Mastering the Modern World

This morning I sat in a very ancient church just behind the Bank of England and observed an annual event that has been going on for at least 375 years. We installed Alderman Alison Gowman as the Master of the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London. 1638 was the year that the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London were granted a Royal Charter from King Charles I. In reality the Guilds, or Mysteries, were probably in existence before the Norman Conquest. The word “Mystery” neatly fits the leather industry. It comes from the Latin “misterium” which means “professional skill”.

The original formal Glovers Company was actually formed in 1349 but rather lost its identity through merging with the Pursers in 1498 and then the Leathersellers in 1502. Restarting as an independent body in 1638 put it number 62 on the current list of 109 Livery Companies in London.  Back in those days most towns in the UK had guilds and Glovers were ubiquitous with the Guild of Skinners and Glovers in Perth often said to be the oldest in the country. It was certainly one of the strongest and most long lasting, and is famous for providing the core group of workers who went to the US to help establish the famous Gloversville industry in upstate New York.

With the coming of the industrial revolution and the advancements of the 19th century it looked as though the guilds, established to foster and protect the industries they served, were no longer relevant and would either die out or evolve into elegant dining clubs. The Glovers, who by then had sold off their Hall because of the high maintenance costs, were very close to extinction. They had quite a struggle for survival in the last few decades of the 19th century. In the 1930s a number of modern industries applied for a Royal Charter. This was a surprise as Guilds were seen to be essentially about sunset industries – Fletcher’s, Girdlers, Wax Chandlers – whose days had largely gone and were surviving only as holders of charitable funds.   Starting with a request from the seamen to form the Master Mariners today we have Information Technologists, Water Conservation and Management Consultants.

Throughout history Guilds have tended to focus on charitable work (starting by looking after the retired and unwell in their own industry) and then educational work and for many this remains their primary activity. Only a few others like the Apothecaries and Farriers retained really close links with trade and the industrial decline in the late 20th century weakened even those.  Generally the companies involved in things to do with leather have tried harder to stay in touch with the leather industry and to stay relevant. Leathersellers, one of the most significant of the “leathery guilds” now owns and manages three schools. More significantly for leather in 1908 it built the first Leathersellers College in Bermondsey on the lime yard area of an old tannery. They then paid for it to be moved to Northampton in the 1970s and be brought together in a new Leathersellers Centre on the Park Campus of the University of Northampton. Without the ongoing support of the Leathersellers Company I do not believe we would still be teaching tanning anywhere in the UK.

The Cordwainers have also stayed in close touch with their industry and industry education and the Glovers, although poorer, have worked hard with promotions and competitions to keep supporting the domestic industry.

Today at what we call our Installation Lunch our New Master announced a move to support an apprenticeship scheme in the Glove industry and this matches what looks like a new wave of Guild determination to get more involved industry. Other Guilds like the Curriers and Leathersellers are supporting such moves and I am sure the Saddlers and Cordwainers are also. Nearly all the City Guilds are now interested in pushing apprenticeships as we are seeing a huge wave of interest in craftsmanship and traditional skills. It is really a perfect moment for the Guilds to get involved with industry in the 21st century.

Trying to work out how to embed the present, and even more the future, in the past is difficult at the best of times but this looks like a wonderful reinvention by the Guilds to use their important historic role in the City of London as a lever to be truly relevant as a supporter and catalyst in the modern leather industry. They have a lot to bring which will add to the uniqueness and the innovative bent of our UK industry. I am very proud to be a small cog in their activities.

Mike Redwood

5th November, 2013