Over the last two weeks, The City has been united in its revulsion at the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman. This has not been restricted to private opinion. It has been inspiring to see prominent City organizations, which would normally avoid political controversy, positively shouting their hostility to racism as well as Mr Floyd’s murder. For example:
- The Lord Mayor’s Appeal reiterated its commitment to fight racial injustice
- The City Corporation pledged to work to eradicate all forms of racism in all it does
- The Barbican Centre said it would prioritize removal of its institutional barriers to diversity
- The City Corporation set up a Tackling Racism Working Party to promote economic, educational and social inclusion, including historical issues
- The Guildhall School said it stands with everyone fighting against racism and discrimination
- Lloyds’ said it would provide finance to benefit diversity and black and minority groups
Such sentiments are unsurprising in a way, because the Square Mile reflects modern London, by far the most diverse of great international cities1. Most of us have close friends, and often have family members, who are of different skin colour and ethnicity. Anti-racist views are now mainstream, the racist a scorned reactionary.
At the same time, everyone agrees that more needs to be done, and that sometimes complex issues are involved. Fortunately, the old City guilds now have a wonderful opportunity to make good an injustice that has long troubled members.
Who Shall Dine, and Who Shall Serve?
The gnawing problem is that the membership of the old guilds is almost exclusively white2. Uncomfortably, at members’ banquets, it is for whites to feast, it is for non-whites to serve. A typical example is shown here, the Vintners’ Swan Feat of 2012. This discrimination is clearly out of kilter with modern London, as well as with the liberal sentiments of most of the diners.
You might think the discrimination is caused by fuddy-duddy racism among guild members. This isn’t the case, as I first noticed when I brought my former wife (she’s very dark, from the south of India) to Vintners’ banquets. She was welcomed with open arms and great warmth. And not just that: remember that at Vintners’ dinners, it is not unknown for members to consume a considerable quantity of the superb wines from our cellar. As goes our motto, In Vino Veritas: wine brings out people’s real feelings. Yet in many years of attending such, well, intoxicating gatherings, I never once heard anyone make a comment that was in the least bit racist.
Thus it’s not that guild members are racist; members are typical of Londoners today, generally of liberal sentiment, and people who when they reflect on the racial mix tend to feel uncomfortable with it.
The problem is rather an institutional and constitutional one, by which I mean that it has to do with the legal documents that define how a guild is set up and operated. These obscure documents were written hundreds of years ago, in medieval times, and almost no-one reads them. (Being a nerd for whom reading ancient documents in the Guildhall Library is the very essence of a fun day out, I am probably the only Vintner in many hundreds of years to have read our constitution.)
To understand how a guild’s constitution causes the institutional racism, consider the rules that govern how someone joins, or is admitted to, an old guild.
How to Join an Old Guild
In medieval times, the guilds were trade associations, and their members were tradesmen. Sons went into the trades of their father, and so it made sense to let a son join a guild because his father was already a member. This is known as admission by patrimony. (Variants existed for daughters, and when the member was a mother.)
There are other ways to join an old guild: by apprenticeship, by redemption (buying your way in), and, in rare cases, by honoris causa. Critically, admission by patrimony has precedence over the other methods of admission.
Places free up in the old guilds by the deaths of existing members. So if, say, in one year 10 places free up, and there are nine requests for admission by patrimony, the nine are automatically admitted, leaving only one place for someone.
And the Villain is: Admission by Patrimony
It’s a lovely, and very special, thing to be a member of an old London guild. Because of the precedence of admission by patrimony, membership becomes dominated by older London families. My own family, for example, has been a member of the Vintners for five generations. And so it is that newly available spaces are snapped up by patrimony, which means the guilds are dominated by old London families, which in turn results in the unfair racial mix of the membership.3
And so it is that the membership of the old London guilds is overwhelmingly white.4
What is To Be Done?
There are some very nice things about admission by patrimony. For example, it encourages a feeling of intimacy between members, because of the presence, present or past, of your kith and kin. Often, present members are related to each other: there are many cases of where Masters come from the same family. It helps to give the guild gravitas, because of the old London families that are present. And of course, it’s lovely to be able to pass the privilege on to your descendants.
On the other hand, it seems to me that revoking admission by patrimony (or severely pruning this privilege) would have overwhelming advantages for the old guilds:
- Guilds will no longer be de facto forced to maintain a racial bias
- Guilds will be able to invite recent immigrants, or childen of immigrants, or children of children of immigrants, to join
- The danger of public opprobrium at the unfair racial mix of guild members is mitigated. This, I fear, is a ticking time bomb, waiting to explode
- Guilds will be able to encourage membership by people in related trades, because all the places won’t be snapped up by patrimony
To revise a guild’s constitution is not hard. It is, however, a touch obscure, modern corporate law dates from the mid-1800s. You have to retain counsel fluent in the old law of corporations. This gives new meaning to the notion that you want young doctors, and old lawyers.
As always, we welcome all and any observations by readers. The author would be particularly interested in contributions with respect to:
- Lawyers that know the old law of corporations, and who to retain their services at reasonable rates
- Rather than simply revoking admission by patrimony, it may make sense to retain it while limiting its scope. For example, the precedence of patrimony over other admission methods could be revoked. If a guild keeps admission by patrimony, what should its form be?
About the Author
David Ferris has had a strong interest in the City of London and its traditions since boyhood. As a teenager, he worked in his family’s wine bar in the City (The Capataz, on Old Broad Street); he was proud that it was one of the last to exercise the Vintners’ privilege whereby a trader could sell wines without a license. At 21 he joined the Worshipful Company of Vintners as an apprentice, the fifth generation of his family to do so.
Instead of entering the wine trade, however, he was diverted to academia by a post-graduate scholarship to Stanford University, California, with a view to being a professional philosopher. After AI research, and a subsequent further diversion running a high-tech research firm in Silicon Valley, he returned to active involvement with the Vintners Company in 2000, being made a liveryman shortly thereafter. Alas, he fell out with the Vintners’ then-Clerk , and it appears this was a major factor in his being suspended from the Company in 2014.5
David takes informal snaps and videos at City events, and often uses them to illustrate his writings. He hopes readers will tolerate their poor quality in the light of their, ahem, ingenuousness and authenticity.
- Some other cities have comparable levels of different ethnicities; it is the extent to which everyone mixes both socially and at work that puts London’s diversity way ahead
- This isn’t true of new guilds, which can be highly diverse
- Patrimony does enable a non-white face to join, in that a non-white person can marry an existing member (who will currently be white). Over time, their mixed-race children will be able to join. However, this mechanism is far too slow, and will never make the membership mix reflective of modern London
- Old London families, no matter how white in appearance, usually have recent West African blood in them. This is because 300 years ago there were a small number of black immigrants in London, some of them ex-slaves. They intermarried with the locals, and their genes gradually fanned out over a large proportion of Londoners, with skin colour an ever-retreating characteristic
- Suspension (where you’re a member but have no rights whatsoever) is an exciting legal concept. It’s also an unusual distinction to be bestowed upon David, apparently unique in some 1,000 years of London guild history. For a summary of what happened, see here