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The Worshipful Company Of Skinners

The Skinners’ Company is one of the ‘Great Twelve’ livery companies of London and received their first charter in 1327/8 as a result of the more general use of furs and the consequent growth of abuses in connection with the trade. Further charters were granted in 1393, 1437 and 1667. It is thought that the Company was formed from the consolidation of the two Fraternities of Corpus Christi and the Virgin some time between the granting of the first and second charters, the latter being the first to comprehend the whole craft. Ordinances for the regulation of the trade were drawn up immediately prior to the granting of the first charter and again in 1365/6 and 1676. The Company controlled the English fur trade until the eighteenth century. Skinners' Hall, at 8 Dowgate Hill, existed before 1295. It was burnt down in the Great Fire, rebuilt in 1670 and refaced in 1790

The Skinners' Irish estate in Londonderry was known as the Pellipar estate, after the Latin for skinners, pelliparii. It was divided into three divisions: the Dungiven, Ballinascreen and Banagher Divisions.

The following charities are associated with the Company:

Tonbridge School: Sir Andrew Judd, citizen and skinner, and former Lord Mayor of London, founded a school in Tonbridge, Kent in 1553. On his death in 1558, and in accordance with his will, the court of the Skinners' Company became governors, a role representatives of the court still perform. Judd endowed the school with land in Gracechurch Street in the City of London, and in St Pancras. It was a small and local institution until the 19th century when it expanded to become one of the leading public schools of England. The school was largely rebuilt from the 1860s-80s. It currently has some 750 pupils. For further information see A Holmes-Walker, Sixes and Sevens: A Short History of the Skinners' Company, London 2005, pp.50-60.

Skinners Company almshouses: By his will dated 1558, Sir Andrew Judd bequeathed to the Skinners' Company an almshouse in the parish of St Helen's for six poor freemen of the Company. Lewis Newberry (in his will dated 1683) provided for the purchase of land for almshouses at Mile End for six widows of freemen of the Company

Middle School for Boys, Tunbridge Wells: The school was opened by the Skinners' Company in 1887 from surplus profits from the Hunt and Atwell charities, as an addition to its school in Tonbridge, Kent. It was a day school until 1894, from which date boarders were admitted. By 1901 it had 145 pupils. In 1944 it became a voluntary aided school, and in 1992 grant maintained. It currently has about 750 pupils. The Skinners' Company maintains its role on the board of governors.

Sir Andrew Judd's Commercial School: The school was established by the Skinners' Company at Tonbridge, Kent in 1888, out of an endowment from Sir Andrew Judd's Foundation [q.v.]. It moved to its present site in Tonbridge in 1896. It soon after became known as the Judd School. In 1944 it became the first voluntary aided grammar school. It currently has about 850 pupils, including girls in the 6th form.

Middle School for Girls, Stamford Hill: The Skinners' Company founded a middle school for girls in Stamford Hill, North London in 1890 from surplus money from the Hunt and Atwell Charities. Its premises were expanded in 1892. In 1902 there were over 350 pupils. In 1944 it became a voluntary aided school, and in 1972 the first voluntary aided comprehensive. The Skinners' Company has maintained a close association. In 2004 it became a Business and Enterprise College.

Membership of the Company is continually evolving, with representation from a broad range of professions – an increasing proportion drawn from our schools.  Together with an experienced and dedicated staff we aim to provide the highest standards and a compassionate response to some of the most pressing needs in our society.

History of the Fur Trade

Extracts from

'Sixes & Sevens - A Short History of The Skinners' Company' by Dr. Anthony Holmes-Walker

The early years

The Chinese are said to have prized animal fur more than 3,500 years ago, and the Romans adopted it as a luxury from the Greeks. This change in perception from fur as a necessity, for warm clothing, to fur as a status symbol marked the beginning of the fur trade. At that time the principal sources of the best furs were northern and central Europe. The Hanseatic League, with its network of towns situated around the Baltic Sea, was a powerful player and in the 14th century largely controlled the export of furs from Russia. The origins of The Skinners' Company are linked to the fur trade.

Regulation of the use of furs

In medieval times furs were considered such a luxury that their use was strictly controlled by a series of 'sumptuary' laws enacted between 1300 and 1600.  The London Skinners' Charter of 1438 enacted legislation to control the size of furs to be used, where and how they could be worn, and what type of fur might be used for edging and lining garments. Other items such as flasks, pouches, shoes, and saddles were made from skins.

Workers skilled in dressing skins and making articles from them developed craft associations or guilds, such as the cordwainers (shoemakers), saddlers (equipment for horses), glovers, and tanners. In the reign of Henry II (1154-89) these craftsman were described as 'pelliparii', 'peleters', or skinners. The early skinners did not own the skins, but in time the wealthier merchants bought stocks of raw skins, dressed them, made them up and sold them to customers in their own shops often located in particular areas. For example, there was a Skinners' Row in Lincoln.

The emergence of the London Skinners

The success of London merchants, using the River Thames for importing raw skins and exporting dressed and manufactured furs, meant that London became one of the world's major centres of the fur trade. During the 13th and 14th century the population of London virtually doubled, owing partly to migration from the provinces, and partly to the increasing flow of traders and craftsmen from European cities. Population increases led to more demand for fur, so much so that dealers only bought and sold skins, and employed others to dress and manufacture the furs. Merchant skinners were operating in England as early as 1250. The majority of the more important London skinners lived and traded in two localities - the area around Spital at the Shoreditch end of Bishopsgate Without, and the area between Cheap and the River Walbrook.

From their association with the church, the skinners appear to have formed several fraternities, part religious, part secular. One was formed from two brotherhoods of Corpus Christi, at St Mary Axe at Spital and St Mary Bethlem, near Bridewell, and the other fraternity at St John the Baptist, Walbrook, was dedicated to Corpus Christi, the title by which the Company of Skinners had become known. Membership of a fraternity gave protection through the ecclesiastical courts.

From 1285 onwards the London Skinners frequently petitioned the Mayor and Aldermen to appoint men as 'brokers in peltry' to serve as intermediaries with foreign merchants. In 1309 Edward II granted the 'commons' the right to an assembly - later to become the Common Council - operating alongside the Mayor and Aldermen. Surveyors of peltry on Cornhill were appointed in 1319.

Charter granted by Edward III in 1327

The original charter appears to have been lost, but there is a handwritten 17th century copy in the Company's possession. By this charter "Our beloved men of Our City of London called Skinners" were given the authority to control the quality of the furs sold both in the City of London and at fairs throughout the realm. There was a particular emphasis on the distinction between the sale of 'new' and 'old' furs - anyone caught passing off old furs as new was liable to severe penalties and the confiscation of the old furs.

The decline of the English fur trade

The popularity of furs led to over-hunting and depletion of supplies, and forest clearances deprived animals of their natural habitat. The scarcity of furs drove prices up beyond the level that London merchants were prepared to pay, and the Hanseatic League was increasingly shipping the best quality furs to Italy to get the highest prices, rather than England. Political disputes between trading nations were also a factor in the decline of the English trade in furs. Tastes were changing, and imported fabrics such as velvet, damask, satin, and brocaded silks - which could be tailored to show off the figure - meant that fully fur-lined garments were no longer fashionable, and wealthy men and women preferred to spend their money on fabrics of almost unbelievable richness. Glass windows and improved methods of heating in buildings also took their toll on the need for furs.

Trade diversification

In the 16th century furs were still worn but were no longer seen as a great status symbol.  Merchant Skinners who traded in other materials retained and increased their wealth, and none of the most prominent Skinners in the middle of the 16th century was a skinner by trade. In 1563 only one in five who held office in the Company was a skinner by trade, and in 1606 only fourteen out of forty Court Members were either working skinners, sons or apprentices of skinners, or 'skilful' in skins or furs. At the same time the Livery was largely composed of general merchants.

History of Skinners’ Hall

Medieval Trade Guild Members

The first Skinners met each other in local taverns or churches to discuss their trade and problems, but as they became wealthier they began to pay for more permanent rooms.

Medieval Trade Guild Members

By the end of the 13th century they were using the building known as the Copped Hall that later became Skinners’ Hall.

The Copped Hall

This original property faced Dowgate Hill and was divided into five shops with rooms above. Behind the shops was the main hall reached via a courtyard that gave ample space for preparing processions and pageants. Harbin’s “Dictionary of London” states that the Skinners’ were in possession of the Copped Hall in the time of Henry 111 (1216-1272). Harbin refers to a deed dated 1267, however this deed is not in the Company’s ownership. The earliest reliable deed is dated 1295.

52 Livery Halls were destroyed in The Great Fire of 1666

Work started on rebuilding Skinners’ Hall in 1667, and parts of the current building date back to 1670. The cellars in Skinners' Hall pre-date The Great Fire.

The East India Company

Established in 1600 as a joint-stock association of English merchants trading to the 'Indies'. During a period of rivalry the East India Company rented Skinners' Hall from 1698 to 1709.  A 'new' East India Company, the United Company, was formed in 1709, and as a parting gift the Skinners’ Company was presented with the mahogany East India table which is still in use today in the Old Court Room.

1830 facade

Skinners’ Hall

The Hall was rebuilt after the Great Fire with two entrances to the Hall from the street. Between 1683 -1783 the Hall underwent many changes improving the façade, the inner courtyard, the Outer Hall, the Banqueting Hall, the Court Room, and the Cedar Drawing Room.

WW11 bomb damage

World War II bomb damage

A bomb fell on Upper Thames Street on 27 July 1944. George Styles, the Company's butler on fire watch duty, is said to have saved the day by persuading other fire fighters to give priority to the Hall by providing them with refreshments from the spirits cupboard. The bomb blast destroyed the partition by the staircase in what was the Court Room, and the ceiling in the room above.

Points of interest in the Company History

1132 Right to elect Sheriffs

The Charter of Liberties was issued by Henry I of England during 1100, and bound the King of England to laws regarding the treatment of nobles and church officials. In 1199 King John granted the citizens of London the right to elect their own Sheriffs. This was a particularly significant right as the Sheriff was the King's representative through whom the City was governed. The citizens' right to elect a Mayor annually was granted by King John in a charter extracted from the King in May 1215 as a part of the sequence of events leading to Magna Carta a month later.

1189 FitzAilwin elected Mayor

Henry FitzAilwin was the first elected Mayor of London,  holding office from 1189 until his death in 1212. He came to power at a time of unrest between Richard I and the City of London, when the King demanded increased taxes and took out loans from London's merchants to pay for his foreign wars. In return the London aldermen and merchants were granted a degree of autonomy which led to the creation of the post of Mayor. Previously the City had been governed by a portreeve - an officer of the Crown.

1209 ‘Pelliparius’ term used for merchant skinner

In the reign of Henry II (1154-89) workers skilled in dressing skins were described as 'pelliparii', 'peleters', or skinners. The early skinners did not own the skins, but in time the wealthier merchants bought stocks of raw skins, dressed them, made them up and sold them to customers in their own shops often located in particular areas. For example, there was a Skinners’ Row in Lincoln as there still is close to Skinners’ Hall in London.

1272 The Dowgate Skinners

The first skinners lived in the same areas of London, the majority around Spital and in the area between Cheap and the River Walbrook. They worshipped at the same churches, and the part religious, part secular fraternities involved in the fur trade eventually came together in one guild, dedicated to Corpus Christi, which became the Skinners’ Company. The annual election of the new Master is held on the feast of Corpus Christi.

1303 The Hanseatic League

Edward I grants a charter to the Hanseatic League, a trading group of German and Baltic cities which provided monarchs with financial loans in return for valuable concessions.  Their London headquarters and bonded warehouse, known as the Steelyard, was located opposite Skinners’ Hall on the site of the modern Cannon Street station.  In London, the Hansa came into conflict with the Company of Merchant Adventurers whose 1505 charter from Henry VII gave a monopoly of the cloth export trade.  For the Skinners’ Company, on the other hand, they were a vital source of furs from the Baltic and Russia

1327 Royal Charter granted by Edward III

As the Skinners became wealthier, they became more powerful and part of the government of the City. Like other guilds, their power was enhanced by the grant of royal charters that gave them enhanced status, legal protection and the right and duty to control their craft and trade. The Skinners obtained their first charter from Edward III in 1327. This is a copy of the 1327 charter from the reign of Charles II.

1347 Sir Thomas Legge

Sir Thomas Legge loaned Edward III a considerable amount of money towards the war with France. In 1343 he was made a Sheriff of the City of London, and in 1346 he became the first Skinner to serve as Lord Mayor - and served again in 1353.

1413 Henry V

Henry V (1413 to 1422) was one of the most illustrious medieval monarchs to be a member of the Skinners’ Company.  Others include Edward III, Richard II, Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. Some of their queens were also members of the Company, among them Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, Margaret of Anjou wife of Henry VI and Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV.

1484 The Billesdon Award

Longstanding rivalry with the Merchant Taylors over precedence erupted into violence in 1484 during the Lord Mayor’s river procession.  Lord Mayor Billesdon resolved the dispute by ordering the Skinners and Merchant Taylors to take turns at going ahead of each other every year.  A fixed procession order for Livery Companies was ordained in 1516, and confirmed Skinners and Merchant Taylors as alternating between sixth and seventh in precedence.  The expression ‘to be at sixes and sevens’ almost certainly derives from the dispute. The Skinners and Merchant Taylors still invite each other’s Master and Wardens to dine at their Hall every year, as ordered by Lord Mayor Billesdon.

1558 Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Sir Andrew Judde made provision in his will to fund an exhibition to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for boys from Tonbridge School.  

1574 Apprentice drowns

One of the Company’s young apprentices attempted to leap the River Walbrook but was swept downstream and drowned by the force of the water. Map of London - second edition Civitates Orbis Terrarum 1574

1588 Lawrence Atwell’s Endowment

Lawrence Atwell, a Skinner from Exeter, endowed what is now the Company’s largest grant making charity in 1588 to help: 'set poor people on work'.  Today the charity supports young people who need help with vocational education and training.

1617 The Manor of Pellipar

In 1610 James I ordered the Great Twelve Livery Companies to undertake the settlement, or plantation, of the Ulster counties of Derry and Tyrone.  The lands to be settled were divided into lots.  The Skinners’ Company drew lot number 12 which was divided into three divisions: the Dungiven, Ballinascreen and Banagher Divisions..  Its lands came to be known as the Manor of Pellipar, after the Latin for skinners, pelliparii. The formal conveyance was made after the King had granted the Charter that created the city and county of Londonderry in 1613.  The deed, dated 22 March 1617, granted the Manor of Pellipar, and all profits arising out of it, to the Skinners' Company, to hold "to the only use and behoof of the said maister, wardens, and comunaltie of the misterie of the Skinners of London, their successors and assigns for ever".  The Company finally sold its lands in Ireland in 1912.  

Manor of Pellipar_6 (328x245)

1666 Great Fire of London

Skinners’ Hall, along with most of the City of London, was destroyed by fire.  Rebuilding began on the same site in 1667 and was finished in 1685.

1670 Hudson’s Bay Company

Charles II grants a charter to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and English fur traders get organised to operate in North America.  

1738 The Skinners’ River Barge

In 1656 members of the Company clubbed together to buy a barge for the Company’s use on the river and in processions.  By 1728 it was in disrepair, and in 1738 the Company agreed to buy one in its own name.  It was used extensively until the Lord Mayor’s Procession ceased to be by water in 1856.  It was sold shortly after, and was the boathouse for Queen’s College, Oxford in the later 19th century.

1890 The Skinners’ Company’s School for Girls

The Company’s only girls’ school was opened at Stamford Hill.  Initially an independent school, it became a voluntary-aided grammar school, and then the first voluntary- aided comprehensive in London.  In just over a century a leafy suburb transformed into a vibrant, multi-cultural inner London borough. A succession of determined headmistresses worked closely with The Skinners’ Company to produce an energetic and purposeful school.  The school closed in 2010 when the new Skinners’ Academy opened half a mile away in Woodberry Down

1952 The Lord Mayor in Coronation Year

The Lord Mayor in Coronation Year was a Skinner, Sir Rupert de la Bere Bt. KCVO (1893-1978). Educated at Tonbridge, he had been Master of the Skinners' Company in 1938-39, was knighted in 1952 and made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1953. His full-length portrait in his robes as Lord Mayor by Arthur Ralph Middleton Todd RA, hangs on the main stairs at Skinners' Hall.

1958 The Queen Mother’s visit

The Queen Mother visited Skinners' Hall during the 1958-59 Mastership of Dr. C.F.Hamilton-Turner (in the foreground).  R. A. Butler (in the background), familiarly known as Rab, served as Education Minister from 1941-45, overseeing the 1944 Education Act, and was made an Honorary Freeman of the Company in 1955.

1985 Percy Bilton Court

A generous donation by the Percy Bilton Charity enabled a complex of thirty seven flats for the elderly to be opened in Hounslow.  The Percy Bilton Charity was founded in 1962 by Percy Bilton, an entrepreneur, who in the 1920s and 1930s built up a group of successful property companies which in the 1970s was listed on the London Stock Exchange.

1996 Lord Malmesbury’s Bounty

Lord Malmesbury's Bounty was set up following a generous gift from the 6th Earl of Malmesbury to help fund the Company’s schools and charities.  William James Harris, the only son of the 5th Earl of Malmesbury, was born on November 18 1907 and died aged 92.  He served as Lord-Lieutenant of Hampshire from 1973 to 1982 and as Official Verderer of the New Forest from 1966 to 1974.

2013 The Skinners’ Kent Academy

The Skinners’ Kent Academy was sponsored by The Skinners’ School Foundation, Kent County Council and West Kent College, and began operating in the buildings of the predecessor school in 2009. The Academy moved into its new buildings in 2013, and was officially opened by HRH The Duke of Gloucester.