The Founders’ Company began its existence as one of the early medieval “guilds” or associations formed by members of various crafts or trades in the City of London. Their main purposes were to defend the craft against unfair competition, to assist its members in their work, and to help those in distress.
Founders were workers in brass and brass alloys or tinplate known as “Iatten” or “laton”, producing small cast articles such as candlesticks and pots and pans. Their workshops were situated in and around Lothbury, a street which still exists under that name.
From 1508 to 1987 their parish church was St. Margaret Lothbury. Before that time, the Founders were associated with the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, and indeed there is evidence to suggest that the medieval guild grew out of a parish fraternity known as the Brotherhood of St. Clement, based on the church of St. Lawrence Jewry, which served the spiritual and material needs of its members.
It seems likely that, as many of them were small founders, the original social and religious purposes of the fraternity became increasingly subordinated to the task of defending and organising the craft itself.
If the early historian, Stow, is right, the founders were not always popular citizens. Speaking of Lothbury, he remarks:
“This street is possessed for the most part by Founders that cast candlesticks, chafing dishes, spice mortars, and such like copper or Laton works, and do afterwards turn them with the foot and not with the wheel, to make them smooth and bright with turning and scrating (as some do term it), making a loathsome noise to the by passers that have not been used to the like, and therefore by them disdainfully called Lothberie.”The earliest surviving evidence relating to the Guild of Founders is a petition in Norman French which it made in 1365 to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen for its Ordinances to be enrolled at Guildhall, which was granted. The Company must already have been in existence at that date, but the year 1365 served as the basis on which the Company celebrated its 600th anniversary at Guildhall in 1965. The Wardens’ Accounts go back to 1497 and only three other City Companies possess accounts starting earlier.
Early in the 14th century, the guilds came to be known as “mysteries”, a name probably derived from the Italian word “Mestieri” used in Venice to describe crafts and trades.
The term “Livery Company” was adopted in the reign of Edward III (1327- 1377), by which time the members of different guilds wore distinctive dress when summoned to appear on ceremonial occasions.
An Act passed in 1364 decreed that “all artificers and peoples of mysteries shall each choose his own mystery before the next Candlemas, and that having so chosen it, he shall henceforth use no other.”
The historian, Macaulay, said of this Act: “Here commences the history of the English nation”. In lighter vein, Dr. Hibbert remarks in his History of the Company that the principles of trade unionism are clearly not of very recent origin.
In 1590, the Company secured the grant of a coat of arms, a distinction dear to the hearts of Englishmen throughout the ages. In their wildest dreams, however, our Elizabethan forerunners could never have imagined that these same arms would be adopted in 1857, at the zenith of British Imperial rule, by the district of Aliwal North, in the Cape Colony of South Africa.
This was the work of the British Civil Commissioner, Mr. Chase, who happened to be a Liveryman of the Founders’ Company and who clearly welcomed this opportunity of spreading its fame abroad. The Court presented him with a copy of the arms and expressed its gratification, to which the Commissioner replied with equal warmth and added:
“I beg to state that the town of Aliwal North is steadily progressing and is highly thought of by our present excellent Governor, Sir George Grey, who has just again visited it on his journey to mediate between the Basuto chieftan and the Dutch Republic of the Orange Free State.”
The Company’s resources, like those of many others, were severely taxed by the constant demands for money made on the City by the Stuart Kings. In 1634 the Company had to sell all the silver spoons presented by Liverymen on their admission, except for one given by Humphrey Bowen. In 1684, when Charles II sought to remove the Whigs from control of the City and replace them by Tories, the Livery Companies were faced with a threat of legal action for alleged breaches of their Charters. As the judges were Royal appointees, and likely therefore to find in favour of the Crown, the Company found itself compelled to surrender its Charter and to submit to the King’s demand for the election of Royal nominees as office-holders. In 1688, however, these measures were hastily revoked by James II, on hearing of William of Orange’s imminent arrival, and the Company’s Charter was restored.
Since 1987 and the move of the Company’s Hall to Cloth Fair, the Founders have been associated with the parish church of St. Bartholomew the Great, founded in 1123 by Rahere. The Company’s annual Election Day Service is held at this church.