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Haberdashers' Company, the Worshipful

Writing in 1837 William Herbert said of this company "They were incorporated by letters patent of the 26th of Henry Vl Anno 1447, by the style of the Fraternity of St. Catherine of the Virgin, of the Haberdashers of the city of London; but at present are denominated the Master and four Wardens of the Fraternity of the Art or Mystery of Haberdashers in the City of London. This corporation is governed by a master, four wardens, and ninety-three assistants, with a livery of 342 members, who, upon their admission, pay in cash a fine [fee] of twenty- five pounds, and to whom belongs a great estate, out of which, according to the generous benefactions of the several donors, they annually pay to charitable uses about the sum of 3,500.... They may take each too apprentices.... There have been twenty-two lord mayors free of this company. Their principal tenets are Serve and Obey. Their Patroness is St. Catherine. They have had altogether ten charters." Originally, in the Fourteenth Century, the Haberdashers were a branch of the gild of Mercers, dealers in merchandises, or small wares (the phrase "small mercies" may have thus originated), but in course of time the cappers, or hat makers, separated from them. The Haberdashers of small wares also were called Milaners, for selling merchandise from Milan, corrupted into milliner. (In Queen Elizabeth's time the English paid out 60,000 per year for pins alone.) The company, though its first charter w as received in 1447, had been organized a century before that, and had a set of regulations, or by-laws, as early as 1372. Having lost its old documents in the London fire of 1666 the come pony drew up a new code, and among the judges giving it legal sanction was the great jurisconsult Sir Matthew Hale. The officers were named as Master, four Wardens, and 50 Assistants. By "livery" was meant the ceremonial or symbolic clothing which a privileged number of members was entitled to wear: such livery did not signify servitude. The Hurrers, or hatters, and Mercers were combined. The list of the Companies charities is a long one: it supported five schools; four almshouses; six benefices; two lectures; three exhibitions; and paid many pensions. Many other benefactions it administered as a trustee.

The similarities between the Haberdashers' Company and the Masonic Fraternity are very striking; the more so since the Company was here chosen at random as a specimen of the Twelve Great City Companies of London and the long list of lesser Companies, the Mason Company being among the latter. They were ancient; had apprentices; had ceremonies; administered an oath; the membership was divided into ranks; they were governed by Master and Wardens (in a Masonic Lodge that still is the case, for the appointive officers are to assist the Master and Warden, and the Secretary and Treasurer do not govern); they had tenets; arms; were devoted to charity; had quarterly communications and feasts and from a very early time admitted "non-operatives" who "were made free" of the company, so that there were "free Haberdashers" just as there were "free Masons." This entering of non-Operatives into Masonry, of which they were then "free," may be one of the many original meanings of "free Mason." The antiquity, form of organization, oaths, non-operatives, etc., cannot therefore explain why the Free Masons alone continued over into a worldwide fraternity, for the other gilds or fraternities, identical in general customs, would have done the same. It is the extraordinary similarity of the old Free Masonry with the old gilds and companies coupled with the fact that it alone developed into a worldwide Fraternity which is of itself the best proof that the Freemasons also possessed a secret of their own which none of the others ever had.

See London Companies, by William Herbert; London; 1837. It is not as exhaustive as the large histories written since by Hazlitt, etc., but has the advantage of having been written by a man who got his information at first hand, and before the new industrialism had changed the face of London commerce and business.

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