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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

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.


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: