The role of Jews in London’s historic trade associations

The role of Jews in London’s historic trade associations

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

Sir Michael Bear, ex-Lord Mayor of London
Sir Michael Bear, ex-Lord Mayor of London

Stephen Oryszczuk discovers how Jews have thrived in London’s 109 historic trade associations – commonly known as Livery Companies

Sir Michael Bear, ex-Lord Mayor of London
Sir Michael Bear, ex-Lord Mayor of London

It’s Thursday evening. Stephen Woolfe is down in London from the Midlands where he is a senior partner at a top law firm, and he’s telling me that he couldn’t sew a stitch if his client’s life depended on it.

It’s a strange thing for Woolfe to admit, but thankfully he doesn’t need to. His Piccadilly meeting requires only a laptop. And when he sits down later to eat with 150 members of the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters, of which he is Master, he need only know how to use cutlery.

Woolfe is one of many Jews who today take part in the City of London’s 109 Livery Companies, collectively known as “the Livery”. They have done so ever since 1830. “Jews in Britain were not officially permitted to be members of guilds until then,” explains Derek Taylor, editor of the Jewish Yearbook and all-round sage. “Guilds were Christian foundations. The qualification was to be elected a Freeman of the City of London and that wasn’t permitted to Jews until that date.”

Many early Jewish immigrants acted as brokers in the City, involved with the supply of currency (few other professions were open to them). “One, Solomon Dormido, invented cargo insurance, so you can see how important they were,” says Taylor.

However, they couldn’t be brokers unless they were Freemen, so the City bypassed the problem by allowing 12 non-British brokers and 12 Jewish brokers. In other words, it ignored the fact that Jews didn’t qualify. In Taylor’s words: “The City wasn’t about to cut off its nose to spite its face.”

Jews soon began drifting in to guilds and Livery Companies, and ever since there have been many Jewish Masters. “There are quite a number of us,” says Peter Holt, Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Environmental Cleaners, one of the “modern” Companies that date from 1926.

The Company of Pikeman and Musketeers at the Lord Mayor's Show
The Company of Pikeman and Musketeers at the Lord Mayor’s Show

“Jews have an historic connection to the City,” he explains. “They were moneylenders and in the City’s coffee shops, insurance companies and banks were born. So from an early stage there is this link, this sense of Jewish tradition.”

That tradition is still going strong, and it’s not just men carrying it on. Fiona Adler, the first female Master at the Worshipful Company of Tobacco Blenders and Pipe Makers, is now standing for Sheriff in June. In her case, it’s not just a Jewish tradition but a family trend. Both her father and grandfather were also Past Masters.

If she becomes Sheriff, she will take one of a patchwork of antique titles dating back to the ninth Century, whereas the guilds and Companies date back a mere 700 years. “That they still exist at all is a lovely link to the past,” says Woolfe. “You’re part of history. I took part in the Lord Mayor’s Show this year, and I was just standing there thinking this show is 800 years old, the oldest parade in the world. You just feel part of something that’s always been there.”

What else attracts Jews to these trade unions for industries from which they were barred?

The job description offers clues. As well as electing Lord Mayors and Sheriffs, attending formal events and wearing gowns and chains, Liverymen raise money.

“It is a unique philanthropic force without parallel anywhere in the world,” says one former Lord Mayor. “It’s the spirit of charity too,” says Holt. “It’s not at all like Freemasonry, but a lot of Masons are also in the Companies because the spirit is similar. The Livery contributed more than £40million to charity last year.”

While it’s not quite white aprons and rolled-up trouser legs, the Companies still represent the City’s sense of ceremony with traditions such as the passing of the Loving Cup, which dates to the pre-1066 murder of King Edward while he was drinking.

The cup passes round the table with each guest drinking to his neighbour. When the guest about to drink from the Loving Cup (which looks like a little trophy) stands up, those on either side of him also rise. The guest on one side stands with his back to the one about to drink, to protect him from attack. The drinker and the guest on his other side bow to each other before the drinker drinks. They bow to each other again before the same procedure is followed with the next neighbour, and so on. Rumour has it that the Distillers Company still uses daggers, symbolising Ed’s downfall.

Steven Woolfe of the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters
Steven Woolfe of the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters

Enjoyable as all this flummery sounds, the path to the top can be anything but straightforward. Take Sir Michael Bear, London’s most recent Jewish Lord Mayor (2010-11).

He was part of the Worshipful Company of Paviors, Surveyors, Engineers, Cleaners and Security Professionals, a member of three City clubs (Reform, Athenaeum and East India), an Alderman, a Sheriff and a member of the Guild of Freemen. Finally, in 2010, he was made Lord Mayor, serving the customary year before being knighted.

Bear used his tenure to advance Anglo-Israeli ties, opening the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and hosting a forum discussing bilateral cooperation, but 180 years ago financier David Salomons sought public office for a very different reason: to break down social barriers. After joining a Company, the Coopers, he was elected Sheriff in 1835, but the oath of office was unacceptable to a practising Jew, with the words “upon the true faith of a Christian.”

The law changed with the Sheriffs’ Declaration Act and he could take up his post, soon after being elected Alderman – part of the City’s governing body. Again, he could not complete his oath until 10 years later, in 1847, when this law changed too, and Salomons was elected.

Eight years later he became the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London. “I’ve never seen a kippah at any of these events,” says Woolfe. “These days, those who get involved with the Livery Companies are much more liberal, and very few have anything to do with the profession in the name of their Company. As I said, don’t ask me anything about knitting!”

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