A millennium of giving still going strong


Magazine article

Over the last few decades tax incentives, awards, marketing campaigns, academic research, political figures and dignitaries have been focussed on one ideal -  to make philanthropy a societal norm. Yet, there exists a society in the heart of the City where that is already the case. 

 The City’s Livery Companies, effectively the first trading standards bodies, have philanthropy in their DNA. The guilds were founded on the principle of fellowship and grew from their religious connections.

One of the first charitable tasks undertaken by the early London guilds, whose roots can be traced back to 1066, was to care for members and their families in sickness and old age. Over the centuries the Livery movement has grown to become the powerhouse of philanthropy it is today. Big Society was very much alive in the middle ages.

Though Companies vary hugely in size, wealth and profile, with some having long held endowments and others relying on fundraising, they all have three missions: to promote their trades, to serve their membership and to provide charitable funds for their causes.

Through the ages individual members have emerged as generous philanthropists in their own right. Their often monumental donations, legacies and endowments have laid the foundation of much of the City of London we know today funding schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals, prisons and civic buildings at huge personal expense.

City street names – such as Milk Street, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane, Poultry, Cloth Fair and Mason's Avenue – mark the sites where it all began.

The best known name in the Livery’s history is Lord Mayor Dick Whittington, immortalised in folk tale and pantomime, a Mercer who died in 1423. Whittington left property worth at the time some £6,000 (the equivalent of many millions today) for alms houses. His legacy is one of the long-lived trusts of The Mercers’ Company that exists today and has a substantial income which provides comfort and dignity for elderly people and others in need.

While the movement can look back to a rich history of giving, today’s 108 Worshipful Companies are committed to continuing that tradition and make a meaningful contribution to education, health, the arts and society in general, in the City, Greater London, nationally and internationally, as a new survey shows.

Almost £42m was donated in 2011 to causes such as education, welfare and relief, the church, the environment and to trade, according to The City of London Corporation’s survey carried out by The Mercers’ Company last year. This is around £1m more than was donated in 2006, the last survey undertaken, and in the light of the recession and challenging economic climate reveals a stoic commitment to its historic obligation to serve others.

Alderman Sir Michael Bear, Lord Mayor of London for 2010-11, under whose tenure the survey was commissioned, says: “The Livery Companies of the City of London represent a long tradition of commitment and philanthropy – but good that is often done by stealth. What these figures – impressive though they are - can never show is the vast impact of their work; the educational opportunities created, the vulnerable supported or the expertise and time and energy given.”

The new statistics show some 2,500 Livery Company members are actively involved in the governance and stewardship of their charities and a further 1,591 are regular volunteers.

Education received the lion’s share of support in 2011 attracting 51% of the total figure, with 884 members volunteering in education, 464 as school or college governors.

Through governance, grant-making, volunteering and bursaries and other support they regularly support:

  • 37 primary schools
  • 16 preparatory schools
  • 54 secondary schools
  • 44 independent schools
  • 11 6th form/FE colleges
  • 173 university links

Greg Williams, of City of London Corporation, says the survey reveals two major trends – greater support of state school education and more giving locally.

“What’s pleasing is that more is going into education, and more state schools are being helped. Education giving is a half now, up from a third in 2006 and the numbers of schools helped now totals 102 state schools, many in greater London, and 60 independent schools. This covers a total of 105,000 children and students. Livery Companies now provide 464 school governors, an increasingly vital and onerous role.

“This swing is to education – but that should not mean the Livery is overlooking others: it still does a great deal for example for armed services organisations, churches, cadet corps, and alms houses.”

Twenty Companies currently provide 855 dwellings for 1,014 elderly residents, 620 of which are managed directly by the Companies themselves.

The full list of City Livery Companies may test the word-power of most of us with its archaic trading terms (Cordwainers, Curriers, Loriners), but it is also testament to its continued evolution. Three recent additions include The Worshipful Company of World Traders, granted Livery status in January 2000, The Information Technologists’ Company, granted livery status in 1992 and The Worshipful Company of International Bankers, granted livery status in 2004.

While the Livery Companies have a profound history they are certainly not rooted in the past. Supporting state-of-the-art academies, such as the newly opened Hammersmith Academy, as well as arts and trade centres, and employing modern processes, whether that’s using digital communication or investing socially, show it to be a modern, open-minded, forward-thinking corporation with philanthropy at its heart.