Why are the Plumbers’ 31st?

Company News

WHY THIRTY-FIRST ?

By Past Master Peter Brunner

Most liverymen will be aware that the Plumbers’ Company finds itself thirty-first in the livery companies’ order of precedence. How did this come about? Why is it that at so many important civic events we find ourselves sandwiched between the Masons and the Innholders?

In mediaeval times the position one was allotted at important ceremonial occasions, such as coronations, visits from foreign monarchy and mayoral processions, was a matter of the utmost significance. There are many recorded instances of livery companies coming to blows over this issue. In 1226 the Goldsmiths and the Tailors fought a pitched battle, in which many were killed or wounded; thirteen ringleaders were subsequently executed. The long-standing dispute between the Tailors and the Skinners was resolved by Mayor Billingdon’s celebrated award in 1484 (under which the two companies alternate in sixth and seventh places in the order of precedence).

The first serious attempts to impose order were undertaken in the reign of Henry VIII. An order of the Common Council in May 1512 directed that “ all maner of Felloushippes shall kepe the order of goyng in procession and standyng as it was ordeyned in M[ayor] Shaa daies “. This is almost certainly a reference to a list of the fellowships, and their membership, prepared in the time of Mayor John Shaa (1501 -2). The Plumbers, with twelve members, were placed thirty-first in this list.[1]

Shortly afterwards, and following yet more squabbles between Salters and Ironmongers, and between Shermen and Dyers, the order of precedence of the forty-eight existing guilds was firmly laid down at a meeting of the Court of Aldermen on 31st January 1516[2] “ ….for all the Craftes and Misteres…For their Goynges as well in all processions as all other goynges Standynges and Rydinges for the busynessys and causes of this Citie”.

The order was evidently based not upon date of incorporation or size, but upon wealth and influence. It is therefore unsurprising that nearly all of the first twelve companies, the so-called Great Twelve, were merchant, not craft, companies.

The Plumbers were placed thirty-second. Ahead of them, in eighteenth place, came the Fullers, who eventually in 1528 merged with the Shermen, in twelfth place, to form the Clothworkers. This merger of course enabled the Plumbers to move up one place.

With insignificant exceptions the Plumbers’ Company has ever since, and for close on five hundred years, maintained its position as thirty-first in the order of precedence.

[1] Journal 10 Folio 373b, and see Jupp’s History of the Carpenters’ Company (1887) pp291-2.

[2] Repertory 3 Folio 66b.