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The Worshipful Company of Grocers

by Jean Bellamy

Grocers Coat of ArmsIn the year 1345, 22 members of the Ancient Guild of Pepperers founded a fraternity which in 1376 became known as the Worshipful Company of Grocers of London. The Pepperers Guild was first heard of in 1180, and to its members was entrusted the duty of garbling' or preventing the impairment of spices and drugs. They were also in charge of the King's Beam which weighed goods by the aver-do-poys weight, or "peso gross," and it seems likely that the Company derived its name from the medieval Latin "Grossarius" -- one who busy and sells in the gross.

The site on which the Present Hall stands in Princes Street, London EC2, was acquired in 1427, and the Hall then built on it was granted its charter in the following year. The Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed the Butchers' Hall ruined the Grocers' too, as well as much of the Company's property in the City. In 1694 it was rebuilt and leased to the newly-formed Bank of England, of which Sir John Houblon, grocer, was the first governor.

A third hall completed in 1802 replaced the second, but in 1887 it was decided to clear the site completely and erect yet another -- the fourth. Completed in 1893, this one was lucky enough, unlike other of the Livery Halls, to survive the Second World War, sustaining only a small amount of damage. It was unfortunate therefore that on the night of 22nd September 1965 a fire almost completely destroyed it. Believed to have been started by a light bulb inadvertently left on beneath an oak lintel in a cupboard under the Grand Staircase, it was described as the biggest conflagration in London since the Blitz.

As a result, the contents of the Hall were largely destroyed as the fire spread rapidly through the panelling which composed a large part of the building. Many of its irreplaceable contents were lost, but as at the time of the Great Fire of 1666, the muniments, including the first Minute Book of the Company dating from 1345, miraculously escaped, and are now housed in the Guildhall on loan. The greatest loss, however, were the Company's Charters which had been on display on the first floor landing. Other casualties of the fire included a portrait of the young Queen Victoria by Winterhalter and one of King William III (Sovereign Master, 1689) by Kneller, depicting him mounted and leading his troops at the Battle of the Boyne. A bronze bust of Winston Churchill and one of F.W. Sanderson, headmaster of Oundle, were completely melted down, so it was fortunate that casts were available of both so that they could be replaced. A portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother by Denis Fildes was burnt, but a copy was commissioned and it is now on display in the entrance hall. All three hundred of the Livery Hall chairs vanished without trace, as did the tabling, though the Master's Chair dating from 1745, though badly burnt, was later restored.

Since its earliest beginnings, members of the Fraternity have been honoured in a variety of ways. Two were knighted by Richard II for the part they played in the Wat Tyler rebellion, one, John Philpot, rendering a further service by equipping a fleet and sweeping the North Sea and Channel free of pirates. The Company also played its part in the Reformation, a member, Richard Grafton, printing the Great Bible -- the first English translation to be placed in churches by order of the King, as well as the two Prayer Books of Edward VI.

Upon the Restoration of King Charles II, General Monk was entertained to a banquet at the Grocers' Hall, the Freedom of the City and of the Company being conferred upon him; whilst Sir Thomas Alleyn, the Lord Mayor (already a member) welcomed the King on his return to this country. After that, for close on a century, the history of the Company was uneventful.

The fifth and present Hall, built on the same site, was opened in 1970 by the late Queen Mother. In the Lobby is to be seen what is probably the oldest bell in the City, dating from 1458 and acquired from the church of All Hallows, Staining Lane. It had to be re-welded after the fire, having been badly cracked by the heat. Off the lobby is the Reception Room, displaying three tapestries designed by John Piper, depicting in brilliant colours many foreign foodstuffs and spices in which early members of the Company traded as wholesale merchants. An octagonal table and a pair of Rothschild mirrors came from the inner Drawing Room of the fourth Hall. AQueen Anne mirror was bought in 1968, and a bust of Field-Marshall Earl Alexander of Tunis was unveiled by Admiral of the Fleet, the late Lord Mountbatten of Burma in 1975. On the ground floor are the offices of the Clerk, beadle and secretaries, with the cloakrooms, Wine Cellar and Plate Room on the lower ground floor.

The first floor contains the Kitchens and the Livery Hall, the walls of the latter being lined with crimson silk. It possesses three Venetian chandeliers and a portrait of William III presented by the Merchant Taylors' Company . A bust of the late Queen Mother by Oscar Nemon dominates the room. On the second floor are the Library, the Court Room and the Court Dining Room, the library having copies of the Bugges Bible printed by Richard Grafton in 1537 and of the Great Bibles of 1540 and 1541. Many of the book bindings have been restored since the fire, and much of the furniture was purchased in the 1950s from St. Donat's Castle. The Court Room contains an oval table of Honduras mahogany presented by the Old Boys of Oundle School, and the restored Master's Chair of carved Spanish mahogany.

In the Court Dining Room is the Master's small chair of 1750 and the remainder of the furnituremuch of which underwent considerable repair after the fire. Some piece of the famous Walter Hale glass collection are displayed here and there is a fine collection of Rockingham china. Some more Walter Hale glass is to be seen on the landing, as well as fragments of the Company's charters salvaged from the fire and mounted by the Record Office.

After the Great Fire of 1666, the original business of the company -- the control of the spice trade in London -- came to an end, and all responsibility was taken over by the Customs and Excise. From then onwards the role of the company altered completely, becoming channelled into generous giving to charity, which was to be the principle object of its existence. For over three hundred years, its activities in this respect have included giving of gifts to the church and to education, responsible for which is the Grocer's Trust Company Limited and the Education and Charities Committee, all applications for assistance being reviewed by the Company, who make recommendations. Grants, scholarship and bursaries are given to, inter alia, Oundle School, Christ's Hospital, City of London School for boys and St. Paul's Choir School. The churches in which the Company is interested and for which it holds the patronage, include St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. In addition, the arts, the elderly, youth and poor members of the company and other charities benefit.

The Company is governed by the Court of Assistants, who help the Master and Wardens in managing the Company's affairs. Appointment to the Court is by members of the Livery who number approximately 290 -- who in turn are elected from amongst the freemen, of which there are now some 370. Memers enter with the rank of Freeman and normally take the Freedom of the City at the same time. Those elected to the Court are responsible for attendance at court meetings and for sitting on one or other of the committees. In addition to the clerk, there is a paid staff of 15 full-time members, and of these the most ancient office is that of Beadle. It is interesting that on 6th July 1348, it was agreed "for ever to have a Beadle to warn and summon the Company when commanded by the wardens."

This is still the chief duty of the Beadle, but nowadays his responsibilites also include ceremonials and entertainment, keeping Company Records and liaison with members and the public. The House steward is at the head of the domestic staff who organize the Livery functions and all catering arrangements; in addition to which a full-time chef, plateman, house engineer and others are maintained -- though for large occasions further casual staff are engaged by the House Steward. On the administrative side, the clerk has assistants in the form of a charity secretary, an investment secretary and accounts department personnel.

From time to time, Honorary Freemen are admitted to the Worshipful Company of Grocers of London, amongst these, during her lifetime, the late Queen Mother, the Archbishop of Canterbury and -- in 1993 -- the late Princess of Wales.

More Information:

The Grocer's Company of the City of London
Grocers' Hall, Princes Street, London EC2R 8AD, +44 (0) 20 7606 3113

Jean Bellamy has been writing since 1970, and is the author of over 300 published articles and short stories. She has written three children's novels (all with a "West Country flavour"). A resident of Dorset, she is the author of several local history books, including Treasures of Dorset, A Dorset Quiz Book, Second Dorset Quiz Book, Dorset Tea Trail, Dorset as she was spoke, Little Book of Dorset, 101 Churchces in Dorset, and Cornwall: A Look Back. Jean loves to explore and write on all things British.
Article and photo © 2006 Jean Bellamy


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