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The Company

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

Historical Highlights

Company Historian Dr Helen Clifford launches her new series ‘Historical Highlights’ targeting important anniversaries, forgotten Company connections across the country and hidden gems found in the archive - celebrating the rich and varied past of Grocers’ Company.

Historical Highlight No 1 - Fire at Grocers Hall 1965

At 5.55 pm on Wednesday 22nd September 1965 smoke was observed billowing out of Grocers’ Hall. A fire, which started under the staircase, had been drawn rapidly upward via the lift shaft to the upper part of the building. The first fire engine, delayed by heavy traffic conditions, arrived at 6.15 pm. Though no-one was killed the House Steward’s two daughters, aged 15 and 12, had to be rescued from the roof. As the Court Minutes record, with ‘great gallantry ... a Clerk … from the Midland Bank ... stretched a ladder between the buildings bridging a 10 foot gap, with an 80 foot drop below’, and with the assistance of a fireman, in thick smoke, brought the girls to safety. The Lord Mayor visited the Hall that night and offered the facilities of the Mansion House to the Company, and gave shelter to the House Steward and his family.

No less than 82 fire engines arrived at the scene, and within just two hours over 150 firefighters, four of whom were injured, brought the blaze under control. Only the damaged North Wing was left standing. Access to it was gained by members of the Hall staff shortly after 9 pm, when it was confirmed that the strong rooms were intact, and that the collection of glass in the Library was safe, but the Company’s charters had been burnt and the pictures in the Livery Hall, Court Room and Drawing Room were either lost or so badly damaged as to be irretrievable. Described as one of the largest fires in the City since the Blitz by the New York Times, the conflagration was caught on film by Reuters. Forensic specialists from Scotland Yard, in consultation with the Fire Prevention Officer of the City Corporation, were able to state with confidence that the fire began ‘in the cupboard under the half landing of the main staircase’ and had probably been caused by an electrical fault. The Court met at Mercers’ Hall the following morning to take stock, and acknowledged ‘the early receipt of a telegram from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’ which was read to the Court and received with heartfelt gratitude’.

This link to the London Fire Brigade Instagram page shows firefighters tackling the blaze from the roof of Grocers' Hall that day.

Fourth Hall

The design above is for part of the Fourth Hall by the Company’s Surveyor, Henry Cowell Boyes, dated 1887. It was approved by the Court, and is the version signed by the builders Cubitts, dated 1889. It shows Grocers' Hall as it was before the fire that destroyed the south and central wings in 1965.

Fascinating Facts

Our Company Historian and author of 'From Grossers to Grocers', Dr Helen Clifford is researching the second volume of the Company history. Over the coming weeks we will be sharing some of the fascinating facts that have come to her attention during the course of her research.

Barge 2

Fascinating Face No 11 - The Grocers' Company Barge

The River Thames was until the middle of the nineteenth century a main thoroughfare of London. From the fifteenth century water-borne pageantry was an important part of London life. The first reference to a barge in the Grocers’ Company archives appears in 1436, when one was hired. It was not until 1637 that the Company decided to purchase its own. Livery company barges were the Rolls-Royces of their time, and powerful symbols of status and prestige. They certainly had hard use. The barge bought in 1637 had to be repaired in 1640 and again in 1653, and was replaced with a new one in 1662. Another barge was completely rebuilt in 1760.

Although there are many paintings featuring the pageantry on the Thames, and especially that connected with the Lord Mayor’s Show, it is difficult to ascribe with certainty any barge depicted in them to the Grocers. A discovery of two designs for a Grocers’ Company barge in the archives of the Goldsmiths’ Company is therefore of great excitement. Although undated they must surely relate to the decommissioning of the Grocers’ barge in 1806, when the Company had to decline the invitation to join Lord Nelson’s funeral procession, when his body was taken from Greenwich up the Thames to Whitehall, on January 8, as the barge was out of action. From draft estimates and contracts that survive, and dated 1805, we know that the Grocers were debating whether to commission an entirely new barge or rebuild and refurbish the old. At £1,880 for the former, and £1,150 for the latter the Grocers chose the cheaper option. The designs probably relate to the discussions the Company had with Richard Roberts barge builder of Lambeth who oversaw the work of joiners, carpenters, carvers and painters. A contract was drawn up between the Company and Rogers on 12th December 1805, promising the completion of refurbishment by 15 July 1807. By 1843 this barge ‘was condemned as unfit for use’, the Wardens engaging a steam boat for the next Lord Mayor’s Day. It was sold two years later. The last river procession was held in 1856, ending some four hundred years of tradition.


Fascinating Fact No 10 - Chaplets, Garlands or Crowns?

The ceremony of crowning the new Wardens takes place at Company’s Election Feast every year. It is a custom common to the Livery Companies, but the earliest reference to the ‘crowns’ appear in the first Ordinances of the Pepperers of 1345, when it was directed (in Norman French) that ‘the Wardens … shall come with chaplets [‘chapeletz’] and shall choose other two Wardens for the year ensuing upon whom the said chaplets shall be placed’.

The word ‘chaplet’ comes from the fourteenth century Old French ‘chapelet’ meaning garland of roses, which in turn goes back to the Roman use of garlands used to crown victors, as described by Pliny. By 1561 the ‘chaplets’ have become ‘garlands’, described in the Court Minutes for that year, when the ‘iii wardens shall come forth in to the Hall with iii garlands on their heads and the leader to bear in his hands a garland of flowers or such other garland as shall be appointed’. Perhaps the shift from ‘chaplet’ to ‘garland’ reflects the adoption of classical ideas in the Renaissance? The term ‘garland’ is also used by the Carpenters and Broderers, who still have their sixteenth century examples. In an article by J.L. Nevinson on ‘Crowns and Garlands of the Livery Companies’ in Guildhall Studies in London History, April 1974, the author states that ‘the Grocers’ Crowns no longer exist’. They survived until at least 1950 when they appear in the ‘Blue Book’, a list of ‘principal objects of interest’ belonging to the Company, first published in 1936. Perhaps they were lost in the fire of 1965? The ‘chaplets’ used today are modern, following the common form of a red velvet band, and embroidered with the Company arms granted in 1532 and the camel crest granted in 1562. A watercolour of an earlier model, painted in 1852 by Thomas Coleman Dibdin, shows that they were embellished with a completely different design of embroidered rays, perhaps like those decorating the Company’s gowns described as ‘rayed’ with embroidery in 1403, and reflecting an earlier ‘lost’ motif of the Company?

Tennis Cup

Fascinating Fact No 9 - Anyone for Tennis? Cups, Copies and Complications

A note in the Grocers’ Company Court Minutes for 1922 aroused my curiosity. It refers to a letter from an ‘H. A. Gwynne’, in response to which the ‘Court agreed to allow a copy of the Saunders Cup to remade as a presentation gift by the Countess Bathurst for the International Tennis’. The Bathurst Cup, which is awarded for international amateur real tennis and the sport's equivalent of the Davis Cup, was presented for the first time by Lilias, Countess Bathurst (1871 – 1965) in 1922.

She was the only daughter of Algernon Borthwick, 1st Baron Glenesk, owner of The Daily Telegraph and had married Seymour Henry Bathurst, 7th Earl Bathurst, (1864 – 1943) in 1893.

Her younger brother’s early death meant that she inherited the The Morning Post, whose editor from 1911, was Howell Arthur Gwynne (1865-1950).

The original Saunders Cup was made to commemorate John Saunders (1594-1669) who had been Warden of the Grocers’Company in 1645. In 1670 his son Thomas ‘came to Court and presented a fair large cup and cover of silver … as a gift of his father … lately deceased’. Two years later a cup of almost identical design was made to commemorate Penynge Alston (1606-1668) Warden of the Grocers’ Company in 1662, although complications with his bequest meant that it was only made in 1672. In 1764 the well-used and worn Saunders Cup, described as ‘useless’ was melted down and remade to the same design, with the original inscription engraved on it. Though the Alston cup is lauded as one of the ‘antiquities’ of the Company, it was the 1764 copy of the original Saunders Cup that was electrotyped (reproduced in base metal) in 1879, an example of which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The hallmark, copied in the process of electrotyping, is incorrectly given in the catalogue as 1666.

So the question that still needs to be answered is why did Gwynne approach the Grocers on behalf of the Bathursts, and how did they know about the Saunders Cup? Any ideas?

You can see last year’s winners of the Bathurst Cup, at

Ed Kay at the centre holds the smaller copy of the Grocers’ Company cup; and the electrotype of the Saunders Cup at the V&A at:

The picture shows: The Saunders Cup, supplied by the silversmith William Grundy, London, 1764

Court Minutes

Fascinating Fact No 8 - The Rogue Clerk

The first intimation of trouble occurred in May 1796. The Wardens discovered ‘an Execution for Debt in the Clerk’s House’ and in order ‘to preserve the honour and credit of the Company, and to save the House from being torn to pieces by public Auction’ they ‘had taken a bill of sale of the Furniture, Goods and Effects seized in Execution from the Sheriffs and … paid the appraised value … of £585 5s’. Then as now the Clerk had accommodation in the Hall, and this particular Clerk, Richard Whalley Bridgman had been appointed in 1787. Meanwhile the Company had received a letter from the scoundrel Clerk, sadly we don’t know its contents, but we assume that he had swiftly absented himself from the scene of his crime.

Bridgman’s painstaking transcriptions in a flourishing hand of the Company’s early records, for which he was paid extra in thanks by his employers, take on a new diversionary light as the story of his misdeeds further unfolds. Things were to get worse. On 7th June 1796 a special meeting of the Court of Assistants was held, at which the Master reported that he and his ‘Brother Wardens’ had discovered that ‘a Considerable Sum of Money had been received by the … Clerk of this Company for Rents … which had not been brought to Account, amounting to upwards of £1,500’. Further investigation revealed that the total amount embezzled was in fact much more, and calculated at £2,317 12s 3d. This was an immense sum, only five years later, the total cost of building a new Hall came to six times this amount. The Wardens decided to seek legal advice ‘upon the best, surest and most Expeditious mode of proving the Company’s Debt under the Commission of Bankruptcy issued against Bridgman’. They also decided to call upon William Lucas Esq. and Daniel Whalley Esq. for the £1,000 security that had been agreed by them at the time of Bridgman’s appointment, a usual practice that had never before required testing. It took over sixteen months for them to respond. They explained that they had ‘before advanced to … [Bridgman] a Sum to that amount in the year 1793 to keep him in his Situation, though not signified to the Company’. Although the Company decided to ‘enforce their obligation’ nothing more appears in the Court Minutes, and the case appears to have been laid to rest. All we know about Bridgman is that he turned to writing legal works, publishing eleven books between 1798 and 1817, and died at Bath aged 59 in 1820.

Thanks to Pauline Sidell for sourcing this information in the Company’s Court Minutes.


Fascinating Fact No 7 - The Importance of Friends in High Places

In his diary entry for Tuesday 28th February 1660 Samuel Pepys noted that, after a breakfast of herrings, he rode into London to find that it ‘was a thanksgiving day throughout the City for the return of the Parliament’. At St Paul’s Cathedral he saw ‘General Monck there, who was to have a great entertainment at Grocers’ Hall’.

The timing of the Grocer entertainment was astute. After the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 public opinion, worn out by nearly twenty years of civil war and its aftermath, had shifted in favour of the Restoration of the monarchy, and its chief architect was General Monck (1608-70). The 28th February was a landmark day for Company and Country, as the Parliament that had been returned was overwhelmingly Royalist, and the Grocers were aligning themselves with the movement and the man.The sumptuous banquet which they staged in Monck’s honour that day, and to which his wife, in customary Grocer fashion was invited, was also the occasion of his acceptance of the Honorary Freedom of the Company ‘in particular respect and gratification … for his professions of tenderness and care for the honour and safety of the City’. Monck had marched his regiment from Coldstream on the Scottish borders to London on 1st January 1660, to restore law and order. When King Charles II delivered the Declaration of Breda on 4th April, which was largely based on Monck’s recommendations, offering reconciliation and forgiveness, the route to the Restoration was secured. When the King landed at Dover, General Monck was the first to greet him. On 29th May the new King entered London. The day was made a public holiday from henceforth, and the Grocers’ Company had a special reason to honour it with an annual dinner, (on the day nearest possible) which was later known was the Commemoration or Restoration Feast, combining the older dinner in honour of the Company’s patron saint, St Antonin with a celebration of the Restoration. It may have been through the Company’s association with the trusted General that Charles II accepted the unique position of the Sovereign Mastership of the Company in 1660, when Monck returned to Grocers’ Hall with the King to enjoy an even more lavish banquet in celebration of the event. The close association of General Monck with the Grocers’ Company was reaffirmed in 2008, when the regiment that Monck formed in 1650, at Coldstream in Scotland, part of Cromwell’s New Model Army, became affiliated to the Company. The affiliation was marked by the generous loan of a portrait of General Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle from Monck’s regiment, known from 1670 as the Coldstream Guards, to the Company. It now hangs in the Court Dining Room. The portrait, attributed to Peter Lely, was given to the Coldstream Guards by Lieutenant Colonel Hon. Lewis Payn Dawnay (1846-1910)


Fascinating Fact No 6 - Peppercorns, Cloves or Nails

There is a fascinating undated article in the Grocers’ Company Library. It is by Charles Burford Goodhart (1919-2000), a zoologist, Fellow of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge, and a man with a distinguished Grocer pedigree. In the article he applies the rigour of his academic mind to some problems of Grocer heraldry.

Goodhart begins with the familiar Grocers’ Company coat of arms, granted in 1532, incorporating a chevron with nine cloves, the first use of the clove, as Goodhart notes, as a charge (emblem) in heraldry. He further muses that it does seem rather strange that cloves were chosen, rather than peppercorns which connect more closely with the origin of the Company.

The camel crest granted thirty years later, was described by William Hervey, the Clarenceux King of Arms, who granted them as ‘bearing two (‘pepper Baggs’ deleted) bagys of ppyr [pepper] argent powdered with cloves and corded sable [‘powdered and corded sable’ deleted [‘spangled with Cloves Argent’ deleted]. It is far from clear why the bags of pepper should ever have been painted with cloves, and the deletions in Hervey’s description suggest that he too may have been puzzled. In Sir George Bellew’s up-to-date description of 1949 ‘a camel … with two bales argent semee of cloves’, all references to pepper were removed, perhaps in an attempt to tidy things up.

Goodhart then suggests that seventeenth century Grocers may themselves have been a bit confused as to the real significance of the word ‘clove’ which by itself, and so spelt, had only recently come to mean the spice. Previously it had been ‘clou de girofle’ . Clou is the ordinary French word for ‘nail’ so that ‘clou de girofle’ meant ‘nail of girofle’, referring to the nail-like buds. Remember too that the Fraternity’s records were kept in Anglo-French until the 1420s. So, if the original meaning of cloves was nails, what did they have to do with Grocers? Actually, Goodhart notes, rather a lot, in connection with weights and measures which were very much the concern of the mystery at the time of its foundation in 1345. Before the introduction of the avoirdupois system in 1340, a weighing instrument called an ‘auncel’ was used. The weight of the goods suspended from its shorter arm were marked off by a row of nails. The Latin for nail is clavus, and clou in French. The word clove continued to be used as a unit for weight for wool up to the mid-nineteenth century, long after the connection with auncel nails had been forgotten. Goodhart also draws attention to the fact that in the arms used before the 1532 grant, ten not nine cloves sometimes appear, (four at the top) which might relate to the 10 clove auncel. Perhaps, Goodhart suggests, this lies behind the puzzling choice of cloves in preference to peppercorns on the Grocers’ Company arms.


Fascination Fact No 5 - A Case of Multiple Mistaken Identity

Mr Rupert Gavin drew our attention to a recent article in the Evening Standard, heralding the return to London of a magnificent portrait of a Lord Mayor to hang in the ‘British Baroque’ exhibition at Tate Britain. The portrait, owned and lent to the exhibition by the Banque de France, had been purchased early last century under the mistaken belief that it was of Louis XIV’s son the Dauphin, the title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France.

This attribution was based on the dolphins (the French for dolphin being dauphin) decorating the elaborate horse harness, that also appear on the Dauphin’s arms. The portrait had been brought to the attention of Mr James Roundell in 2014, by Lane Fine Art, who suggested that the portrait was of Houblon. When Mr Roundell had Mark Carney to lunch at the Hall soon after, he jested that he might like to buy it, and restore it to its rightful place in Princes Street. As the sitter holds the pearl-studded sword of state presented to the City by Elizabeth I, and the outline of Temple Bar (left) and the dome of St Paul’s (right) are visible in the background, his identity as a Lord Mayor is secure. But which Lord Mayor? Unlike the Dauphin’s dolphins which have been open to interpretation, the arms of the Grocers’ Company also on the harness are not. It was assumed, given the grandeur and size of the painting, that it was the Grocer and first Governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon (1632-1712), Lord Mayor in 1695-6. However the Tate curators put the dolphins, Grocers’ arms and Mayoralty together, to suggest that the portrait is not of Houblon but of another great Grocer, Sir Henry Tulse (1620-89), (who gave his name to Tulse Hill), Lord Mayor in 1683-4, his arms being a bend nebulae (wavy) between two dolphins embowed (curved). I can think of no other portrait of a Lord Mayor mounted on horseback. Tulse’s white steed matches in colour and pose that of the King in another painting in the exhibition. As Tulse was placed in post by King Charles II this would reinforce his candidature for sitter and explain its unique composition. Meanwhile the Tate curators are playing it cautious, giving the date of the painting as c.1695-1705, suggesting a retrospective portrait, other possible sitters, and noting that an article on the subject is forthcoming, which we await with anticipation.

On 25th April 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Grocers’ Hall, when he was entertained to luncheon after his admission to the Freedom and Livery of the Mercers’ Company. The bronze bust of Churchill by David McFall was purchased in 1960 to commemorate the visit and can be seen at Grocers' Hall today.

Fascinating Fact No 4 - The World War II and The Grocers' Company

As we mark the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, Dr Helen Clifford, the Grocers' Historian, has taken a look at the impact World War II had on The Grocers' Company, its Hall and the wider City community. 'One of the first intimations of war clouds gathering at Grocers’ Hall came in July 1939 when the basement was turned into an air raid shelter. Two months later Britain declared war on Germany. On 24th August 1940 the first bomb dropped on the City, landing in St Giles’ Churchyard in the Barbican.

The Grocers' Company was to face many near misses. On the 9th September a bomb fell through the roof of the Bank of England, near the corner of Princes Street and Lothbury, which fortunately failed to explode.

In November disaster was averted at Grocers’ Hall thanks to the valet and the night watchman who swiftly extinguished ‘the incendiary bombs which had fallen on the Hall’. As the Halls of other Companies were destroyed so the Grocers Company was able offer its own, which remained miraculously intact even during the Blitz, to others. Even as battered Britain glimpsed victory on the horizon, following the successful D-Day landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944, a final vicious air assault began. From 13th June Hitler launched new ‘Vengeance’ or V-weapons against London, beginning an eighty day campaign. On 19th July 1944 the Hall was hit by a V1 flying bomb, known to Londoners as a ‘Doodlebug’ (see link below). The Master, Mr Alfred Woodhouse (1893-1953), reported that the Hall had been ‘hit that morning soon after 9 o’clock by a flying bomb which had demolished some the bedrooms, the Library, the Inner Drawing Room, the Beadle’s office and part of the Clerk’s office besides damaging the roof and nearly all the windows’. Fortunately no one was injured. Despite the devastation the scheduled Court Meeting proceeded as normal, thanks to accommodation and luncheon provided by the Chairman at Lloyds. Although the Minute Book was in the strong room and inaccessible, the usual consideration of ‘memorials on behalf of Public Charities’ took place. We are lucky to have surviving photographs, taken for the War Damage Commission, that record the devastating event.'

Queen Victoria opens the Grocers' Wing

Fascinating Fact No 3 - The Grocers' Wing of The Royal London Hospital

The NHS Livery Kitchen initiative renews a longstanding connection the Grocers’ Company has with The Royal London Hospital. The Grocers’ Company has a long tradition of supporting London hospitals, with charitable donations regularly given by individual Grocers and the Company to St Bartholomew’s, St Thomas’s, Bethlem, Bridewell, as well as Christs, from at least the 1500s.

The largest donation made by the Company to a hospital however was made in 1873 for the building of a new wing to the London Hospital, built in 1752-78. As the population increased there were severe problems in finding enough beds The proposed solution was to extend the hospital to provide 200 additional beds. A public fundraising campaign was launched with the aim of securing £100,000 towards new buildings and the operating costs of an enlarged hospital. The centrepiece of this wave of hospital expansion was theGrocers’ Company’s Wing, named in recognition of a donation from the City livery company. Their ‘princely gift’ of £25,000, one quarter of the whole fund raising target, was accompanied by numerous conditions, including that the proposed wing should be completed within three years. The Grocers’ Company’s Wing was formally opened by Queen Victoria in March 1876, in a grand celebration reported to have lent ‘an attractive and joyous aspect to (an) ordinarily dull and dingy but busy quarter’. The size of the Grocers’ Company donation can be put in the context of the Company's annual expenditure of £35,000 in 1880 (of which more than three fifths was spent on education and charity) not including the gift of 25,000l. to the London Hospital (and 28,000l. at Oundle School).

The picture showd the Illustrated London News: Her Majesty Queen Victoria visiting the London Hospital, Whitechapel: the Duke of Cambridge giving the loyal address. Wood engraving, March 1876. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Fascinating Fact No 2 - A Mystery Object

In March 2019 Vivian Bairstow a Past Master of the Coopers contacted the Grocers about a forthcoming sale at the auctioneers Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury. The Lot which piqued his interest was advertised as ‘3 Victorian painted bronze coach badges’ (14.6 cm x 10.7 cm) bearing respectively the arms of the Grocers, the Wheelwrights and the Horners. They were clearly all made at the same time, for the same function.

All three Companies expressed interest and the ‘badges’ were duly purchased, each Company taking their own badge. But are these really coach badges, and if not, what could they be for? The obvious place to start research was at the Coachmakers’ Company whose Clerk expressed doubt as to their supposed function, though it was suggested that they might have been fixed to hired coaches. They do not look like any other coach badges extant, examples of which are at the Museum of London. Nor are there any references to the purchase or use of such badges, or even coaches, in the Grocers’ Company Court Minutes. They are too small to be barge or ‘stern’ badges, and if really Victorian, then made at a time when the Company barges were being sold. Neither do they confirm to the design of City property marks, also made of cast metal and painted.

Graham Westwell, the Assistant Archivist and Past Master of the Wheelwrights suggested contacting the Cutlers who have a collection of badges, but their Clerk responded ‘I’m afraid that I am completely at a loss on this one!’. Next he tried Guildhall, still no luck, but his last idea seems the most likely, that they are badges to decorate a sword rest, explaining why they ‘match’. Originally installed in City churches to hold the sword of state when the Lord Mayor was attending a service, the oldest survives from 1664, and the practice ceased in 1883. However the expert in this field Tony Tucker questions the fittings on the badges, two screw holes one at top and the other at bottom, which do not match surviving examples that are set flush into the decorative ironwork frame. Can anyone help us solve the mystery of what they are?

Blue Gown

Fascinating Fact No 1 - The Colour of the Company's Livery Gowns

In 1956 the rebuilding of the Fourth Hall, after the damage caused in the Blitz, was complete. It was a time to look forward. That year the Court asked the Wardens‘to recommend a new gown for adoption for the Master, Wardens and Livery’,which prompted detailed research into the gowns worn in the past, both by the Grocers and the other Companies of the Great Twelve, to see if there were important historical precedents and traditions.

The result is a fascinating collection of papers, and the revelation, recorded in the Court Minutes of 1st February 1957, that‘there is no evidence that any Company has a prescribed right to any particular colour or colours’.They also discovered that the choice of colour changed over time. In 1402 the Grocers chose green and celestryn [blue] for their gowns, in 1414 scarlet and green, while in the 1450s the Grocers purchased regular supplies of verdulet (bright bluish green) cloth from weavers in Coggleshall Essex. Sombre plain black gowns superseded the bright and part-coloured gowns after the Reformation.

In 1957 the Wardens, now‘free to make our recommendations from all the colours and materials now available’ chose the green you have today. Perhaps this is a version of what Eric Hobsbawm christened an ‘invented tradition’, or in this case a‘re-invented’ one, given the earlier preferences shown for green?

A watercolour sketch of a gown survives in the archive at the Hall, which suggests that the colour blue was considered, though rejected, at this time.

Grocers' Gates

From Grossers to Grocers

A new beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated History of the Grocers’ Company From Foundation to 1798 By Dr Helen Clifford. To order, like on this link Book order form and return it to: