This week the first ever virtual Goldsmiths’ Fair will begin, and this itself is a huge milestone in the long and illustrious history of not only the Goldsmiths’ Fair but of the Goldsmiths’ Company. It seems like a good time, then, to look at the history of the company and the Fair and see the other momentous changes it’s been through in its lifetime.
The earliest surviving reference to the company was made in 1179 when King Henry II fined the Goldsmiths’ company the enormous sum of £30 for operating without a license. The company’s fine was far higher than that paid by the other 17 guilds, confirming that it was very well established even then.
The next significant reference to the Goldsmiths’ is in 1300 when King Edward I passed a law requiring gold and silver to be of a determined standard, and then it was to be marked with the leopard’s head – known as the King’s mark. (though it wasn’t until 1363 that silversmiths and goldsmiths required to have a mark unique to them to identify them as the maker, which became the ‘maker’s mark’). This was the real official recognition of the company, and the start of hallmarking as we know it. In 1327 when the Company received its first Royal Charter which gave it the authority to enforce standards in the trade, it also gave the Compay its formal existence as a craft guild. (St Dunstan is the patron saint of goldsmiths, by the way, and he presides over Polly’s workbench.)
The next huge step for the Company was to have a headquarters, and in 1339 19 goldsmiths bought a property at the end of Foster Lane, near the goldsmiths’ area, and although it has grown in size over the years, this is where the current Goldsmiths’ Hall stands. No other Company can claim an earlier or longer tenure.
By 1341 the Company was well established and wealthy, and took the innovative decision to start making charitable contributions outside the guild. They elected to ‘extend their privileges’ to help those injured at work, and the poor, and thus began what continues to this day – a huge and significant contribution to many in the city, improving lives and encouraging craftspeople, both men and women, into the trade, and supporting other causes they considered worthy, but more about that later. But it still took them until 1393 for Richard II to allow the Company to own property and rents for charitable purposes.
By 1462, under King Edward IV, the Company was becoming very powerful and Wardens were invited into the justice system, allowed to make bylaws and ordinances. In 1478 when the Company was made responsible for the wares below standard and the penalites this involved, the Wardens reorgainsed the marking system, added a date stamp and thus was born the first Assay Office. Impressively, The Company also supported an apprentice program to qualify for which the apprentice must be able to read and write English and Latin. If an exception was made for an illiterate child to become an apprentice, their master undertook to teach them to read and write both languages during their apprenticeship.
The Company went from strength to strength, being awarded a coat of arms in 1571 (the leopards head representing the king, the goblets the metal workers, and the buckles the jewellers). In 1588 they were awarded The Keepers of the Troy Weight which remains the standard weight for silver and gold to this day, and in 1870 the Goldsmiths’ Hall was established as the venue for the Trial of The Pyx (the measurement of coinage of the realm, started in the 1300s), and although these significant events were spaced years apart, they represented real and important changes to the Company.
Jump to the 17th Century and the Goldsmiths’ Company suffered huge financial losses caused mainly by the Crown looking at the Guild as an easy source of income. In spite of the King’s demands and increased taxes, the
Company managed to build the second Goldsmiths’ Hall on the exisiting site, but they had borrowed heavily and were in terrible debt and sold off a large portion of its impressive collection of plate, and when the Civil War began in 1642 it was amazing that the Company didn’t have to sell the remainder of its depleted collection just to stay functioning. In 1666 the Hall was gutted in the great fire and in 1681 another fire destroyed the Assay office. Not a great time for the Goldsmiths’ Company, and add to that they had to deal with the invasion of the foreign refugees, including the Hugenot goldsmiths (our ancestors – Gasston is SO French!) who caused them the most trouble not only because they brought with them new skills and high standards but because it forced the Company to open hallmarking to all.
Amazingly, even throughout the Napoleonic wars, the Company’s charitable works were not disrupted, but the hall itself suffered terribly from neglect and had to be demolished. In 1835 the third hall, the one we know today, was completed on the same site that the Company had bought in 1339. Extraordinary.
In 1840 the Prince Consort became an Honorary Liveryman and this was the saving of the Company in which memebership had fallen drastically. In 1877 the Goldsmiths’ united with other Livery companies in an attempt to advance technical education, and from this came the City and Guilds of London which is still the main examining body for vocational qualifications. The Company continued to support and create initiatives in the trade, greatly increasing its charitable profile, and after the damage and subsequent austerity of the war it focused its efforts on supporting and promoting silversmiths and jewellers, both established and burgeoning. In 1961 the sponsorship of DeBeers formed the nucleus of a new collection of jewellery at the Hall which is added to all the time.
And the Fair? in 1976 the first “LOOT” was held at the Goldsmiths’ Hall, and 2000 exhibits from 300 jewellers were on display and available for purchase – for under £50! And get this – Polly exhibited at LOOT one year! This was the precursor of the Goldsmiths’ Fair, the first of which was held in 1982, and which has now become the jewel in the crown for the Company; people come from all over the world because they know that gathered in the magnificent hall will be more than 100 of the top jewellers and silversmiths in UK, and they’ll get the first sighting of the new and exciting talent that the Goldsmiths’ Company are helping along. For the first time ever the fair will be virtual and while this presents its own set of problems, it does open it up to all the world, literally, and it also means that wannabe clients who haven’t had the time or opportunity to come to the Fair can now attend at any time of day or night, for two weeks. This surely is going to be a huge advantage to everyone – no train fares, no parking nightmares, no entry fee, no crowds, and punters can go back time and time again to look at something they’ve seen but haven’t decided about. Exciting stuff!
I mentioned earlier the enormous contribution made by the Goldsmiths’ Company in its charitable endeavours. Its outlook has always been modern, even forward thinking, and among its charities now are “FareShare” which are meals made from supermarket ‘waste’ food and served to the vulnerable. Apollo Music takes classical music to children. ‘On Demand’ is the Company’s digital initiative, bringing curicculum linked theatre to schools, and the Company is a founding partner of the new Museum of London, to name but a few. Oh! and I almost forgot – sometimes the Hall even lets very special people have their wedding reception at the Hall in the White Drawing Room. Well, Polly did anyway, and it was quite amazing!
Obviously I have flown through the centuries and skimmed across the surface of the history of this extraordinary company, but I hope I’ve made it clear why it’s such a privilege for us to be associated with the Goldsmiths’ Company even in the tiny capacity that we are, and how forward thinking they still are in taking on the challenge of a virtual fair.
p.s. Be a good magpie and log into the Fair, won’t you?