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History of the Bakers' Company

There is very little documentary evidence as to when the older guilds in London were first formed and the origin of the Bakers’ in particular must be lost in the mists of time. 

It has been said that the Craft of baking is older than any other and that bread was baked on the primitive hearths of savages long before the dawn of civilisation, while it is recorded in biblical days that Pharaoh ‘hanged the chief baker’ (Genesis XL.22).

What is not in dispute however is that the Worshipful Company of Bakers can trace its City of London origins back over 800 years – and that, for over 500 of those years, the Company has owned and occupied its Harp Lane site in Tower Ward, just west of The Tower of London.

In this section of the Bakers’ Company website we trace the history of the Company as it moved through the many social, political and technical changes that the City of London and the trade of bread making have experienced in the last eight centuries. 

Company crest
The Company’s ancient motto - "PRAISE GOD FOR ALL"

There is very little documentary evidence as to when the older guilds in London were first formed and the origin of the Bakers’ in particular must be lost in the mists of time. It has been said that the Craft of baking is older than any other and that bread was baked on the primitive hearths of savages long before the dawn of civilisation, while it is recorded in biblical days that Pharaoh ‘hanged the chief baker’ (Genesis XL.22).

Then as early as 168 BC, bakers were the only craftsmen in Rome who were "freedmen" of the City, all other trades were being conducted as slaves. The whole craft was incorporated in a collect of bakers - COLLEGIUM PISTORUM - and was of so high repute in the affairs of the state for one of its representatives to have a seat in the Senate. It is clear therefore that a craft fraternity must have subsisted also in London during the Roman occupation.

However, after the Dark Ages it is known that the early guilds in London evolved from a purely religious basis when craftsmen in specific trades tended to congregate in a common area for both practical and mutual convenience. To some extent this still appertains today - for example in Hatton Garden. It is natural therefore that the members of a particular craft who worshipped together at their local church should form a community of interests and it was from these religious congregations that voluntary associations (as opposed to the compulsory ‘frith guilds’ of Saxon times) were formed for the mutual aid and protection of their members. These fraternal bodies of Guild took their title from their patron saint, and the guild of bakers was known at least until Mediaeval days as the ‘FRATERNITY or GUYLDE OF OUR LADY AND ST. CLEMENT’.

The spiritual connotation is perpetuated to this day in the title ’Worshipful’ and in the Company’s motto ‘PRAISE GOD FOR ALL’, which is also the traditional grace used before all meals. Likewise, a special Church Service always follows the annual election of the Master and Officers of the Company on the Monday following St.Clement’s Day, 23rd November.

The first known records of the existence of the Bakers’ Guild are contained in the great ‘Pipe Rolls’ of Henry II which listed the yearly ‘farm’ paid to the Crown and in these it is shown that the Bakers' of London (the BOLENGARII) paid a Mark of gold to the King’s Exchequer for their Guild from 1155 AD onwards. Only the Weaver’s guild have an entry a few years earlier in the Rolls, so the Bakers, based on these records, can claim to be the second oldest guild in London. Others, such as the Saddlers and Goldsmiths which like the Bakers may well have been forming much earlier, did not however pay the farm and were not recognised as guilds but were classed as adulterine and were fined accordingly.

The anchors on the waves are the symbol of St.Clement who was the third Pope, being made Bishop of Rome in 91 AD. He was later sentenced by the Romans to death by drowning with an anchor roped around his neck for preaching Christianity. It is worthy of note that the White bakers’ shield has always had two anchors vertically, whereas the old Brown-bakers’ shield had a single horizontal anchor, as embroidered on the Barge-fenders on the wall in the Court Room (these are a relic of the era when the new Lord Mayor’s annual procession went by river to Westminster and each Company had its own barge, until the river Pageant ceased in 1856).

The grant of a Crest and Supporters was obtained in 1590 and, as seen in today’s authentic Coat-of-Arms engraved on a window of the ante-room, has two Bucks in allusion to the use in the past of buckwheat, and the Company’s ancient motto - "PRAISE GOD FOR ALL"

The Company’s Armorial Bearings (on the top left of your screen) are of great antiquity and interest as they derive from the foundation of the ‘College of Arms’ in 1484. 

The ancient stained glass window exhibited in the vestibule was removed in 1940 from the pre-‘Great Fire’ Church of St.Andrew Undershaft in Leadenhall Street and taken to Chedder Caves for safe storage. Having lain in obscurity for some 40 years it was eventually traced and resurrected in 1981 and is now on permanent loan to the Company.

It had been installed in the church during the re-building in the 1520’s and depicts the Company’s Shield dating back to 1461, when authorised in all likelihood by the Garter King-of-Arms whose office commenced under Henry V in 1415.

The window had been donated by the Bakers’ Company as benefactors of St.Andrew Undershaft and is of particular significance in that is shows the triple Crown of Pope Clement. Following the Reformation this was of course removed when the first recorded Grant of Arms (based on an earlier one) was made by Clarenceaux King-of-Arms in 1536.

Centuries later, by edict of the City Fathers in 1515, a notional order of precedence, based on their influence at that time, was fixed in perpetuity for all the City Livery Companies, ranking the Bakers’ Company as 19th out of nearly 100, which number of Companies has been reached again today.

The ‘farm’ or toll paid by the Bakers in the 12th Century was in effect a tax on bread which did, nevertheless, by its payment, absolve them from further tolls which were customary in the markets and fairs. Bread being the ‘staff of life’ it is natural that throughout the ages bakers have always been the most strictly controlled and regulated of all trades and the most important time in the life of the Bakers’ Guild commenced in 1266 with the enactment for many crafts of the ‘Assize Laws’ which were no doubt based on controls in Anglo-Saxon days.

The Bakers’ Guild had the very onerous responsibility of enforcing the ‘Bread Assize’ within a radius of 2 miles from the City of London or a circumference of 12 miles around, excluding the City of Westminster.

The Guild was given wide legal powers by the Court of Aldermen to administer the Assize and to order such punishments as were fitting. The Master acted as Magistrate with a jury composed of Wardens and Assistants from the Court of the Company. Only two other Companies ever received such authority - the Weavers and Fishmongers.

The Court Room of the Company’s Hall was used for these judicial purposes and the curious low balustrade across the room, at which offenders and others had to appear, is retained to this day. Another important feature of this ‘Court of Holy-Moot’. (Halimote), was the pair of scales, now in a glass case at the top of the stairs, for short weights was probably the most common offence. Another, not unknown in the days when coarse sandstones were used for milling, was to add extra sand to the flour, and skulls on display in London Museums show clearly how teeth were worn down as a result. Less disastrous but no less fraudulent was the addition of sawdust.

Apart from minor infringements, the penalties for more serious offences were on the first occasion for the offender to be dragged on a hurdle through the dirtiest streets of the City with the faulty loaf hanging from his neck. For the second offence he was pilloried for an hour, and if he broke the law a third time, his oven was pulled down and he had to forswear baking for evermore.

The majority of the first Guild-halls in the Middle Ages were much more than meeting places, being of prime importance to the City as warehouses for the storage of coal and grain against times of shortage, as well as armouries for reserves of guns and gunpowder in emergencies.

As a start, the Bakers has hired a tenement in Dowgate for £3 a year in 1490, but their first proper Hall was a large mansion in the centre, then of the City’s wine trade district and which was bought for £20.00 in 1506. It had once been owned by a famous vintner, Richard Lyons, who was executed in the ‘Peasants’ Rising’ of 1381 and latterly by a Lady Elizabeth Boughcher, one of the 24 children of John Chicheley, Chamberlain of London from 1434 to 1449.

It was situated in Sigrymes Lane, subsequently named Hart Lane and now Harp Lane and it had all the requisite accommodation aforementioned plus administrative offices, temporary quarters for liverymen, and Almshouses. There was a large banqueting hall, with a Minstrels’ Gallery and a garden which ran down to the river and where grapevines and herbs were grown - together with a bowling alley.

All this was lost in the Great Fire and a similar fate befell the second Hall which replaced it in 1673. This second Hall had wisely been insured for £75.00 when in 1715 another fire raged in Thames Street.

That bakers were also builders in bygone days is demonstrated by the Master and Wardens having personally supervised the various tradesmen employed in the re-building of the third Hall between 1719 and 1722. This was the Hall which survived for over 200 years until the night of the first ‘blitz’ on the City in 1940. It had much oak and pine panelling and each stair was made from a solid baulk of oak. There were stained glass windows bearing the Coats of Arms of former Masters and the Livery Hall had a Minstrel Gallery hung with banners.

An interesting relic from this Hall is the old oak Charter Box, now in the ante-room, with a carved panel on the front giving the date 1722. There was also saved the Beadle’s oak seat now in the vestibule and a set of eight large marble panels depicting the life of the Company through the ages and now lining the walls of the staircase. These plaques had formerly been in the front passageway between the offices of wine merchants flanking the entrance gates fronting on Harp lane and leading to the small courtyard and main doors of the 1722 Hall. They are most unusual, having been executed in a rare and skilful manner in 1882, the lines of the drawings being chiselled out of fine marble and a leaden wire let into the grooves.

Further, surviving so importantly, almost from the time of the first Master of the Company, John Jenyns in 1481, are some of the Company’s records dating back to 1491.

The present, 4th Hall stands on the original freehold site of 1506. It was built in 1963; and the ‘War Damage Commission’ having paid little more than a token sum, the construction of a modern block of offices above was essential to fund rebuilding. Each new Hall has, of necessity, been smaller than its predecessor and the main accommodation is now the Court Room on the lower ground floor, with the Charter Gallery and Livery Hall above, seating about 90 for dining - which brings to mind a tradition from far-off days when one of the Toasts after dinner was invariably ‘To the Merry Maids, the Good Wives, and the Buxom Widows of the Bakers’ Company’!

As a reminder of the destruction of the three former Halls, the stained glass windows in the Livery Hall were designed by the famous artist, John Piper, and symbolize the three fires in an abstract fashion, whilst the specially commissioned wall-covering of the Ante-Room shows the legendary Phoenix ever rising from the ashes.

Out of today’s 110+ Livery Companies, only 38 are so fortunate to still have their own Halls.

The immediate vicinity has of course totally changed from when, until 1940, the Hall stood in a narrow lane which opened onto Great Tower Street, whereas since 1961 Harp lane now ends in a courtyard - ‘Bakers’ Hall Court’. In the centre of this, the Company planted a chestnut tree to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977. Strangely, even though in the City’s wine district the next two lanes to the east had such improbable names as ‘Water Lane’ and ‘Beer Lane’ so it may be poetic justice they should be swept away with the post-war re-routing of Lower Thames Street towards the Church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower.

The importance of every loaf being identifiable is easily understood, so a different mark (or ‘dock’), the Hallmark, was issued annually to each baker from Bakers’ Hall.

In order to avoid the dangers of short-weight, bakers often gave a small extra piece of bread, the ‘in-bread’, with each loaf and some of today’s older generation can still remember receiving these tasty morsels when buying a loaf. The custom arose likewise of bakers giving 13 loaves for every 12 bought, the extra one being termed the ‘vantage loaf’ and hence the ‘bakers’ dozen’.

The Court was of course summoned for many other purposes, administrative and ceremonial, such as the indenturing of Apprentices and the granting of Livery status to new Members.

The term ‘liver’ is derived from the distinctive apparel worn by different Orders (Monastic, Feudal etc.), so prevalent in the Middle Ages.

Although broader in concept than the mere wearing of special garments, the livery when adopted by the guilds of London in the reign of Edward III to distinguish their members from one another, consisted of a surcoat for the Freemen with the addition of a hood for Liverymen or a hat for the Master. 

The gowns are still worn today on ceremonial occasions and are in the Company’s colours of Olive-Green and Maroon. These liveries are peculiar to the Guilds of the City of London and make the City Livery Companies, as they are currently known, unique throughout the world.

From ages past predominantly the Brown Bakers made a more substantial and nutritious coarse, almost black, loaf of rye or barley or buckwheat etc, but as white bread gradually became more popular, considerable friction developed between the bakers of brown and those of white so that in the early years of the 14th Century they split into separate guilds.

Despite the White-Bakers making several attempts to force the Brown-Bakers to reunite, the latter nevertheless obtained their own Coat of Arms in 1572, a Charter in 1614, a Grant of Incorporation in 1621, and for ten years their own Hall in Aldersgate in 1635. It was not until 1645 that, due to their ever declining trade and influence, they finally reunited with the White-Bakers into the single Company existing now. 

Meanwhile, the White-Bakers had received their first recorded Charter from Henry VII in 1486 although some historians do aver that this did but replace an earlier one granted by Edward II, probably in 1307 - before Charters were first given generally to the guilds by Edward III between 1327 - 1377. Subsequently further Charters were obtained from Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I whose Charter dated 1569 now hangs in the Charter Gallery of the Hall. There are also Charters from James I and James II on the walls of the Court Room and the Guild of White-Bakers received its Grant of Incorporation as a Livery Company in 1509 from Henry VIII.

The Company still operates today in accordance with its last Charter received from King James II in 1686, under the governance, as laid down therein, of the Master, Upper Warden, Second and Third and Under Wardens and a Court of Assistants thirty in number and ‘one honest and discrete person to be learned Clerk’.

With the ending in 1815 of the system of control through the ‘Assize of Bread’ in favour of direct control by Parliament, the bakers’ Company was relieved of its long responsibility for controlling the trade. The weight of a ‘standard’ loaf became fixed from then onwards by Statute.

Bread no longer being the staple diet of the masses, the influence of the Company has naturally since changed, but about one third of its Liverymen today are either Master Bakers or allied traders and it concerns itself mainly with educational and charitable matters.

The Bakers' Company was a founder member of the ‘City & Guilds Institute’ in 1880, and awards the Freedom of the Company to the top eligible prize winner each year at the National Bakery School of the South Bank University.

A further indication of the Company’s activity is shown by the formation in 1977 of the ‘Bakers Livery Society’, a successor to the Company’s ‘Yeomans’ Club’, which existed for about 150 years until disbanded in 1684. The function of the society now is to further the interest of `Liverymen in the history, traditions and future of their Company and the City of London and in the progress and affairs of the baking industry.

For more details see About The Bakers' Company.

These two excellent YouTube videos should help you understand some of the idiosyncrasies‎ of the City of London . . .

Enquiries of an historical nature only (not genealogical enquiries) should be directed to the Honorary Archivist at archives@bakers.co.uk. Enquiries will be dealt with as soon as practical, but please be patient.

Please note email enquiries which can be answered by reference to the Guildhall Library or the London Metropolitan Archives or the information on this website will not receive replies.