A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CORDWAINERS' COMPANY
THE Cordwainers, one of the most ancient of the City Guilds, were so called from their dealing in Cordovan leather, which was manufactured in Corduba or Cordova, a city in Spain, of great importance as a centre of commerce from the ninth to the twelfth centuries.
The art of preparing leather in the particular manner for which Cordova became famous was introduced in Spain by the Moors. The process consisted in the use of alum, and the skins so dressed were called Altura, which caused the workers to be also known as Alutarii, by which term the Company is described in their first Charter. In course of time the process became known in other countries. The knowledge seems to have reached England about the time of the Conquest, and it is highly probable that it was brought by the Normans. This process is now known as tawing, as distinguished from tanning.
The Alutarii, or Cordwainers, appear to have been associated as a trade Guild from a very e~r1y date. At that time the Cordwainers’ Company included the Girdlers, the Tanners, the Curriers, the Leathersellers, and various smaller trades, suëh as Pursers and Pouchmakers. They were at first located round about the site of the Royal Exchange, which was on the verge of the old City of Londinium when the Roman power was predominant in Britain. Here they remained for many centuries, their industry forming one of the staple trades of the country. The gradual growth of the population forced them to take up their occupation in the Ward designated after their trade in the thirteenth century, and known as the “ Warda de Cordwanerstrate.”
The craft had long been recognized as an important factor in moulding the early municipal life of our towns. Thus the Gilda Corvesaorum of Oxford in the twelfth century was successful in obtaining from King Henry I. a royal charter upon payment of an annual fine of one ounce of gold. In 1227 we find Henry III. appointing Gervaise le Cordwainer to the important office of Chamberlain of London, and again we find, among the records of the Bridge House Estates, a charitable cobbler named Robert de Suthwerk bequeathing, in 1243, a messuage on Old London Bridge towards keeping the fabric of the bridge in repair.
The first recorded Ordinance of the Company was made in 1272, in the reign of Henry III., which will be found in Liber Horn, folio 339. It runs thus: “To the good men of the Cordwainers of London, by the will and consent of Master Walter Harvey, Mayor, and the other Barons of the City of London, for the relief and advancement of the whole business, and to the end that all frauds and deceits may hereafter be avoided.” By this ordinance the whole of the workers were under the surveillance of the Guild within the City. The cordwainer, the tanner, and the currier had separate rights and regulations in the preparing of alum leather, tan leather, and working cowhides. The cordwainer was to make boots and shoes of calf hide, and the trades were not to interfere with each other under a penalty of half a mark, to be paid to the Commonalty of the City aforesaid; and further, no master was to keep more than eight servants. The carrying of shoes through the streets for sale was only permitted before dinner, excepting between “Corveysere Strate,” now known~ as Queen Street, and “Sopere Lane,” now Bow Lane; nor were they allowed to be taken beyond twenty miles of the city, an exception being made during the eves of festivals. Two masters were prohibited from occupying the same place, each one being expected to “stand by himself and work,” and the craft were only allowed to do nightwork between the Feast of St. Michael and the Lord’s Nativity.
During the mayoralty of John le Blound, in the thirteenth year of King Edward III (1340), the Court of Aldermen gave the Guild a renewal of the Ordinance, whereby twelve good and lawful men, as the principal helpers, were to be elected for the regulation of the Misterie (meaning mastery, as Mister means Master), and charged to search throughout the whole trade once every quarter in order to detect and prevent fraud.
In 1439 King Henry VI. granted the first Charter of Incorporation to this Company, in consideration of a payment of fifty marks. He conceded to the Freemen of the Misterie of Cordwainers (Allutariorum) of the City of London that they should be one body or commonalty for ever; that they should every year elect and make of themselves one Master and four Wardens to rule and govern the said Misterie and all men and workers of the Misterie, and all workmen and workers whatsoever of tanned leather relating to the said Misterie; to teach and try black and red tanned leather and all new shoes, which should be sold or exposed for sale, as well within the said City as without, within two miles thereof; to have perpetual succession and a common seal; to be fit and capable in law to acquire and purchase for themselves and their successors for ever in fee and perpetuity, tenements, rents and other possessions whatsoever, and from any person whatsoever. The above Charter was exemplified and confirmed by the Charter 4 and 5, Philip and Mary (1557).
Further charters or letters patent were granted by Queen Elizabeth, James I., James II, and William and Mary, the latter confirming all previous charters, some of which extended the rights and powers of the Company.
The orders, rules, and ordinances now regulating the Company were made and agreed to, at a Court specially summoned at Cordwainers’ Hall, May 31, 1749.
In 1898, an Act of Parliament, known as the Flaying Act, was passed, which empowered the Company to, examine raw hides and skins in the City of London,, and to inflict fines in cases where damage had been done in the removal of the same from the carcasses.
This Act was repealed in 1824, and in the following year Parliament further curtailed the powers of the Cordwainers’ Company among others, since when the active control of the trade, which the Company of the Mistery of Cordwainers had exercised for more than six centuries has fallen into disuse.
Other duties and trusts which the Company fulfil remain. Of these the principal is the administration and distribution of the considerable funds, trust and otherwise, of which they have the disposal. Among these may be mentioned Came’s Charity, for the benefit of clergymen’s widows, blind, and deaf and dumb. persons, nearly £1,000 a year; Milner’s Charity, for poor distressed fathers of families, £140, and the proceeds of the fines levied under the old Flaying Act, which are given to the poor of the Company.
The Company take great interest in all that concerns the trade with which they are connected.
They subscribe liberally to its benevolent societies, and actively promote technical education.
They assisted in the formation of the Leather Trades’ School at Bethnal Green, which they help to maintain by an annual grant. They also pay the salary of a special inspector, under the auspices of the City and Guilds of London Institute, whose duty it is to visit periodically the different technical schools and classes in the boot and shoe industry in the United Kingdom, and by advice assist in perfecting the work and teaching, and the gift of prizes.
They likewise make grants from time to time to hospitals and other charitable institutions, give scholarships to undergraduates at the Universities, pay school fees to children of members of the Company, contribute annually to the funds of the City and Guilds’ Institute, and in other ways promote education.
SOME EARLY ENTRIES IN THE COMPANY’S RECORDS.
|1595-6.||Receaued of three several persons which left New Work and made Old Work||iijs|
|1595-6.||Richard Minge and another for late comeing on the quarter daye and comeing in his cloake||xijd|
|1595-6.||Spent atte the Buriall of Mr. Bullock’s wyfe over his gwift||vis||xd|
|1598-9.||Severall men of the Companie for not comeing to burialls||xs||vid|
|1598-9.||Mr. Shawe and Mr. Clarke, Wardens of Yeomanry, their several fynes of iiijli. a piece for not making their dinner.||viijli|
|1600-1||Mathew Birkhed, for a fyne for making boote of ill leather||xijd|
|1606-7.||Receaued of severall of the Livery for not attending the buriall of a brother Liveryman, xijd. each||viijs|
|1625||Xs. allowed towards the buriall of W. Birkeck, an ancient of the Court, he dying very poore.|
|1657-8.||Diett, Bred and Mass Biscuits atte the funeral of Mr. Tarleton, the Upper Beadle.|