A short history of the Grocers’ Company
The Worshipful Company of Grocers, who today rank second of the Livery Companies of the City of London, was originally known as the Guild of Pepperers whose earliest records date back to 1180. The Pepperers were recognised as general traders, who bought and sold, or, according to the legal acceptation of the word, “engrossed” all kinds of merchandise, trading in spices, gold and other luxury goods from Byzantium and the Mediterranean and often using pepper as a form of currency (hence the ‘peppercorn’ rent).They were officially connected with the duty of weighing in the City, and they nominated the officer to have charge of the King’s Beam. This beam weighed by “peso grosso” the scale by which all heavy goods were weighed in the Port of London. In 1345 the Guild became the ‘Fraternity of Pepperers’ and 3 years later they officially adopted a new name becoming the ‘The Company of Grossers of London’, derived from a new and fashionable word in the English vocabulary ‘grosser’, referring to a particular type of merchant who traded in ‘all manner of merchandise vendible’. First reference to ‘The Grocers’ Company’ was made in the revised Ordinances in 1376.
In 1426 the Company was granted its first Charter by Henry VI and the members purchased a family mansion and garden in Old Jewry for £213 6s. 8d which became the site of the first Hall completed in 1428, and nearly 600 years later is the site of the Company’s fifth Hall in 2019.
The camel is a continuous thread that runs through the history of the Grocers’ Company. The Grocers’ camel is usually displayed facing west, travelling from the east along the spice route. The camel from medieval times, became the symbol of the spice trade, and by 1562 was a key motif on the Grocers’ Company Arms. The Grocers’ camels bear packs studded with cloves, which are another enduring symbol of the Grocers’ Company. The Company Arms displays nine cloves, showing that the Company identified itself primarily with spices from the Far East. Cloves were one of the most expensive of spices, reflecting their long journey from the Spice Islands and their extensive use in medicines. They symbolise wealth, standing and sophistication.
There is an apocryphal tale that the Grocers, who were once the first of The Great Twelve Livery Companies of London, were demoted to second place when, during a City procession, one of the Grocers’ Camels hired for the pageant, emitted unfortunate smells in front of Queen Elizabeth I.
On the night of 22nd September 1965, the Fourth Hall, built in 1890, was almost completely destroyed by fire. The fire, described as the largest in the City since the Blitz, was traced to an electrical fault under the grand staircase. The Company archives, plate, library, glass collection and wine cellar survived but most of the Company’s fine furniture, chandeliers, pictures and other artefacts perished. The Court decided to build its fifth Hall on the same site incorporating part of the surviving facade. It was re-opened in 1970.
In the twentieth century the Company, along with the other Livery Companies, continues to play its part in the daily life of the City and in the election of the Lord Mayor and Sheriffs, and carries on the traditions of one of the ancient Fraternities who have, since the middle ages, formed sounding boards of informed responsible opinion. The Grocers’ Company has always given generously to charity, when its means allowed, but during the past three hundred years its charitable activities, including those related to education and the church, have been the principal justification for its continued existence. The generosity of past members, through gifts and bequests, and the growing income of its City properties has enabled the Company for many years to expand the scope of its own giving.
Thus, it will be seen that the Company hopes to continue to live up to the ideals expressed in its early Ordinances, that it should be a ‘nursery of charities and a seminary of good citizens’.
History & Origins of Grocers' Hall
From Grossers to Grocers
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