The Leathersellers’ Company

History and Heritage

A brief outline of the Company’s long history is given here, but for a more detailed account please click on the link at the bottom of this page.

The Leathersellers’ Company’s orgins, like those of many other Livery Companies, lie in the middle ages when guilds gradually emerged to support and protect those engaged in particular crafts and trades.

The Leathersellers’ Company is thought to have its origins amongst the whittawyers (makers of fine white leather) and pouchmakers who congregated along London Wall in the early thirteenth century. The English word ‘letherseller’ is first found to describe the occupations of John and Roger Pointel in 1297, but the earliest official documentary use of ‘leathersellers’ for a group of London craftsmen comes in 1372, when members of the mistery or craft of Leathersellers and Pursers complained to the mayor and aldermen about the Dyers who had been dyeing sheep leather to pass it off as the the more durable and expensive roe leather. In 1398, during the first mayoralty of Richard Whittington, the Leathersellers applied for articles for the regulation of their craft and the prevention and punishment of dishonest practices in their trade. This resulted in “ordinances” or bye-laws, in which the Leathersellers laid claim to the right to inspect all leather goods and hides sold in the City of London. By 1444 the Leathersellers were sufficiently organised and powerful to apply to Henry VI for a charter of incorporation.

The first Royal Charter of 1444 established the government of the Company by four Wardens, confirmed and extended the Company’s right to inspect leather, and granted the right to meet, to wear a livery and to hold land. Shortly after incorporation, a group of trustees acting for the Company purchased five tenements on the south side of London Wall near Moorgate, and from around 1476 the Leathersellers used the upper floor of one of the houses as a Hall. Contemporary descriptions show that it was well furnished, with tapestries depicting the life of the Virgin Mary lining the walls and a large window overlooking the garden to the rear. The other properties were let out, and part of the revenue distributed amongst poor prisoners for debt in accordance with the will of Robert Ferbras, an early benefactor who had helped with the purchase of the Hall.

One of the 17th century ‘garlands’ still used to crown the heads of the Master and Wardens at the annual Confirmation Court. These hats of purple velvet, decorated with silver gilt representations of animals used in the leather trade, are recorded as having been used to crown the new Master and Wardens from 1487 on. New ones were presented in 1540 and in 1638 those were replaced with the ones currently in use.

The Company entered the sixteenth century on a firm footing. A series of amalgamations with the whittawyers, glovers-pursers and pouchmakers had eliminated potential rivals, and members were generous with bequests of plate, money and property. The Company’s importance is reflected in its position at number fifteen in the order of precedence, settled by the Court of Aldermen in 1516. This improved standing was naturally accompanied by a desire for more prestigious surroundings, and in 1543 the Leathersellers seized the opportunity to purchase the former priory of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and convert it into a Hall.
A community of Benedictine nuns had been established at St Helen’s in the thirteenth century on the site of a much earlier church. The foundation was wealthy, owning most of the parish of St Helen’s, but attempts to evade the Dissolution by bribing Thomas Cromwell were unsuccessful, and the priory was surrendered to Henry VIII in 1538. The Leathersellers purchased the site five years later from Sir Richard Williams, Cromwell’s nephew. Most of the purchase money was donated by a wealthy leatherseller, John Hasilwood, and in return the Company leased him the former Prioress’s lodgings, and undertook to build almshouses on the estate. Work began to convert the priory into a Hall, but almost at once the Company came close to losing everything. The purchase had been effected through an elderly bachelor trustee, Thomas Kendall, with the intent that the estate should be bequeathed to the Company in his will. Kendall unexpectedly married and produced heirs, who subsequently pressed their claim to this lucrative property. The legal wrangling which ensued was only settled in 1677 with a payment of £25 to Kendall ‘s descendants.

In common with other Livery Companies in the Tudor age, the Leathersellers found that their wealth made them a target for bruising financial demands from Crown and City. The Company was obliged to sell its treasured collection of plate to make its contribution to Henry VIII’s Scottish wars, and regular demands from the City authorities for money to purchase corn were met by unpopular levies on the Livery.

With the succession of James I, the Leathersellers’ Company decided to renew its charter. The original grant with its emphasis on counterfeit roe leather was hopelessly out of date, and the Company felt particularly vulnerable in the wake of the Statute of Leather which had opened the trade to non-freemen. The 1604 charter confirmed existing rights of search, but is notably more concerned with the constitution of the Company, which is largely governed by its provisions to this day.

After a promising start, this became a difficult century for the Company, London and the country at large. The Leathersellers only reluctantly met royal demands to fund pet projects such as the colonisation of Ulster, and a series of extortionate ‘loans’ to Charles I drove the Company and the City into the arms of Parliament for the duration of the Civil War. Despite the provisions of the new charter, the Company found its grip on the trade slipping, as craftsmen simply moved into London’s burgeoning suburbs, knowing that the guilds had neither the will nor the resources to search there. Adding to the general gloom were the twin horrors of plague and fire: Court meetings were suspended while the plague raged, and although the Hall escaped the Great Fire, there was much loss of Company property elsewhere in the City. There were constitutional shocks in 1684 when Charles II revoked all existing charters and issued restrictive new ones in their place. The Court of Assistants resigned en masse but the Company was able to do little about the unsatisfactory state of affairs until the more liberal reign of William and Mary when, according to legend, Court members repudiated King Charles’ charter by grinding the seal under foot.

Despite all the upheavals, the Company continued to spend lavishly on improvements to the Hall. The former nuns’ dormitory became the banqueting Hall, while the chapter house was re-invented as the Court meeting room, both decorated with oak panelling and fine plaster ceilings. An enormous kitchen was added, its size reflecting the scale of the entertainments on offer. Outside, Liverymen with time on their hands could spend an hour or two in the bowling alley, or stroll through the pleasure gardens which lay to the east of the Hall.

A frequent visitor to the Hall at this time was Abraham Colfe, vicar of Lewisham. Through his connection with the Clerk, William Manby, Colfe invited the Leathersellers’ Company to be Trustee of his extensive charitable trust, which included the management of a boys’ grammar school in Lewisham. Originally established in Elizabethan times, Abraham Colfe re-founded the school in 1652, and it came into the Company’s care after his death five years later. The Company in the 18th and 19th centuries

The turbulence of the Tudor and Stuart era had a devastating effect on the fortunes of all City Livery Companies, and the eighteenth century saw the Leathersellers’ Company at its lowest ebb. The increasingly elderly fabric of the Hall and the St Helen’s estate was a constant drain on already depleted resources, and membership levels were alarmingly low. Although the Company had obtained an Act of Common Council obliging all trading leathersellers in the City to be members of the Leathersellers’ Company, it met with great resistance and efforts to enforce it were soon abandoned. In the last few decades of the century, the Company was nearly crippled by taxation, including the newly introduced income tax. There were desperate attempts to retrench by cutting back on social events and even closing the Hall, but the Company was forced to admit that radical action was required to offer any hope of survival. The entire estate was cleared, and John Nash was commissioned to draw up plans for a grand square. The Company, however, eventually opted for a unknown pair of local developers who began work in 1802 on a cul-de-sac of houses which became the first St Helen’s Place.

In the meantime, the Company transferred operations to a former merchant’s house in the north-east corner of the estate. An elegant building embellished with pilasters and topped with a weighty pediment, the third Hall’s history was dramatically brief. It was destroyed by fire in 1819, but not before the Clerk and Beadle had risked their lives to salvage many of the Company’s most valuable possessions. A fourth Hall, built on the same site to plans by William Fuller Pocock and opened in 1822, was sufficient for the Company’s needs but was uncharitably described by one observer as ‘incomparably the ugliest of civic edifices’.

When rents from the new street began to flow in 1807, it marked the beginning of the Company’s recovery, and indeed the Company’s wealth in the nineteenth century was underwritten by property. Rents in general were rising, and developers moved into the Company’s rural estates as London grew, building lucrative suburban housing. Social functions not only resumed but became so lavish that the Company outgrew its modest Hall and decided to build another spacious enough to accommodate the entire Court and Livery at dinner. The fifth Hall was designed in a late Victorian Jacobean style by the Company’s surveyor, G. Andrew Wilson, and opened in 1879. The centrepiece was a richly decorated banqueting hall, approached up a grand staircase lit by stained glass windows. Electric light was supplied by a Siemens dynamic machine which required three men to operate and blew half a dozen bulbs every time it was switched on.

The Company was also able to channel its new prosperity into large-scale charitable works, such as the construction of new almshouses. Livery Companies have a tradition of providing accommodation for the elderly, and the Company’s first almshouses were built on the St Helen’s estate in 1543 at the instigation of benefactor John Hasilwood. Further almshouses were built in Lewisham in accordance with the will of Abraham Colfe, but it was not until the more prosperous Victorian age that the Leathersellers could think about building their own. A site on the Company’s Barnet estate was chosen, and the foundation stone was laid in July 1837 by the Master, Richard Thornton, who offered to pay the contract price of the six new almshouses. Further blocks were added in 1849 and 1866 to house the inhabitants of Hasilwood’s almshouses in St Helen’s Place. Originally intended for poor members of the Company or their widows, each almsman received a weekly pension and a coal allowance.

In the 1880s, the Company became involved with Prendergast School for Girls in Lewisham. The school was founded under the will of the Reverend Joseph Prendergast, a former headmaster of Colfe’s School, and although not a trustee, the Leathersellers’ Company funded the purchase of a site for the school, which opened in Rushey Green in 1890.

In the nineteenth century, however, Livery Companies were exposed to public scrutiny as never before. A number of official enquiries were made into the running of the Company’s charities, while the Royal Commission into the City Livery Companies indirectly spurred the Leathersellers on to greater involvement in the field of technical education. This process had already begun with a donation which helped to found the City and Guilds of London Institute, and culminated with the establishment of the Leathersellers’ Technical College in Bermondsey in 1909. There was support too for the leather trade in general, evidenced by an informal rapprochement with the French leather industry and sponsorship of practical research into treatments for anthrax and damage caused to hides by the warble fly.

As a new century opened, the Company turned to domestic affairs, and began rebuilding St Helen’s Place, but work was halted by the outbreak of the First World War. Leathersellers’ Hall was offered for use as a hospital, and the Company funded a motor ambulance and field kitchen for the Red Cross. Peace was celebrated with the award of honorary membership of the Company to prominent military and political figures such as Earl Haig and Lloyd George. In the inter-war years, work resumed on St Helen’s Place, and Leathersellers’ Hall was extensively remodelled, but the Company did not have long to enjoy its new surroundings. On the night of 10/11 May 1941, incendiary bombs fell on 16 St Helen’s Place, and neighbouring Leathersellers’ Hall soon caught fire. A low tide on the Thames meant that there was not sufficient water to extinguish the blaze until morning, by which time the Hall had been almost entirely gutted, with great loss of furniture, artworks and treasures. After another spate of bombing in 1944, it was reported that over 400 properties belonging to the Company had been damaged, the most significant loss being Colfe’s School. The pupils were evacuated to schools in Tunbridge Wells and Somerset and spent many years in temporary accommodation before the School re-opened in 1964 on a new site in Lee, south-east London.

Unsurprisingly, property was a major pre-occupation in the post-war period. Huge tranches of war-damaged suburban housing were sold in a move to diversify the Company’s portfolio, while in 1948 the long process of rebuilding Leathersellers’ Hall began with the appointment of the Louis de Soissons Partnership as consulting architects. Work was hampered by post-war bureaucracy and shortages of men and materials, but was finally completed in 1960. Smaller and more intimate than its predecessor, the new Hall’s combination of traditional architecture and superb craftsmanship attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who paid an informal visit to inspect Louis de Soissons’ latest work.

London ‘s leather industry was another casualty of the war. Many of Bermondsey’s tanneries had been destroyed, and demand for the heavy leather they produced was falling, as were student numbers at the Technical College. In 1976 the decision was taken to amalgamate with the leather department at University College Northampton, and the Company funded the construction of a new National Leathersellers’ Centre. Immediately popular with overseas students, the Centre was re-named the British School of Leather Technology to reflect its international reputation. The BSLT offers world-class facilities for practical research and has its own on-site tannery. Close by, in purpose-built accommodation largely funded by the Company, is the Leather Conservation Centre, where skilled staff restore Britain ‘s rich heritage in leather.

In 1992, almost fifty years of peace in St Helen’s Place was shattered by a terrorist bomb which exploded in St Mary Axe. Buildings in the immediate vicinity, including St Helen’s church and the Company’s Exchequer Court development were damaged, some irreparably. Repairs were still in hand a year later when a massive device exploded in Bishopsgate. St Ethelburga’s church was destroyed and every window in St Helen’s Place was broken. Inside Leathersellers’ Hall doors were blown in and pictures cut by flying glass. Reinstatement works began again, and the Company took advantage of the disruption to improve the appearance of St Helen’s Place, using cobbles, York stone, flower tubs and Victorian-style lighting. To celebrate the Millennium, the Company commissioned two bronze sculptures to flank the entrance to Leathersellers’ Hall. Made by Mark Coreth, the sculptures represent the ram and roebuck which feature on the Company’s coat of arms.

The Company’s collection of plate consists mostly of items which have been given by members. A list of 1504 shows that even by that date many silver cups, spoons and knives had been donated. However all the Company’s plate was sold in 1544 to assist King Henry VIII, and in 1643 much of the plate which had been acquired since then was again sold – this time to finance the Parliamentary forces against the Monarchy in the Civil War. The collection today dates from the early 17th century onwards and includes a number of silver gilt cups with covers, still used on special occasions at Leathersellers’ Hall. The cups shown here are among the more recently acquired items, and were specially commissioned to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of HM Queen Elizabeth II.