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Mercers’ Company - an ancient organisation meeting 21st century needs

The Mercers Company is the First in the Order of Precedence of the Great Twelve City Livery Companies. Gillian Laidlaw recounts its history and its place in the City today.


ncased in a modern office block and behind a door in Ironmonger Lane lies Mercers’ Hall, the home of the first in precedence of the City livery

companies, the Mercers’ Company. The term “mercer” derives from the Latin word for merchandise, and the first reference to the trade of mercery was in the 1130s. The Mercers’ Company was first mentioned in 1304 and received its first Royal Charter from Richard II in 1394. It has met near this site in the Cheapside area since at least the early 14th century initially using rooms rented from the Hospital of St Thomas of Acon. St Thomas Becket had been born in 1118 in a house in Cheapside; he was martyred in 1170. In the 1190s a small brotherhood of crusading knights fought at Acon, or Acre, in the Holy Land, and captured the town by the miraculous intervention of the saint. In the 1220s the Hospital of St Thomas of Acon was founded on the site of his birthplace. In the early 16th century the Company

bought a piece of land adjacent to the monastery church and built its own chapel with a hall above it which was completed in 1524. In 1538 Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The Mercers bought the monastery site, adopted the

monastery church as their own chapel and rented out their own chapel as shops. The first hall survived until the Great Fire of London in 1666. The Company then took over the whole of the old monastery site and built a new hall and chapel. In 1694 the Bank of England rented the hall as their first place of business. In the 19th century restoration work was necessary; the 17th century façade was removed to Swanage in Dorset where it remains as the frontage of the Town Hall. In May 1941 the second hall was destroyed during the Blitz and the third, and present hall, was opened on the same site in 1958, the entrance having been relocated from Cheapside to Ironmonger Lane. And the Company still has a chapel, indeed Mercers remains the only livery company in the City with its own chapel. Strictly speaking a mercer could trade

in any type of merchandise but in medieval times the term evolved to describe trade in luxury fabrics such as wool, silk, linen, worsted and cloth of gold and small items like lace, ribbons, purses and headwear. There were several types of mercer: grand merchants dealing in luxury goods including luxury fabrics, artisan mercers who made items and sold materials through a shop, general mercers who might also travel to sell their wares

and peddler mercers who sold from a backpack. Those selling small goods eventually broke away from the Mercers to form the Haberdashers’ Company. (See Barbican Life, Christmas 2009, for an article about the Haberdashers’ Company). The products in which they dealt and

their wealth put the Mercers’ Company at the centre of the commercial life of the City and the development of international trade. The livery companies squabbled over which was of greatest importance and in 1515 the Lord Mayor ended the dispute by placing Mercers the first in order of precedence of the Great Twelve. (Incidentally, this decision also confirmed that Merchant Taylors and Skinners should alternate between positions 6 and 7, hence the expression “at sixes and sevens”.) The livery companies were originally

established to protect the interests of particular trades and the practitioners of those trades. The principal forms of admission were by patrimony, because father was a member of that company, or by apprenticeship. Because sons could become members without following the trade of their fathers the link between mercery and the Company was gradually eroded. By the end of the 16th century the control by the Mercers’ Company of the trade in luxury fabrics had ceased. Elizabeth I wrote to enquire of the Company why silk was so expensive; they replied that they did not know because not a single member traded in that commodity. Although the Mercers’ Company no


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