The development of synthetic textiles for clothing, the adoption of rubber as a waterproof, the mass production of cotton for underwear … it is easy forget how very different life was before we could call on the basics of modern living to help us to cope with winter in a cold climate. In terms of human history, it is not very long since our forebears, when venturing outside, relied almost exclusively on materials from the animal kingdom, such as leather, wool, skins and furs, to keep them dry and warm. It is hardly surprising that the Skinners’ Company, historically associated with the fur trade, should in the Middle Ages have become prime movers in the pursuit of other trading items in great demand from lands further and further away from the Port of London. Their horizons were expanded as they sought to protect their supplies, and in doing so they diversified their trade across the known world, especially into spices, herbs, tea and tobacco. It was unsurprising that the Company was, and is, ranked amongst the ‘Great Twelve’ Livery Companies of the City of London.
The story of the Company can be told chronologically by highlighting significant developments over the last millennium:
The evolution of the London fur trade in the area around the mouth of the River Walbrook.
Skinners first appear in the records as owning tenements in the Walbrook area. They are associated with the parish church of St John Walbrook. The Earl of Cornwall owned the Copped Hall, which occupied much of the site of today’s Hall, and he granted the Hall to a Skinner in 1295.
The Company’s formal beginning was in 1327 when Ed- ward III granted to the Skinners of London the right to elect ‘good and trusty men’ to oversee the quality of furs sold in the city and elsewhere. In 1393 the Skinners paid £60 for a royal licence to form a fraternity dedicated to Corpus Christi which was empowered to elect a master and four wardens, to wear a livery and to hold land in perpetuity.
In 1408 a group of eight Skinners acquired the Copped Hall for the communal activities of their fraternity. In 1438 Henry VI granted a charter of incorporation to the Guild of Corpus Christi of the Skinners of London. Rivalries with other City Livery Companies over precedence in the city of London developed at this time. This included that between the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors, eventually resolved in 1484 with the sixes and sevens Billesdon Award
These two centuries witnessed the rise of chartered companies and the Skinners’ leading involvement in the sourcing of imports from Asia and the Americas. Skinners’ families were central in the pre-eminence of the East India Company from 1600, but then provided accommodation for its emerging rival, The New East India Company, in the newly rebuilt post-fire hall towards the end of that century. Significant political roles were taken by individual Skinners during both the Civil War, in the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 – and again in the success of the Glorious Revolution.
The decline of the power of the monarchy (in the face of constitutional limitations), industrial developments with their impact on the City of London; and in parallel decline in the status and influence of the chartered trading companies; all these developments impacted on the Skinners too.
The decline in the chartered trading companies, and in the demand for furs, was accompanied by the transition of the Skinners into a modern Livery Company, with an emphasis on education and philanthropy. Concealed within this narrative are several intriguing and significant topics.
Composition of the membership and associated pressures. This includes certain ‘Skinner families’, and – separately – the tension between Skinners directly involved in the fur trade (Artisan Skinners) on the one hand, and the highly successful merchants and aristocrats taking the lead in overseas trade on the other.
Involvement of women associated with the Company. This occurred through religion at first, subsequently in family businesses, and education; and in more recent times involvement on an equal footing with men throughout the Company.
The history and structural evolution of the hall, towards today’s Hall. This covers changes over the centuries including the rebuild after the Fire of London; the significance of the River Walbrook – its banks and its path around and under the Hall and evidence emerging during the current development of the Hall.
The importance of two religious orders in particular. Two religious orders, that of Our Lady of the Assumption and of Corpus Christi, were central to the early development of the Skinners’ Company. Their records continue until the early 18th century and provide valuable insights into the history of the Company.
The Skinners and trade. In addition to the crucial role Skinners had in the East Indies, their role in the expansion of trade to North America and Asia, their involvement in Europe, especially through the steelyard nearby, and with the Hanseatic league, are very significant. Skinners were involved in the earliest settlement in what was to become the United States of America. The Skinners and the Union. In addition to the Company’s direct involvement in Ireland, key personnel were closely involved in the development of the Constitution and played pivotal roles in the King’s execution; and during the Restoration and especially the Glorious Revolution.
The demise of fur and the emergence of a modern dynamic company with a greater emphasis on charitable endeavour and education. The increase in number of Skinners’ schools in the last 140 years has cemented the Company’s commitment to education. Very recent work on Company strategy is formalising what it means in the 21st Century to be a Skinner, and the Company’s role in modern society.
Interpreting our historical roots is a continuing process. Encouraged by discoveries emerging as our Hall is being renovated, by scholarship concerning the City in general, and by the work of the Company History Committee, we are gaining a greater insight into our long and fascinating story.
Members of the Company with an interest in the Company’s history are invited to contact the Chairman of the History Committee on membership@ skinners.org.uk