London On The Ground
London's livery lampposts: The Great Twelve at the Royal Exchange
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Look carefully at the forecourt in front of the Royal Exchange and you notice that it is watched over by 12 ornate iron lampposts. They represent the City of London's Great Twelve Livery Companies.
Standing on a stone plinth, each supports a spherical glass lamp, surmounted by a dragon holding the City's heraldic shield.
A brass shield at the base of each post displays the heraldic badge of the Company it represents.
The four lampposts closest to the Royal Exchange at the eastern end of the space have not just one glass globe, but three.
These more upmarket models represent the four highest ranking Livery Companies. This is possibly the only public place where an 'even greater' Four is distinguished from the rest of the 'merely great' Twelve.
The Great Twelve Livery Companies presented the lampposts to the City in 1985. Presumably, the top four - the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers and Fishmongers - paid a bit more.
So, what is a Livery Company and why do they matter? A quick re-cap.
Growing from trade guilds in Saxon times ('guild' means money or payment), Livery Companies remain part of the fabric of the City to this day.
Trade associations formed by people in the same line of work, they were often granted monopolies by royal charter. They regulated product standards, trained apprentices and cared for widows and orphans, the sick and elderly.
The term 'Livery Companies' comes from the ceremonial robes (livery) of senior members. From the earliest times, members often prayed together (hence the style 'worshipful company of…').
They were very important up to medieval times and into the Tudor period, accumulating wealth and taking part in City governance. They are a crucial part of the City of London's mercantile history, which led it to become the financial services powerhouse it is now. To this day the Livery still elect Sheriffs and endorse the election of Lord Mayors.
To resolve squabbles about the order in which companies followed the Lord Mayor in the annual Lord Mayor's Show, a ranking was agreed for the 48 companies in existence in 1516. Precedence was based on each company's wealth and the number of Lord Mayors drawn from among its members.
An earlier agreement that the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors should alternate annually between number six and number seven had been reached in 1484 under a Lord Mayor called Billesdon.
The rivalry between the two had been fierce and sometimes violent and this is thought to be the origin of the term "at sixes and sevens". The two companies have enjoyed more cordial relations since then, although the Skinners do not agree with the Merchant Taylors' spelling of the surname of Lord Mayor Billesden.
(Note that the order of these two companies shown in the image of the shields above is taken from the order in which the lampposts are arranged outside the Royal Exchange.)
Today, Livery Companies focus on charity and education. Some are still associated with their original trade, eg Goldsmiths, Stationers, Apothecaries, Fishmongers; others have adapted, eg Fanmakers, who evolved to embrace modern cooling technology.
There are now 110 Livery Companies, the newest including IT experts, black cab drivers, air pilots & arts scholars. Waiting to achieve full Livery Company status are nurses, communications practitioners and HR professionals.
Since the 1516 precedence was set, newer companies have been ranked according to their date of formation. The order has remained unchanged for the original 48 companies, led by the Great Twelve.
It is easy to miss the Great Twelve lampposts, even though they light up an area at the heart of the City of London.
They stand on top of Bank underground station and at the meeting point of eight of the City's most important roads. These are Poultry (the eastern section of the City's high street, Cheapside), Queen Victoria Street, Walbrook, King William Street, Lombard Street, Cornhill, Threadneedle Street and Princes Street.
The forecourt also includes a statue of the Duke of Wellington on a horse and a war memorial to London soldiers. The junction is surrounded by some quintessential City buildings: the neoclassical Bank of England, Royal Exchange and Mansion House; the 1930s Ned Hotel (originally designed by Edwin Lutyens for the Midland Bank); and the post-modernist Number One Poultry.
City workers rushing to their desk or their next meeting barely notice even these great landmarks. In fact, many probably do not even take in the 21st century skyscrapers that are still growing and multiplying behind the Royal Exchange in the east of the City.
Next time you are passing through the Bank junction, take a moment to look at the 12 lampposts and to reflect on the history that they represent in the City of London.
London On The Ground's first ever on-line game!
After studying the image of the Great Twelve shields and the Company names above, look at the changing photos in the gif below and see if you can name them before the image moves to the next one. You will need to be very quick!