Lichfield's Craft Guild

Our intrepid programme organisers came up with a fascinating speaker for the October meeting. Hands up all those readers who have heard of the Lichfield Worshipful Company of Smiths, Goldsmiths, Cordwainers, Ironmongers, Pewterers, Braziers, Plumbers, Cutlers, Nailors and Spurriers. No? Well, this organisation is arguably one of the oldest established associations in Lichfield and the audience welcomed its Honorary Clerk, Mike Wotton, who brought Lichfield's mediaeval social history to life.

Many members will recall that craft guilds sprang up in the early Middle Ages as local monopolies, where local craftsmen came together to control the flow of manufactured goods into and out of their town. Lichfield was no exception and our craft guild can trace its roots back to at least 1177, since references can be found to it in Cathedral records. Guilds evolved over time also to disperse alms to the poor and promote skills through apprenticeships. Rules of membership became more and more complex too. Freemen, (as members were called) had to swear allegiance to the monarch as well as to the mayor of the city and undertake to contribute to charges raised by the city corporation. Craft guilds are long lived. Lichfield's had its ordinances confirmed by Parliament in 1601, when it cost 2/4d for an apprentice to enrol in the guild, after 7 years in training.

The Guild's records provide an interesting insight into life in Lichfield at this period. Purchases of food and tobacco, arrangements for the annual "feast" and interestingly, the political machinations of vote rigging at the elections all spring out of the pages of the minute books. As to the latter, apparently guild freemen were allowed to vote in council elections, so it was merely a matter of electing new freemen to influence the outcome of elections. However, this "wheeze" soon fell foul of the courts and was discouraged. The golden age of craft guilds ended with the Industrial Revolution. Mass production with operatives tending machines, not working on skilled, specialist goods, accelerated their decline. By 1896, the Lichfield Guild of Smiths comprised just two freemen . Revived in 1943, it now has a membership of 63, both men and women, but freemen are now elected both because of their craft skills and for "services to the City of Lichfield". The Guild is aware that it needs a modern role and is looking at the opportunities presented to award bursaries to both craftsmen and women.

The evening was rounded off by a lengthy question and answer session, confirming the audience's interest in a fascinating yet little known aspect of Lichfield's social history.

Roger Hockney
October 2010