Wednesday, 18th July – Cart Marking Ceremony, City of London, London
I was quietly minding my own business en route to the office, and I rounded the corner into Gresham Street to find it and the surrounding streets slowly filling up with horses, carts and vintage lorries and buses of many kinds. The first warning I got that this was happening was this.
As I was nosing round it, and realising that it was not the only one in the street, a man in a very smart suit turned round and explained to me what was going on. The vehicles all belong to members of the Worshipful Company of Carmen, who claim to be the oldest transport association in the world, having celebrated their 500th year in 2017. The Worshipful Company of Carmen is one of the 110 Livery Companies of the City of London, in this instance dating back to 1517, which is quite a history.
These companies are trade associations and guilds, and these days provide charitable-giving and networking opportunities, as well as playing a major role in the lift of the City of London. Liverymen have voting rights in the election of senior civic official including the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs and the City of London Corporation.
Livery companies have their roots in the medieval guilds, and can become corporations if granted a Royal Charter (which in the case of the Carmen gives the monarch the right to requisition their vehicles if need be). The Carmen didn’t receive their charter until 1946, but were clearly very active even before that time.
Their origins came about after a period of trouble in transport in the 15th century, with unrest caused by increases in the cost of food after the king conscripted carts to carry his wine, which mean rural carters forced prices up. By offering to provide the King’s carriage and clean the streets, the Fellowship of Carmen was established in 1517 with authority to control the trade.
Most livery companies still maintain contacts with their original trade, craft or professional roles. Some still exercise powers of regulation, inspection and enforcement, while others award professional qualifications. Some 39 of them still have guild halls in London, though between the Great Fire of London in 1666 and World War II bombing raids many have been lost.
Although the horse drawn cart is now obsolete in business terms, the Carmen also cover trucks and vans, and the company has more than 500 Liverymen, 180 Freemen, and 23 apprentices. They also organise this, the annual Cart Marking ceremony, which has its origins in the rule that only carts licensed by the Corporation could ply for hire within the City of London. And that is why they were all gathering around the Guildhall this fine Wednesday morning. I circulated around looking at the vehicles and the horses and enjoyed the preparations, but then I really needed to get to work.
At 10:30 I snuck out for a very early lunch, keen to see what happens at the ceremony. Apparently the Lord Mayor and the other officials gather in Guildhall Yard and the vehicles are driven forward in procession, stopping for the Lord Mayor to place a brand mark for the year on a piece of wood that has the vehicle’s number on it as well as brands from previous years. The vehicles then parade around the streets before dispersing. I was most amused to note that the Lord Mayor and the other officials involved in actually doing the marking were wearing, in addition to their robes of office, massive fireproof gloves!
Before the marking started there was a parade by the Company of Pikemen and Musketeers, a ceremonial unit of the Honourable Artillery Company. They dress and are equipped as members of the Company would have been in the 1640s and they provide a ceremonial bodyguard for the Lord Mayor of the City of London and escort him or her when they are on official business.
After that the many vehicles slowly progressed through the archway to the yard, including some quite unexpected vehicles like the Ambulance service bicycles.
It was all rather wonderful (even if the horses were starting to trigger my allergy and I would spend the afternoon with itchy, sore eyes), and reminds me of why I love working in the City. It’s far better than Canary Wharf, that’s for sure.