Fanning the new with the flames of the old: Livery Companies today

Last night in London I had the tremendous pleasure of being the Principal Speaker at the Selection Dinner of the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers. It was a super evening – convivial company, and an opportunity to talk about areas of mutual interest in education and the wider world, and I was very struck – again – by the enormous goodwill and determination that exists in Livery Companies to want to make a difference in the world.

The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers is the youngest of the ‘old’ City Livery Companies, as it was the last to receive a Royal Charter rather than being incorporated by the City of London alone. Company records from the early days are scare, but it is clear that the Company, although incorporated in 1709 during the reign of Queen Anne, was very active as the ‘Guild of Fannmakers’ from at least the reign of Charles II.  Livery Companies are fascinating, in fact, and well worth pausing for a moment to think about. Many had their origins back before the Norman Conquest, and grew out of a need to check and assure quality of goods, which is why different trades developed different guilds, which in turn became livery companies (the ‘livery’ refers to the clothing they wore as a means of identification).

From the outset, it made perfect sense for these Livery Companies to take a real interest in, and responsibility for, the education and training of young people as apprentices. This ensured quality, and enabled young people to earn a good living and provide for themselves and their families. Today, this commitment to education continues, and is alive and well. With some Livery Companies it is more visible than others – those who have benefited from trusts and endowments which have enabled them to set up schools, for instance, but the commitment to training and developing young people is very much central to the life of all the Livery Companies.

When you sit in one of the halls of the great ancient Livery Companies, and survey the history around you, you connect with the past across many, many generations, and when what you find is a shared desire to educate young people and prepare them for the world, then this is incredibly affirming of our present day activity as educators. Our present, reaching out to our as yet undiscovered future, is strengthened by the knowledge that our ancestors, centuries ago, were engaged in the same human desire to help others and to make a positive, strong difference. Rigour and aspiration went hand in hand, just as today they should go hand in hand as we seek to prepare our young people to make the very most of themselves, and to enable them to have a positive impact on their world.

History connects us all, and a history of education and the desire to do well for others connects us especially. What a pleasure it was to be reminded of that last night.


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