Trade and craft associations known as guilds or livery companies have flourished all over Europe for centuries, but the City of London companies, now collectively known as the Livery, are unique in their survival, number and diversity. Today's livery companies are not picturesque leftovers of history but living institutions, whose liverymen carry out important functions in the elections of the government of the City of London and certain of its officers.
The word 'guild' derives from the Saxon word for payment, since membership of these fraternities was (and is) paid for. The word 'livery' refers to uniform clothing as means of identification. Today, new companies in their formative years are usually referred to as guilds.
From medieval times until the mid-19th century, the livery was closely connected with the freedom of the City of London. Liverymen had to be freemen of the City, and in this way the Corporation of London managed to exercise a degree of control over the livery companies.
The early companies were the medieval equivalent of trading standards departments, checking quality of goods and weights and measures. They also controlled imports, set wages and working conditions and trained apprentices. After many years of fierce dispute, an order of precedence for livery companies was finally settled in 1515, starting with Mercers at number 1. In 2000 the 101st and 102nd livery companies were granted their charters.
Application for membership of livery companies varies; some only accept trade or trade-associated members but others embrace a wider membership. In keeping with their origins, livery companies continue to devote huge amounts of funds to charitable and educational organisations.
The social and economic conditions which gave birth to the medieval guilds have long since been overtaken by the development of industry and commerce, but in spite of this the Livery has survived and flourished. Some companies still own halls, schools, almshouses, investments, lands and substantial charity funds. They have a proud history, traditions, records, magnificent treasures and above all, many liverymen determined that their work should continue. Their survival today has been achieved by doing what they have always done, namely fostering their trade in a wide context, serving the community and introducing modern skills and professions.
Today the majority of companies support their trade, craft or profession in one way or another. Much of this support goes to universities and other institutions which train young people for careers in particular industries. A growing number of companies are also involved in either new or existing apprenticeship schemes.
The Livery also has a continuing role in commerce and trade. Several companies - such as the Goldsmiths Company, which has been responsible since 1300 for testing the purity of marking gold and silver wares - still have a continuing statutory or regulatory role, while others support related industries in a variety of ways.