What Does It Mean?


by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

Was your British ancestor a tailor or a fishmonger? If he or she lived in a town, he or she could not carry on a trade except as a member of a guild.

What does this mean?

About 800 years ago, people began to move away from farming and from the society of the feudal system. They moved to towns, often called boroughs. These need organization, and so a special charter would be obtained from the King, permitting local government through the mayor and council members and most important, the regulation of trade.

Each town also wanted its charter to authorize a hanse, or MERCHANT GUILD. The guild would regulate markets and fairs for the town council, fix the fees to be paid by visiting tradesmen (called foreigners), and deal with penalties for short weight, false coins and inferior quality of goods. Every merchant in the town was required to become a guild member, and eventually every town citizen or burgess was automatically a guild member. The guild records are part of the town records.

In addition to the merchant guild, the craftsmen in a town would also be members of their own professional organization called a CRAFT GUILD. Shoemakers, apothecaries, blacksmiths and many other trades had craft guilds. They would be responsible for protecting the interests and standards of workmanship of members, setting prices, settling disputes among members, and excluding competition from non-members. It became illegal to learn or practice a trade without being a guild member. London was always Britain’s biggest city. Strangely, it was not authorized by its charter to have a merchant guild. Because of its much larger population, its craft guilds were large and powerful organizations. They had distinctive costumes for ceremonial occasions, and so became known as livery companies. Not only did they regulate their individual trades, the most powerful would compete with each other take over the London city council. The most powerful London craft guilds therefore became in succession its merchant guild as well.

Everyone who normally did business in London had to become a guild member. So if the Mercers’ Guild was in power for the present, any merchant setting up in London, even if a butcher or a spice dealer, would join the Mercers’ Guild. Because of this, don’t assume that your London ancestor’s trade matched his guild membership. Since trades congregated together, the street name where your ancestor worked may tell you more. Baker Street or Threadneedle Street are good examples.

Since guild membership was essential to status as a burgess or resident of a town, the nobility and gentry who lived in towns also became guild members. The guild therefore contained OPERATIVES, the people who actually did the crafts; and SPECULATIVES, the nobility, gentry and members of other trades (we would call them associate or honorary members). All of these could call themselves FREEMEN or citizens of the town. One became an operative by serving as an apprentice and learning the trade. One became a speculative by being the son of a member or by purchasing membership. Membership was a matter of pride. The Will of Thomas Fitton, for example, describes him as a Citizen and Salter of London.

An exception to this was the one guild whose members did not stay in the same town for long. The Masons built the major buildings of the day, the royal palaces, cathedrals, monasteries, mansion and so on. They were found wherever the work was and so set up their craft guild meetings at the job sites. As time passed, the other public institutions assumed many of the responsibilities of the merchant and craft guilds. By the 1700s, many had become charitable organizations, providing education, insurance and disability benefits for members and their families. When Freemasonry as we know it today was established in 1717, it was modeled on some of the ceremonies of the Mason’s craft guild. By the early 1800s, guilds had largely ceased to play a role in the social fabric of commerce.

The craft guild records are found among the municipal records of larger cities and towns. There are minutes of meetings of the senior officers; Ordinances, which are the regulations published for members; and Accounts, which show among other things the money received when members joined, and the money paid for funerals when members died. The Accounts are therefore of most value to the genealogist.

(Next time, masters apprentices and journeymen, the operatives of the craft guild).

This article first appeared in the November 2000 newsletter, Volume 16 - Number 2