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The Master’s Voice – August 2014

The summer has been a period of frantic activity and August is a good time to take stock of all that has taken place during a period blessed with the most marvellous weather.

The Merchant Venturers obtained their first Royal Charter under Edward VI in 1552 and although the organisation was active well before that date we very much enjoy our association with the London Livery Companies whose charters are older than ours and indeed with those who have only received their charters in recent years. There are now 110 Companies of which 77 have historic origins. Since 1932 when the Master Mariners were formed, a succession of companies have been created. We have particular links with the Tobacco Blenders and Pipe Makers, created largely at the instigation of our former Wills tobacco family members, and the Information Technologists with whom we have forged a strong friendship through their commitment to IT in education and support for our schools.

The order of precedence was established in the C15th at which time there was an argument between two companies, the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors as to which should be at no 6 and which at no7. This was resolved by Lord Mayor Bilsdon in 1484 who decreed that they should take it in turns annually, the changeover taking place on St Stephens Day. This has given rise to the famous expression ‘to be at sixes and sevens’. It was a privilege to attend the Bilsdon Dinner at the Merchant Taylors` Hall, appropriately sited in Threadneedle Street. The entry through a single door led into a range of rooms and an open Italianate courtyard with fountains where drinks were served before all 200 guests were ushered into the Hall for dinner. The primary guest was of course the Lady Master of the Skinners.

During my year I have had the opportunity to attend an impressive exhibition of modern pewterware at the Pewterers` Company and, at the invitation of the Master of the Woolmens` Company, to be treated to lunch at the Royal Welsh Show, having enjoyed the judging of sheep breeds and observing a sheep-shearing competition. The Woolmens` Banquet in London, was held on the ship HQS Wellington, the Hall of the aforementioned Master Mariners, which although moored outside it, has its anchor firmly embedded in the Square Mile.

At the invitation of Livery Schools Link I attended an afternoon conference at Staple Inn, by Chancery Lane, to discuss the role Livery Companies can play in education. The Merchant Venturers are of course very committed to this area of focus and have been indebted to the Mercers`, Haberdashers` and Skinners` Companies in particular for the support and advice they have given us as we have progressed our Academy programme.

It was encouraging to see so many other Livery Companies taking an interest and it was particularly affecting to hear an appeal by a Principal of a school in Hackney, rated as good, to be adopted by a Livery Company. She was quite convinced of the breadth and professionalism such a move would bring to the ambition and governance of her school.

On a lighter note I very much enjoyed being Jailed and Bailed for the British Red Cross charity. Along with other Masters at the Mansion House I was ‘Jailed’ by a judge, under the watchful eye of the Sheriffs and 3 Victorian – attired constables, my crime being to have lured the Lord Mayor away to Bristol. A ball and chain was attached to our wrists and with badges and Livery gowns we were escorted on foot to the Tower of London where the Beefeaters cried “Shame”. ‘Bread and water’ in the form of an excellent lunch and Pol Roger champagne were served in the Ward Room and once we had paid our bail to the charity we were released into the sunlight. Standing on the steps we were photographed by many hundreds of tourists, clearly enjoying this traditional eccentricity.

The dining halls of many of the London companies are impressive in size and opulence and it was therefore an altogether different but equally happy experience to attend a dinner given by the Weavers, Fullers and Shearmen of Exeter in their exquisite mediaeval hall dating from 1471 and seating a maximum of 25. Their company is to be commended for the vital work it does in preserving this gem of a building.

Across the country companies founded by Royal Charter are carrying out invaluable work in education, care of the elderly, preservation of buildings and artefacts and in charitable giving. By maintaining the strong links that have been developed over many years between us we are able to support and learn from one another and thus extend our ability to make a real difference to lives throughout the UK.

Anthony Brown

Master, Society of Merchant Venturers