The Origins of Mutuality
How worker co-operation has emerged and re-emerged over time in the City of London
Ask people what they appreciate about London, and money is outranked by the people, the culture, the opportunities and even the parks and green spaces. But when it comes to the City of London, all people remember is finance.
My contribution is to unpick some of this association by telling a different story – an account of the origins of mutuality in the City of London.
The location for the story telling was outside the home of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths – one of the twelve great livery guilds of the City of London and which has occupied the same space for close to seven hundred years. And here is a shortened blog version of that tale.
A goldsmith is someone who works in gold or silver. By coming together in a guild, you could share skills and ensure quality. From the eleventh century, guilds like this formed in the growing medieval towns and cities in Europe. The first reference to the Goldsmiths is from a run-in with King Henry II around 1180, members were fined 45 marks for operating without a license.
In the centuries that followed, guilds were in tension with those in power. They were independent, influential but they were also a way to regulate work and keep things in order. In Florence, after the communal revolutions of earlier years, the city guilds dominated local politics, with radical ideas of equality among members. But in France, by the fifteenth century, guilds had become known as ‘choses du roi’ – the king’s playthings perhaps – a source of finance, a channel for compliance.
In 1300, Goldsmiths was asked by the King to set standards for gold to keep it pure – the mark was a leopard’s head, the symbol of royalty in its day. In 1327, it received its first royal charter and at this point, they chose to build a permanent headquarters buying land in the parish of St. John Zachary. The building today is the third Goldsmiths Hall to stand here (the Great Fire of London in 1666 was one prompt for building works).
Each year, on May 19th, the feast of St. Dunstan, the guild’s patron saint, wardens were elected, along with other officials. Feast days would typically be holidays, or for civic activities. The great radical economist Juliet Schor estimates that holiday time in medieval England, including saints days, took up around one third of the year.
So, how did the guild work?
The prices of goods were not set by an open market, but by prices fixed by custom and practice, balanced with a close eye on quality, with inspections and fines organized by the officials the members had elected. Following Church thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo, the Algerian and Roman philosopher, they would have been after a ‘just price’. In line with that was a ban on usury – the charging of interest.
Fair pay and social security was a mutual responsibility. If you are a member of a guild, you make an oath, which is not just a commitment to the rules of your shared craft, but a commitment to each other. This could include insurance for funerals or against disability, responsibility for widows and almshouses. Only a few years after receipt of the royal charter, Goldsmiths members sought to extend the license in order to help those injured at work or in poverty.
The members of guilds were masters – people who had submitted a ‘masterpiece’ for approval by their peers. In some guilds there were mistresses, and we know of at least one women-only guild in Paris. In their workshops, there were then apprentices, who for gold and silver smiths served for a term of at least seven years. ‘Journeymen’ – or young men (yeomen) – were people who were paid by the day.
As an aside, I believe that the guild workshops gave rise to the term ‘company’ – from the Latin meaning ‘with bread’. Everyone broke bread at one table, working, learning and then eating together. The mutual concept of business as a partnership was echoed in the early regulated companies set up by merchants in the England in the 15th century, which followed the one member, one vote rule and, according to Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, also operated an open-door principle, where firms were obliged “to admit any person, properly qualified, upon paying a certain fine.”
Were the guilds open? As a goldsmith, membership was an obligation as much as a choice. You also needed some capital to be a master, to set up shop. Just so everyone knew, the bonus was the right to wear certain forms of clothing, the livery, that marked out their status. But even so, most apprentices could expect to become masters and, if they acquired the freehold for the shop, they could become ‘freemen’ of the City.
But the guilds appear to have become more exclusive over time and that openness was put to the test at the end of the 17th century by one community of immigrants to London. The Huguenots were refugees from France and some were skilled goldsmiths. The guild tried to keep its doors closed to the competition but in 1725, the Attorney-General ruled that any craftsman had the right to come to Goldsmith’s Hall to enter a maker’s mark. By this time, in fact, people were looking to move outside the City of London, in part to escape the restrictions of the guilds.
So… work, money and business in the city of London for hundreds of years was regulated through guilds, which dominated trades and the economy of the mediaeval City. Open to members but closed to outsiders, self regulating on standards but subject and servant to royal prerogatives, the guilds still believed in a moral economy. Over time, the guilds, like Goldsmiths, faded into the sideline – their powers taken over by magistrates and the state. They became what are today private, wealthy do-gooding clubs with charitable sidelines, but new mutuals emerged in the city.
Friendly societies, trade unions, co-operatives were based on self help and were led by workers such as John Gast. Gast was a shipwright, born in Bristol in the eighteenth century. With skills as a shipwright, Gast moved to London and worked for twenty eight years on the banks of the Thames in the docks at Deptford. He was an agitator, signing up workers in shipyards along the river and forming the Heart of Oak Benefit Society. This was a friendly society, providing benefits for a regular subscription, for sickness, accident and death. Over time, the society also funded the establishment of thirteen alms-houses for retired ship-wrights.
In 1812, John Gast played a leading role in a shipwrights’ strike (an emerging term that had naval echoes, of course, as when a ship strikes its sails). When the Thames Shipwrights Provident Union was founded in August 1824, John Gast was the first Secretary.
Friendly societies did more than serve their members; they acted as prototypical trade unions by allowing workers to come together. In France, informal societies of journeymen were known as cabales. The term ‘cabal’ has since had the connotation of sedition and conspiracy, but after all, what is seditious to those in power may be freedom to those without. In London, journeymen printers would meet up at the Hole in the Wall pub on Fleet Street, organizing a strike for higher wages.
Five of them – Edward Atkinson, Luke Ball, John Turk, John Warwick, Nathaniel Lynham – were prosecuted at the Old Bailey on 4th July 1798. The Judge concluded that the charge of worker co-operation represented “a very heinous crime, and is properly so considered, because the consequences of it must be very fatal to society”
So practical action went hand in hand with ideas of freedom, equality and common wealth. And it faced repression as a result. In Scotland, weavers in the town of Fenwick turned their friendly society into a trading co-operative, buying oatmeal in bulk and selling it to members at cost. This was a model codified and made famous by twenty eight weavers and workers in Rochdale in 1844 – the Rochdale Pioneers.
The co-operative model can now be found in every city, every country. There are 2.9 million co-operatives worldwide, owned mutually by their members, operated on a democratic basis.
In London today, there are worker co-operatives like Outlandish – a software business owned by its members and key to the emerging platform co-op movement, in which the platforms and algorithms that we use in our daily lives are owned by the people who use them rather than distant investors.
There are credit unions, which are democratic financial co-operatives, such as the London Community Credit Union, whose patch stretches from Haringey to here in the City of London, in which members save and borrow on a mutual basis, all at fair rates of interest.
There are freelancer co-ops, such as IndyCube, operating in areas like Walthamstow, in which people in the gig economy can regain power by coming together.
They are rich in vision, rich in terms of participation, even if few have the financial resources of the old guilds like Goldsmiths. Now on the margins, the livery companies today, even the proud Goldsmiths, are uprooted from working communities – they are wealthy, munificent, endowed, entitled.
But, in new ways over new generations, all these forms of self help and mutual aid can be seen, suggests Ivan Illich, as attempts by people to determine how their kind of work shall be done, and by whom:
· That rather than competition, trade can be a tool for co-operation
· That rather than inequality, business can be a tool for equality
· That rather than precarious work, labour can be shaped as a tool for solidarity
It is not a story we often hear, but these are the origins of mutuality in a financial heart of Europe, the City of London.
Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, the national association of co-operative and mutual enterprise, and Vice President of Co-operatives Europe. Ed blogs here and his Twitter handle is @edmayo1. All references can be found in A Short History of Co-operation, Ed Mayo, published in late 2017 which is free to download in English or in Spanish here.