other eminent public figures were members including the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Coleridge. Both James and Firth, who had just been elected as Liberal MP for Chelsea, were members. Another member was the great champion of the City, Alderman Cotton, who had been Lord Mayor in 1875. Liberals and critics of the livery movement had a clear majority on the Commission.

The Commission reported in 1884. In view of the composition of membership the report was not unanimous but was supported by nine of the twelve members. The main conclusion was that "it appears to us obvious that the state had a right at any time to disestablish and dis-endow the Companies of London, provided that the just claims of existing members to compensation be allowed." But the majority report did not recommend this course. They proposed only that legislation be introduced to ensure that a considerable part of the companies' income was applied to useful purposes. Three members issued a minority dissenting report saying that the livery companies were private bodies which were entitled to use their funds in any way they pleased.

Although Firth signed the majority report, he also issued his own dissenting report recommending that the companies be suppressed and their property confiscated to be applied to educational, health, artistic and literary purposes in London. He thought that members of the companies should be paid compensation.

The Liberal government fell before any legislation could be passed to implement the Commission's recommendations. When Lord Salisbury's Conservative government returned to power, the City was safe. It was this government, however, that in 1888 introduced legislation to grant the reformers' long-standing demand to have a central body for the government of London in succession to the Metropolitan Boards of Works. The Act of 1888 established the London County Council, but the City of London was excluded from its jurisdiction.

The Report of the Royal Commissioners of 1884

The City Livery Companies were required to provide details of their foundation, charters, membership, constitution, property, income and charitable activities. Many of the companies felt that this was an intrusion and that the Commissioners were acting ultra vires. The Bowyers' Company shared this view for their return begins with the statement - These returns were given under protest. A full set of returns for all of the City Companies is held in bound volumes at the Guildhall Library. The full text of the Bowyers' return has been reproduced below with its original layout and punctuation.

The following points are of interest

Sinclair Rogers and Simon Leach
August 2012


-(23. III.)-

5 February ---14 August 1884




The return made by the Bowyers' Company was by no means full, and contained no detailed statement of the income and expenditure of the company.

Foundation and Object

The return states that the company is believed to have been a fraternity by prescription. It received a charter from James I in 1621, and a subsequent charter in 1685, an abstract of which is given in the return. (See also Report of Municipal Commissioners of 1834.)

Constitution and Privileges


The number of the court is, by the charter, 16 - a master, 2 wardens, and 13 assistants. The members receive fees of two guineas for their attendance at the five or six courts which are held annually.

The company consists of 36 liverymen and 1 freeman. The entrance fees are: for freedom and livery by patrimony or servitude, £15.; by redemption, £31. No fee is payable on admission to the court.

Officers and Servants.

The company's only officer is a clerk at a salary of £80. a year.



Corporate Property:-

Real Estate

The company appear to possess in their corporate right the surplus rents of the charitable estate at Islay Walton, Staffordshire, mentioned below. They describe their income as under 600l. a year, and arising almost wholly from land.

Trust Property

The company holds the above estate, a freehold farm of 264 acres, subject to trusts for scholarships at Oxford and Cambridge, the poor of the company, and other purposes. The will of Wood, the founder, founds five exhibitions of £5. each, the company maintain 14 of £10. a year; seven tenable at Oxford, seven at Cambridge.

The company give no particulars as to rental. They state that they have built a school on the estate.

(See Mr. Simon's Report as to the Wood Charity)

Full Report


These returns were given under protest.


RETURN A. - A statement of the date, ascertained or probable, of the foundation of the company, and of the circumstances, so far as they can be discovered from its documents of foundation or archives in which the company had its origin.

RETURN B. - A list of the charters, charters of inspeximus, and other instruments of a similar nature, whether originals or copies, which have been at any time in the possession of the company, together with an abstract of the purport of each, regard being specially had to any evidence which it may contain as to the object of the foundation of the company.

RETURN C. - A list of any trust deeds "founding, regulating or affecting" the company, with the date of each, the names of the parties thereto, and an abstract of the purport of each.

RETURN D - A list with dates of any "decrees of court," whether of the courts of common law or of chancery, or of any acts of the courts of aldermen or of common council, "regulating or affecting" the company, with a statement of the effect of each decision.

RETURN E - A list of any other documents, not included in the descriptions in the preceding returns, which "found, regulate, or affect " the company, with dates and an abstract of the effect of each.

RETURN F - A concise history of the company from the time of its foundation to the present day, with special reference to the inquiry contained in the commission as to "the objects for which the company was founded," and "how far those objects are now being carried into effect,"

RETURN G - Has the company a licence in mortmain? When was such licence granted (referring to the document by description)? What is its extent, and to what extent is it now unexhausted?

RETURN H - Is there vested in the company and how, whether by charter, statute, order of the court of aldermen, act of common council, or otherwise, any right of exercising superintendence over or any duty or discretion to encourage in any way and what art, trade or business? State the nature and local limits of such control. In what manner and to what extent is such control now exercised? If such control is not now exercised, state the circumstances under which its exercise has fallen into desuetude.

A - The date of the foundation of the company is unknown. It is believed to have been a fraternity by prescription (see Maitland's History of London, 1739).

B - The Company has a charter dated the 25th May 1621, which was confirmed by another dated the 17th November 1668.

The following is an abstract of the purport of these charters.

1. The style of this company is the Master, Wardens, and Society of the Mystery of Bowyers of the city of London.

2. James I by his charter reciting that the bowyers of the city of London using the art or mystery of making of long bows, were an ancient fraternity in the city, but who had fallen into decay, and that the king being willing as much as in him did lie to restore the ancient and laudable exercise of archery with the long bow unto the end that the said fraternity might with better encouragement practise their trade grants, that the bowyers of London, and all and every person and persons then using or who shall thereafter use the mystery of making long bows in the city of London and liberties thereof, and being freemen of the said city, and then free of the said fraternity, or hereafter to be made free, should be a body politic and corporate by the before-mentioned name or style.

The charter grants that they shall be governed by one master, two wardens, and 13 assistants, and the first master, wardens, and 10 of the first assistants are thereby named and appointed the first master and wardens, to continue in office until the Thursday next after the feast of St James the Apostle, 1622, and from thence until others should be elected pursuant to the charter; and the assistants, during their natural lives, or until removed, and for the future election of these officers is granted that the master, wardens, and assistants, or the greater part of them from time to time thereafter, upon Thursday next after the feast of Saint James the Apostle, 1622, may nominate and choose one fit person of the assistants to be master and two to be wardens, who are to execute their offices for two whole years thence next ensuing, and in case of death or removal otherwise to be chosen within 14 days.

And it is further declared that in case of the death or removal of any of the assistants (a power of removal being thereby given to the master and wardens, and the rest of the assistants) then and so often the master, wardens and the rest of the assistants then living or continuing in office, or the greater part of them within three months after such death or removal, shall and may nominate and choose one or more fit and proper persons, freemen of the society, in the place or room of the person or persons so deceased or removed, and that the person or persons so elected shall be assistant and assistants for the term of his or their life or lives unless removed in manner before mentioned.

The charter gives to the wardens and assistants power to elect a clerk and beadle to hold office during pleasure.

The charter further declares that all freemen of the company, and all persons of the mystery within three miles of the city of London and the suburbs thereof, shall be contributory to the company, and shall also pay a quarterage of 8d. per quarter or 2s. 8d. per year. This charter, or the enrolment thereof, was exemplified and confirmed by Charles II.

The charter gives the power of making byelaws to the master, wardens, and assistants, or the greater part of them.

They give the following directions for the election of the members of the court:-

It is ordered that upon Thursday next after the feast of St. James the Apostle in every second year, or within 20 days before or after the same, at the pleasure of the master, wardens, and assistants of the company or the more part of them for the time being, the master, wardens , and assistants shall assemble and meet together and elect and make choice of a new master and two wardens out of the assistants of the company, who shall next follow in course to be chosen, who shall hold the same place of master and wardens for the two years then next following until a new master and wardens shall be chosen in their stead (if they or any of them shall so long live), and if it shall happen that the master and wardens, or any of them, shall die or depart this life before the expiration of their two years that then it shall be lawful at a court of assistants to elect and make choice of new master or wardens in the room and instead of him or them.

C. - The only trust instrument affecting the company is the will of James Wood, dated the 1st of August 1625, an abstract of the purport of which is as follows:-

The only charity under the management of this company, arises under the will of James Wood, who by will dated 1st August 1625 devised his manor or lordship of Isley Walton, in the county of Leicester, with certain messages, lands, and tenements, lying within the territories of Isley Walton aforesaid, Kegworth, and Osgathorp in the said county of Leicester, to the master, wardens, and commonalty of the Company of Bowyers and their successors for ever, in trust, that the master and wardens should yearly out of the rents of the said manor and other premises, pay and bestow upon three scholars within the University of Oxford, and upon two more scholars within the University of Cambridge, freeman's sons of the Company of Bowyers if there should be any such, but if not, then upon five other poor scholars, which have come from Christchurch School, in London, or such others as the said master and wardens should think most fit towards their maintenance at the university the yearly sum of £6 each. Each scholar to receive the same for seven year if he should so long continue at the university. And in further trust that they should give and bestow upon six poor men or widows, free of the said Compny of Bowyers, at Michaelmas yearly one year unto each of the said persons, three yards of broadcloth of 10s. the yard to make a gown, and another year unto each of them 30s. in money, and so on from year to year for ever. And to the further purpose that the said master and wardens and livery should every second year, upon the day when they swear their master and wardens, repair to the parish church of St. Nicholas, Cole Abbey, to hear a sermon, and then to give to the parson 30s. for his sermon, and to the clerk and sexton 1s.6d. apiece, and to the churchwardens for the use of the poor of the said parish 10s., to the beadle of the company 2s., and unto the poor people they shall meet coming and going 15s. In twopences; and should also upon quarterday to be holden for the said company, given unto the yeomanry of the company 5s., to be by them spent at their discretion; and should also bestow every half year for ever upon the poor of the said town of Walton 10s., to be distributed amongst them at the discretion of the churchwardens, and to the further intent that the said master, wardens, and commonalty of the said Company of Bowyers and their successors, should reserve and keep the residue of the rents, issues, and profits of the said manor, lordship, and other the premises towards the purchasing of a hall, and to be otherwise employed at their discretion, for the use of the poor, and good of the said company.

The testator also gave to the Company of Bowyers £100., to be lent out to four discreet young men of the said company, by even portions at 3 per cent. for two years, and the interest to be distributed by the master and wardens unto and amongst the poorest of the freeman of the company at their discretion.

An officer of the Charity Commissioners in 1861 investigated the title of the company to the property devised by this will, and the mode in which the trusts created by it are carried out, to which no objection was made. The company acquired by purchase out of their own funds in 1824 a small property adjoining that devised by the will of James Wood for which a licence in mortmain was granted but which is not affected by any trust.

D, E.- The company are not aware of, nor are they affected by, any such Decrees or Acts.

F.- Except as appears by its charter the company is unable to furnish its history.

G.- The company is unable to give any further information affecting its title to its property.

H.- Except as appears by its charter there is not vested in the company any right of exercising superintendence over any art, trade, or business.


RETURN I.- A list of the charities, eleemosynary, educational or otherwise, which are under the management of the company, stating in each case the name of the founder, the date and nature of the benefaction, its original and its present value as regards both capital and income, and the purposes to which the funds have been applied for each of the last preceding 10 years.

I.- Except under the will of James Wood there are no charities under the management of the company.


RETURN A.- Governing Body

  1. State the present constitution of the governing body of the company, whether such constitution is according to the charter, and if not, in what respects such constitution varies therefrom, and when and how such alteration was made.
  2. State the qualifications for membership of the governing body of the company, the times and methods of election, and the qualifications of the voters at elections to the governing body.
  3. State the functions of the governing body, and of the different members of the same respectively, and whether the members of the governing body pay any, and what fees or fines on admission thereto, and whether they are paid any, and what salaries or amounts in respect of their services respectively.
  4. State the nature of the business which comes before the governing body of the company, the method adopted in transacting it, the times at which the governing body meets for business purposes, the way in which the opinions of the members are taken, and whether the resolutions and decisions of the governing body are published, or are otherwise accessible to all or any and which of the members of the company.
  5. State whether the members of the governing body are liable to suspension, or removal, on any and what grounds, and by what method such suspension or removal is effected.
  6. Has the company any byelaws sanctioned by the courts of law, or by the courts of aldermen or of common council, or otherwise. State the effect of such byelaws.

1,2. The present constitution of the governing body is according to the company's charter (an abstract of which is given in Part I., B.) which also states the qualifications for membership, the times and methods of election and qualifications of the voters at elections.

3.The governing the body administer the charities under James Wood's will, and manage their own property. No fees are paid on admission to the court, i.e. the governing body, but each member of the court is paid a fee of £2 2s for each attendance to the business of the company.

4.The governing body meets for business purposes five or six times a year. Its decisions are not published but are recorded in the company's books, and are accessible to the members of the company.

5, 6. See the charter


RETURN B.- Admission to membership.

  1. State the qualification for membership of the company, the several grades of membership of the company, and whether women are admitted to membership.
  2. State the several modes in which the freedom of the company may be obtained, the circumstances entitling an applicant to admission under each mode respectively, and the fees payable in respect of admission under each mode respectively.
  3. State whether persons exercising any particular trade are required by statue or otherwise to become free of the company. Is there any process for compelling such persons to procure admission or any process by which such persons are enabled themselves to procure admission, and are such processes enforced respectively, and to what extent? Do persons exercising any particular trade commonly become members of the company? If so, how many members of such trade are at present members of the company? State also (if the company bears the name of any existing trade) how many members of such trade are members of the company?
  4. Are freemen liable to disfranchisement and if so, for what reasons, and what is the mode of disfranchisement?
  5. Is the livery of the company limited or unlimited in number? What are the qualifications for election to the livery, who are the electors thereto, and how do the elections thereto take place, and what fees are payable on election? Are liverymen liable to removal from the livery, and for what reasons?
  6. State the number of apprentices bound at the company's hall or otherwise under the auspices of the company during each of the last 10 years, and state how many of such apprentices have been bound to members following the trade if any, the name of which is borne by the company. Has the company in any and what cases paid the fees or premiums of such apprentices, and what has been the amount, if any, so expended in each of the last 10 years?
  7. Is the freedom of the City of London in any way a condition, precedent or subsequent of membership of the company? Are there any and how many members of the company who are not free of the City of London?
  8. The members consist of freemen and liverymen, but at present with one exception all the members of the company are liverymen. No special qualifications are essential for membership, election to which rests with the governing body.
  9. Women have been admitted to membership, but it is many years since a lady has been admitted. The last was Miss Sainsbury in 1813.

2. The freedom and livery of the company may be obtained by patrimony, by servitude, and by redemption (or purchase) and the fees payable in respect of admission under each mode are as follows:-

By patrimony or servitude. By redemption.
£ s. d. - £ s. d.
Freedom - 1 0 0 Freedom - 2 0
Stamp - 1 0 0 Stamp - 3 0 0
Livery - 12 0 0 Livery - 25 0 0
clerk's Fee - 1 0 0 Clerk's Fee - 1 0 0
15 0 0 31 0 0

3. The company are not aware whether persons exercising any particular trade are required by statute or otherwise to become free of the company. Members of the company do not exercise any particular trade.

4. No.

5. The number of the livery is not limited and see answers to B.1 and B.4.

6.The company have no fund for apprenticing.

7. (1.) No.

(2). There are one or two members of the company who are not free of the City of London.


RETURN C.- Number of members.

State (1) the present number of freemen, (2) the present number of the livery, (3) the present number of other members, (4) the number of admissions to the freedom by each mode respectively, and (5) the number of calls to the livery which have respectively taken place during each of the last preceding 10 years.

(1.) Freeman 1
(2.) Livery 36
(3.) Other member -


RETURN D.- Profits and privileges.

  1. State with fullness what are the advantages, pecuniary or otherwise, incident to the position of a member of the company in each grade of membership, as (1) a freeman, (2) a liveryman, (3) master, warden or otherwise a member of the governing body.
  2. State the sums paid on an average annually for the preceding 10 years by the company to the members according to the grades of membership mentioned above, and of what such sums consisted, whether (1) fees, and of what nature, (2) pensions, or (3) other payments, specifying the nature of the same respectively.
  3. What circumstances are in practice held to constitute a claim to a pension or donation? State the number of present pensioners and donees respectively, and the amounts paid to them as such respectively, and the number of present pensioners and donees respectively who are members of the trade, if any, the name of which is borne by the company.
  4. (1) What is the average standing of a member of the company when he is made a member of the governing body, and (2) for what number of years on an average does a member remain on the governing body?
  5. Does the company carry on any and what trade or manufacture with which its title is directly or indirectly connected? In such case state out of what funds the capital is raised, the amount of capital, the profits, if any, for each of the last 10 years, and how such profits, if any, have been divided or otherwise dealt with during each of the last 10 years.

1, 2, 3, 4.- Except the fees paid to the members of the court for their attendance to the business of the company and the privilege of occasionally dining together, there are no profits or privileges incident to the position of a member of the company.

5.- The company does not carry on any trade or manufacture.


RETURN A.- A list of the officers of the company, with a statement of the duties of each, the amount of his salary and other emoluments, and whether or not he is a member of the company.

RETURN B. -A list of the servants of the company, with a statement of the duties of each, and of the amounts of their wages and other emoluments.

RETURN C. - A statement as to the mode in which the officers and servants of the company are respectively appointed.

A.-The clerk of the company is its only officer, he keeps its books and accounts, and being a member of the company discharges the duties for a very small remuneration (£80 a year).

B.- The company have none.

C.- The clerk is appointed by the court.


A.- The property devised by the will of James Wood consists of a freehold farm of about 264 acres in the parish of Isley Walton, Leicestershire, at present let on lease at rack rent, and see also answer to Part I., C.


RETURN G.- The Commissioners will be obliged by your informing them-

  1. What is the system of management of the company's estates and property?
  2. In what way, and by whom, the several receipts and payments are taken and made, and under what control?
  3. In what way the company's accounts are audited?
  4. Whether the company's accounts are published, or are accessible to all or any and which of the members of the company.

The renter warden for the time being is the treasurer of the company, and gives security for its funds in his hands. His accounts are reported to the court at every meeting, and are audited once in every two years by the court. They are not published, but are accessible to the members of the company.

PART IV.-K. And M.

RETURN K.- Position in relation to Universities- Has the company any relation with the universities, or with any of the colleges in them? State the nature and extent of such relations. Has the company any scholarships or exhibitions tenable at any of the universities in its gift? Give a list of such scholarships or exhibitions, with their respective values, and the periods for which they are respectively tenable; and state how the same are awarded, whether the completion is limited to relations of members, or whether persons so related have any preference.

RETURN M.- General and Technical Education.- A statement as to whether the company does anything to subsidize or encourage education, whether general or technical, and a return of the means (if any) so employed, and of the amount expended on such objects during each of the last preceding 10 years.

The will of James Wood directs that the company shall have five exhibitions of £6 each.

The company now have fourteen exhibitions of £10 per annum each, viz. :-seven at Oxford, and seven at Cambridge, tenable by undergraduates during residence. They are not limited to relations of members. No exhibition is held by the son of a member of the company; they are generally awarded to scholars of small means from the public schools.

The company have built a school on their estate, and contribute towards its maintenance

The company have assisted various charities, &c.


The Commissioners, being bound to report to Her Majesty "what measures (if any) are, in their judgment, expedient and necessary for improving or altering the constitution of the companies, or the appropriation or administration of the property or revenues thereof," respectively invite the attention of the officers of the company to this part of the Commission.

The Commissioners will be very glad to receive and consider any suggestions respecting this part of the Commission with which the officers of the companies may do the Commissioners the honour of favouring them.

The income of this company is almost entirely derived from land, and is under £600 a year; and after paying the charges herein-before specified, here is left a very small balance at the disposal of the company.


At the date of the report of the Commissioners of 1834 the property of the company consisted of

realty, the amount of which was not stated, and £1,000 stock. The total income from external and

internal sources was stated to the Commissioners to be £600.

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