Article Index

I. FIFTY YEARS OF ROYAL COMMISSIONS: 1833-1885

The years 1832-37 were during the first Whig Administration of the 19th Century. The “Great” Reform Act of 1882 referred to Parliamentary Franchise. A Royal Commission was then appointed to recommend how the municipal franchise should be reformed, and this was quickly done and put into effect with one exception, the City of London, which it was realised would be difficult, and in fact it was not attempted, but as a preliminary it had been decided that the Livery Companies were an essential part of the City Constitution and as a first step Francis Palgrave, who had made a special study of the City and its institutions, should head a committee to report on them. No action was taken on this report, but it provides a detailed and accurate report on the constitution of all the Livery Companies then existing. He interviewed the representatives of all the Companies and effectively told them what their Constitutions were. The result is the best source of information on the subject that exists, and it is interesting to compare it with the returns made to the 1884 Commission in which most of the Companies clearly do not understand the difference between Charters and Ordinances and regard their Quo Warranto Charter as still in force.

In 1835, in order to reduce the use of Judicial Oaths, the Statutory Declarations Act was passed and introduced the concept of Statutory Declarations still in use today. Their use however remained optional and it was not until 1868 that the Promissary Oaths Act made the administering of oaths illegal except where expressly authorised. Many corporate bodies, including Livery Companies, appear to have adopted Statutory Declarations in place of the oaths their constitutions had authorised before that date.

In 1854 Froude published the first volume of his History of England from the fall of Wolsey to the defeat of the Armada, and in the course of a discussion of the State of England at the beginning of the period having eulogised the activities of the old craft gilds in controlling their crafts he launched into a highly critical view of their state at the time of writing. A few quotations suffice to make clear his opinion of the Livery Companies of London:

“The names and shadows linger about London of certain ancient societies, the traditions concerning which are fast dying out of memory. Their charters may still be read by curious antiquaries, but for what purpose they were called into


being, and how they became possessed of broad lands few people now care to think or enquire”.

It was in the spirit of this view of the Livery Companies and the Corporation of London that an increasing feeling arose and began to demand another Commission of Enquiry and reform, the more vocal critic being Joseph Bottomley Firth, a barrister and Liberal Member of Parliament.

It was in response to this growing criticism that another Royal Commission was appointed by Gladstone’s Liberal administration, into the Livery Companies alone, this time it was accepted that the Corporation itself must be left alone. The Royal Commission carried out its investigation between 1880-1884. The result was their report but no recommendations. The Report itself is interesting in that without the guiding hand of Francis Palgrave the Commission accepted what the Livery company representatives claimed were their constitutions, approved ordinances had become charters, and the Quo Warranto Charter in force despite James II’s recantation and Parliament’s Statute.

However, if the Companies were spared the reforming hand of Parliament, they set about the task themselves, it has been called “The Great Awakening”. From that time onwards they directed their energies to raising standards in their crafts and to charitable activities which have continued ever since.

II. THE HALL

In 1775 “the Church Wardens of the Synagogue” represented by “Emmanuel Cowan” (Cohen) had been given a licence to rebuild no. 52 Leadenhall Street and were then given an extended lease at a fine of £100. In 1782 the Lessees, now described as “the Elders of the Synagogue”, were allowed to surrender their lease and were given in exchange a new lease expiring in November 1883 at a fine of £300 and a rent of £40 p.a. In 1818 the lessees of nos. 51 (The Cock Tavern) and no. 53 were granted a building lease at a rent of £84 p.a. to expire also In November 1883. We may assume therefore that the 16th century houses well known to us from the two prints of the Company’s Leadenhall Street frontage ceased to exist by 1818 and had been replaced by the typical Georgian facades depicted in William Grellier’s view book of 1849.


Having obtained the lease expiring in 1883, the Elders of the Synagogue proceeded to carry out a programme of repair and redecoration of the Hall and, in July 1798, they held what the Annual Register for July 1798 describes as a service of reconsecration in the following words, which suggest perhaps that the correspondent was not familiar with Ashkenazi ritual, but nevertheless is worth quoting as it may well be the only description of an evening in Bricklayers Hall to have survived in print:-

“The high priest, with the subordinate rabbis, chorus and attendants, with a great number of the fathers of families in their proper vestments, were at the ceremony, which was awful, grand and affecting. The music and the voices performed in the Eastern manner of strophe, antistrophe and full chorus. The anthems were performed by the four brothers who sing there in a very superior style of modulation and harmony. A crowd of people attended, but they all conducted themselves decorously. A subscription was opened, and in about twenty minutes upwards of £200 was subscribed, which is more than sufficient to cover the expenses”.

It may have been during this refurbishment, or perhaps at an earlier date, that the marble plaque inscribed with the Hebrew words described in Bell’s history at p.32 as “a rare theological jest” was placed in the Hall. The Hebrew inscription consists of Verse 22 of the 118th Psalm rendered in the New English Bible as:

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”.

The quotation is also said to contain a chronogram for the date 1757 although the significance of that date is not clear, being four years earlier than the establishment of the New Synagogue in the Hall. Another theological jest current at the time took the form of the following couplet referring to the existence of a wine cellar beneath the Hall:-

“The spirits above are the Spirits divine The Spirits below are the Spirits of wine”.

The Company must have had some wine in the cellar during their occupation, but may have allowed the lessees of the Cock Tavern to use it, and it may have been this wine that the congregation were aware of.

In due course the congregation of the two Ashkenazi Synagogues, the Great and the New, became reconciled, and it is clear from the fact that the first Rabbi of the New, Moses Myers, who was brought over from Holland by the founder was acknowledged from 1792-1802 as the Chief Rabbi of the three Ashkenazi Synagogues.


It was no doubt inevitable if the New Synagogue was a success, and it clearly was, that the congregation would aspire to a purpose built building of their own , and in 1838 they moved into their new Synagogue in Great St Helens. It was also no doubt to be expected that the congregation overlooked their responsibilities under the repairing covenants in their lease from the Company in their enthusiasm for the new building; legal proceedings had to be commenced by the Company before satisfactory arrangements were made with a suitable assignee of the lease.

It was inevitable that members of the congregations of these Synagogues would be in the forefront of the movement for Jewish political emancipation at this time, and “the Bevis Marks” had the Goldsmiths, the Montefiores and the Disraelis (Benjamin was in fact baptised into the Church of England) and “theGreat” had the Rothschilds, all of whom provided many “firsts”, the first to be elected to parliament, the first Baronet, the first peer etc. To compete with these well known families “the New” had only the Salomans family but with David Saloman they certainly held their own, for he was first to stand for parliament, the second to be elected, and the first to speak there, and was the fourth to be given a Baronetcy, but above all he was the first to be elected Sheriff in 1835, to be elected Alderman in 1847 and to be elected Lord Mayor in 1855. It would be pleasing to record that the Company offered him their congratulations, but in the absence of any record of such courtesies it is a source of some satisfaction to reflect that Bricklayers’ Hall has given to the city, at least by proxy, not two, but three, Lord Mayors.

The next occupants of the Hall were a Jewish Mechanics Institution who were shortly succeeded by the Jewish Literary and Scientific Institute under whose occupation the Hall became known as “Sussex Hall” in Honour of Augustus Frederick Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), the 6th son of George III, who was known for his sympathy towards the Jewish community, possessed a considerable library of Hebrew books, and who was described as having “dabbled in Hebrew and patronised Anglo-Jewish institutions”. The Duke’s name remained associated with the site as long as the Company’s ownership lasted, the building which replaced the Hall under the redevelopment of the 1880s being named “Sussex House”, and the Cock Tavern, whose name had been good enough for its patrons for some three centuries, progressed gradually upmarket to the “Sussex Tavern” and eventually “The Sussex Arms”, until it vanished altogether.


Finally in 1860 the Jewish connection ended for good and the Company’s Hall otherwise Sussex Hall was occupied for the last twenty three years of its existence by the City of London College which had been founded earlier by two Anglican clergymen in Crosby Hall in Bishopsgate, and which counted among its alumni the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving and the famous Victorian Advocate Sir Edward Clark QC.

Before leaving any further consideration of the Jewish connection with the Hall it may be of interest to any Liveryman exploring this part of the City with the Company’s earlier connection with it in mind to know briefly what was the fortune of the four Synagogues that had for a time played such a prominent part on the scene.

Only the “Bevis Marks” remains as a splendid example of an 18th century Synagogue restored after damage in World Was II. “The Great” was destroyed in World War II and never rebuilt. “The Hambro” moved from Fenchurch Street to the East End in 1899 when its original Synagogue was demolished, and it eventually reunited with “The Great” in 1936. “The New” only survived in Great St Helens until 1915 when it moved to Stamford Hill, the building in Great St Helens being replaced by the headquarters of Shell Petroleum. The third “New” Synagogue in Egerton Road, Stamford Hill, was substantially a copy of that in Great St Helens, but now the congregation which it had attracted as they moved out of the City to the north, have now moved on again and are no longer numerous enough to support it. Some of the more valuable of the New’s possessions which survived from the early days at Bricklayers Hall have been found and are in the Jewish Museum, others have been dispersed. The plaque with the rare theological jest, when last seen, had been removed from the wall of the vestry in Stamford Hill and was broken in half.

In June 1869 the Company’s Surveyor reported that he has been in communication with the owners of the freehold of nos. 54 and 55 Leadenhall Street to the north east of the Company’s property, and the acquisition of which would in his opinion materially add to the value of that property. In September 1869 purchase of the two freeholds was completed at the price of £3,680 which was provided partly out of Company funds and partly out of the Almshouse Charity funds.

In 1881 the Court of Assistants of the Company began to consider the action to be taken when the leases of Sussex Hall including no. 52 Leadenhall Street and of nos. 51 and 53 Leadenhall Street expired. Eventually the decision taken was to offer the sites for sale by tender for redevelopment under a building lease, and an offer was accepted from a Mr King for a long lease at a ground rent of £1000 p.a. In the event at Mr King’s request the separate leases were granted one to him


of Sussex Hall and 52 Leadenhall Street at £600 p.a. and the other to Messrs Harry and Walter Carter of nos. 51 and 53 Leadenhall Street at £400 p.a. Thereafter the site must have been cleared for redevelopment, although the Court minutes contain no reference to this, and the Company’s Hall, part of the fabric of which previously dated back to the first half of the 16th century having survived the Fire, vanished for ever without apparently any record being made of what had survived.

III. THE HALL ESTATE

Messrs Harry and Walter Carter did not prove “a good covenant” for the lease of nos. 51 and 53 Leadenhall Street, they allowed their rent to fall into arrears, and eventually one of them died and the other was described as “non compos mentis”, and the Court instructed the Clerk as the Company’s solicitor to negotiate a new lease to the New Imperial Investment Society for a term of 67 years from 25th March1… at a reduced rent of £400 p.a. Eighteen years passed and then in 1913 the Clerk informed the Court that the City Corporation had given notice under the “Michael Angelo Taylor Act”, a Statute which facilitated the widening of City Streets, of their intention to acquire by compulsory purchase the freehold of the Company’s properties, nos. 52-55 Leadenhall Street. The sale was completed in 1915 at the price of £16,500. The final sale and demolition of these properties must have left “Sussex Hall” or “Sussex House”, as it was now known to the public, if not the Company, somewhat exposed, and it seems that the Company at this point lost interest in the site as an investment. Without delay the Company entered into negotiation with the City of London Freehold Property Company, who were interested in the redevelopment of this and adjoining property, and in April 1919 a sale to them of the Company’s freehold interest of the remainder of the site was completed at the price of £14,500. The loss of interest was now so complete that no attempt ever seems to have been made to retain the early title deeds which would have been of great interest to future historians of the Company. However, fifteen years later Mr Stephen Bird, a partner in the solicitors firm that had acted for the purchasers and who was then the Renter Warden presented to the Court “a set of ancient deeds relating to the Company’s old Hall in Leadenhall Street which the Court accepted with an expression of gratitude”. We may be thankful that the Renter Warden of 1935 had some sense of history, although strangely enough the Court had already put in hand the search for an author of a history of the Company that was to result in Walter Bell’s book, although again even more strangely they never drew his attention to the existence of these deeds!

At this point it may be considered instructive to consider how the other seven Building Craft Companies had fared in relation to their halls. All the Companies


had halls at one time, and they were disposed of in two groups of four. The northern group stretching along a line of approximately a third of a mile just south of the northern part of the City Wall, and reading from West to East were those of the Plaisterers, the Masons, the Carpenters, and the Bricklayers. The southern group stretching along a line of approximately a quarter of a mile in length just north of Thames Street, and reading from West to East were those of the Glaziers, the Painters, the Joiners and the Plumbers. The record may be summarised as follows:

The Carpenters had acquired their hall probably by 1430 and retain a hall on the same site to this day, although having survived the fire and “remodelled” in the 1670s and again in the 1770s, was rebuilt in the 1880s and again after damage in World War II in the 1950s. However, even the Carpenters who from the earliest times had been the wealthiest of these Companies had at times found it hard to afford the cost of maintaining a hall and at times had to resort to letting it, at least in part. Indeed Alfred and Barker in their “History of the Carpenters Company” (1968) writing of the late 17th century refer to the Company’s main achievement at the time as being “to have survived at all”, adding that without its “unusually large property interest it would probably have totally collapsed.”

The Masons appear to have leased their hall at first in 1463 and acquired the freehold a century later. They ceased to occupy it in 1864 and sold it the following year.

The Joiners appear to have acquired their hall between 1520 and 1550 and thereafter retained its use until 1811 despite destruction by fire in 1666 and thereafter retained its use until 1811 despite destruction by fire in 1666 and 1694. When it was yet again destroyed by fire in 1811 it was rebuilt but not as a hall and the site was acquired by compulsory purchase in 1951.

The Plumbers rented a hall from 1531-1638 and subsequently owned their second hall, which was destroyed in 1666 and rebuilt, until 1863 when it was acquired by compulsory purchase for the construction of Cannon Street station. Since then they have had no hall.

The Painters received the freehold of their hall on its present site as a gift in 1532 and retain it still despite destruction in 1666 and again in World War II.


The Plaisterers, like the Painters, had their hall bequeathed to them in 1556. It was destroyed by fire in 1666 and rebuilt, but after destruction by fire in 1882 it was rebuilt, but not as a hall and the site was acquired by compulsory purchase in 1956. The subsequent acquisition of their present hall on another site is a story that does not belong here, but the patience and perseverance and ingenuity by which this was brought about is required reading for all Companies that would like, as it were, to conjure a purpose built hall out of thin air.

The Glaziers appear to have rented their first hall fro the fishmongers in 1601 until it was destroyed in 1666. In the 18th century, somewhat in advance of their time, they rented a hall from the Loriners on a time-share basis of 18 days per year until 1759 after which they had no hall but “frequented taverns and coffee houses for a time”. Recently reverting to the concept of the “time-share” they have acquired a hall jointly with the Scientific Instrument Makers and the Launderers.

IV. THE COMPANY’S ALMSHOUSES 1836-1937

There is probably some truth in the proposition that the knowledge of the imminent appointment of a Royal Commission, to enquire into the activities of the Livery Companies in the last century was inclined to concentrate the minds of the Liverymen on the desirability of extending the scope of their charitable activities. Certainly as early as February 1833 the appointment of such a Royal Commission had been proposed, and it seems likely that this possibility was in the minds of those members of the Court and Livery who attended a meeting convened by the Master at the London Coffee House on 13th November 1832. However that may be, those attending the meeting accepted there was a need for the provision of Almshouses for decayed Liverymen and their widows, and a committee and treasurer were accordingly appointed to raise necessary funds for the purchase of a suitable site and the erection of almshouses. It was also decided that, should the funds raised prove to be insufficient, the Court would consider the possibility of appropriating investments from the Corporate Funds to serve as an endowment. With commendable speed the committee were able to report in April 1833 that they recommended the purchase of a site of one acre to the north of Balls Pond Road which the owner was willing to sell at the price of £300 out of which he would retain the sum of £50 to go to the cost of the Almshouses, and that a sum of £1,191.15 shillings had been promised towards the total cost of the enterprise. After some delay the purchase was completed and in May 1834 the designs of the architect, Mr William Grellier, were accepted as being suitable.

Before recommending the site to the Court, the Committee had inspected other sites on the outskirts of London, and the reasons for their final choice are not


known. The site did, however, have much to commend it, being in the hamlet of Kingsland astride the boundaries of the parishes of Hackney and Islington and just two miles up what is now the A10 from Bishopsgate. In the 17th century the young Samuel Pepys and his brother had been boarded out there with their nurse, Goody Lawrence, when it was an area of grazing land and market gardens. It was a scene to which Pepys delighted to return in later years, writing in his diary on 12th May 1667, after one such visit that “it puts me in mind of my boy’s time when I used to … shoot with my bow and arrows in these fields. A very pretty place it is”. In 1835 a writer describes Kingsland in the following words ”here are brickfields and some part of the ground is occupied by nurserymen and market gardeners” and indeed a map of the same date shows “Bassingtons’s Nursey” on the eastern boundary of the land on which the Company’s Almshouses were to be built. The Almshouses site had a frontage to a lane called King Henry’s Walk which led off Balls Pond Road in a north- easterly direction, and which according to local legend was so called as being a favourite walk of Henry VIII when staying at Newington Green for the “pleasures of the chase”. The mention in the description of 1835 however of brickfields makes it clear that the days of market gardening and nurseries were numbered, and some of the brickfields were undoubtedly those of Williams Rhodes the Master of the Company in 1825 who may have drawn the attention of the Almshouse Committee to the site. While these and other brickfields would over the next few decades provide the materials for extending the tentacles of London around and beyond Kingsland, it was still, and would for a little longer remain not only a healthy but also a pleasant rural surrounding for the pensioners. That the Company was not alone in regarding the site as desirable is shown by the fact that in the next few years Almshouses would be built on the same site by the Dyers (1841) and Cutlers (1850), both Livery Companies, and by the “Bookbinders” (1843) and the Metropolitan Benevolent Societies (1836). By the time the Company closed its Almshouses in 1937 the others had all closed too or moved on elsewhere, except for those of the Metropolitan Benevolent Societies, which still remains facing Balls Pond Road, a pleasing example of what the others must have been like in their heyday.

Mr Grellier’s initial plans provided for eight Almshouses each comprising one large room with a stove and a bedstead and a separate wash house. If this seems Spartan by today’s standards, it is fair to remember that in 1834, two years before the first pensioners took up residence, the Poor Law Amendment Act had come into force, providing for the first time the mandatory indoor relief familiar to readers of “Oliver Twist”, and which in the case of the aged poor must have been not very different from a sentence of life imprisonment. Compared to that the accommodation offered by Almshouses such as these may have been almost luxurious. By November 1835 the Committee reported that this block of eight Almshouses would be ready for occupation by Christmas. The cost of building


amounted to £1,545 of which £495 was attributable to enclosing and draining the site and sinking a well. A sum of £3,200 in three and a half annuities was set aside from Corporate Funds as an endowment in the hands of Trustees, the interest to be used to pay for repairs and to provide each occupant with an annual allowance of £10 and one ton of coal. This allowance was increased from time to time and by the end of the century amounted to £25 for Liverymen (£23 for widows), £20 for Freemen (£18 for widows), and an amount not exceeding three tons of coal. The first occupants were chosen in March 1836 and consisted of one Liveryman and seven widows. The architect, MrGrellier, who had given his services free was elected in 1836 successively to the Freedom, the Livery and the Court without payment as a mark of the Company’s appreciation.

Subsequently a northern block of four additional Almshouses, making twelve in all, was added together with a Gate House with rooms for an Attendant and his family, for which a further sum of £643 was raised to pay the cost, and a further £200 of three and a half per cent annuities was transferred to Trustees from Corporate Funds as an endowment. Initially all occupants were Liverymen and their widows, later Freemen and their widows were eligible, and later still it became necessary to elect suitable applicants to the Freedom to fill the places. All had to be not less than sixty years of age and of good character and being in receipt of income not exceeding £20 p.a.

Until 1866 the Almshouses were open to King Henry’s Walk across the Garden and lawn, but in that year the road frontage was divided into eight plots for houses and let on a building lease for 99 years at a ground rent of £40 p.a. which was used for the benefit of the occupants of the Almshouses.

By the mid 1920s it had become apparent that the Almshouses were no longer able to fulfil the purpose for which they had been built and the consent of the Charity Commission was obtained for the sale of the site to the Jewish Board of Guardians in 1937, and for a scheme for the future administration of the proceeds of the sale and the investments in the Almshouses Fund. The Almshouses had lasted for just one hundred years.