Today in London trade history: master tailors go to court to restrict rights of their workers, 1415

In London, as in many other cities, the middle ages saw work and its rules and regulations codified in trade Guilds, composed of workmen from specific trades and crafts. Their purpose was to defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members. Established by charter and regulated by the City of London, London’s guilds also provided a political voice to their members, who as freemen of the City had the right to elect members of the Court of Aldermen and Common Council. London had eighty-nine guilds in the eighteenth century, ranked according to a hierarchy of precedence with the twelve Great Companies at the top. The powers of the guilds to regulate economic activity declined substantially in the eighteenth century, and their primary functions were increasingly confined to providing social prestige, business contacts and a political voice to their members. They also provided substantial charity to their members, partly funded by large charitable bequests which they administered.

Membership in a guild could be taken up in one of three ways: by completing a seven year apprenticeship, by patrimony (if one’s father was a member of the company), or by redemption (payment of a fee). None of these routes of entry ensured that the member would actually practice the company’s trade. Owing to the Custom of London, members of London guilds could practise any trade in the City. Consequently, even though a completed apprenticeship remained the most common route to membership, guilds often included numerous members who did not actually practice the relevant trade. The ratio of members practising the craft to others varied from guild to guild, with the less prestigious guilds such as the Carpenters’ Company having a larger number of practicing craft members. Other companies, such as the Grocers’, Fishmongers’, and Goldsmiths’, had many fewer practising members, and, owing to the high cost of admission, became “little more than gentleman’s clubs”.

Most guilds were composed of men from a mixture of social backgrounds. Apprentices were almost invariably young and came from both relatively poor and wealthy homes. Journeymen, craftsmen who had finished their apprenticeship but had not set up an independent business, were relatively poorly paid. Master craftsmen ran anything from a small one-man workshop to a thriving business with several apprentices, journeymen, and partners in other trades. By the eighteenth century most guilds did not include women, though sometimes widows who took over their husbands’ businesses became members by default, and took over the training of their husbands’ apprentices. Even in this instance, women were excluded from participation in company business.

Guilds were normally governed by a master, two wardens, and a Court of Assistants, which set policies, oversaw the administration of company properties, and governed the distribution of charitable funds.

But the Medieval guilds, while designed to unite trades vertically, were themselves inevitably split by class struggle. The interests of the masters and more prosperous employers diverged from those of the journeymen who worked for them, and the apprentices who were learning the job.

Journeymen’s resentment at working conditions, poor pay and lack on control over their work sparked attempts to get together, organise, demand change… this was met by guild hierarchies and the masters, to repress this organisation by the ‘servants’ of the guild.

Against this background the lower orders or ‘yeomanry’ of City companies like the founders, tailors, curriers, bakers and clothworkers fought running battles with the livery over elections to guild positions and the posts of aldermen in London’s council, over control of charitable funds for the poor and use of the right of search.

The Merchant Tailors Guild was notable among these struggles. For centuries one of crafts where organisation among the lower orders was most active.

Tailors were often seen as radical, politically, by tradition… it has been suggested that radical politics often flourished among tailors partly due to their working in quiet conditions, often one or two in a house or workshop, with time to think, discuss ideas… But economics also probably played a large part – in a trade where piece work was the norm, work was very subject to ups and downs of general prosperity, seasons, trade depressions, the imports of cloth…

The early fifteenth century saw legal moves by master tailors to shut down autonomy and ‘combinations’ among journeymen and apprentices. On 19 April 1415, masters challenged in court the right of their servants’ to live in their own dwellings, assemble and meet together freely, and to belong to their own separate fraternity. These yeomen possibly lived in “3 Shears Court,” described by Stowe in his Survey as lying adjacent to the church of St. James’, Garlick Hill.

The masters complained that the journeymen tailors were living in their own dwellings “by themselves alone in companies,” against the licence or will of the Master, and “without head or government.” Woo. Dangerous.

Not only that, but they had ‘behaved in an unruly manner, and that allowing them their own fraternity or gatherings ‘would lead to disturbances, as similar assemblies of the same mistery had done before’.

Two of the offenders were summoned to appear before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who adjudged “that the servants of the foresaid trade shall be hereafter under government and rule of the Master and Wardens of the aforesaid trade, as other servants of other trades in the said City are, and are bound by law to be, and that they shall not use henceforth livery or dress, meetings or conventicles, or other unlawful things of this kind.”

The masters thus won the case; ‘yoman taillours’ were subsequently only permitted to gather within the church of St John in the presence of their masters. Clearly there was already a dissident faction among the journeymen and apprentices, and they had been agitating prior to this court case…

The court case didn’t end the tailors’ struggles. Two years later in August 1417, the journeymen “as a Brotherhood of Yeoman Tailors,” approached the Lord Mayor for permission to assemble “on the Feast of the Decollation of St. John the Baptist next following and so henceforth yearly, in the church of St. John of Jerusalem, near Smythfield, there to offer for the deceased brothers and sisters of the said brotherhood, and to do other things which they have been accustomed to do there”. However, this proposal, while sounding innocuous, must have implied dangerous and rebellious tendencies – the masters objected, and the Court thought fit to “order and consider that in future times no servant or apprentice of the said trade shall presume by themselves to make or enter assemblies or conventicles at the foresaid church of St. John or elsewhere, unless with and in presence of the Masters of the said trade, etc., on pain of imprisonment and fine.”

Any gathering not overseen by the guild hierarchy was basically suspect.

In the 1440s the struggle between the lower orders of the tailors and their masters was to erupt into serious revolt. The wealthy masters were attempting to strengthen their rights to examine journeymen’s work, and prosecute those ‘guilty of defective work, while the ‘yeomen’ clamoured to be able to elect their own representatives to the ranks of the City Aldermen. Alliances were made between the journeymen across guild lines, and in 1443 a conspiracy was supposedly quashed, in which 2000 armed artisans were planning to riot in support of a demand to be admitted to the process of electing aldermen and the mayor. However, the masters were better organised, and not was this plot defused, but journeymen tailors and their allies in other guilds in fact faced defeat, with previously held rights lost, a situation that lasted decades for centuries. But the journey men tailors would maintain a stubborn resistance to their betters, organising in secret, evolving fraternities and clubs to agitate for better wages and conditions… So formidable that this network would be labeled the ‘tailor’s republic’ in the 18th century…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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