Coachlines - February 2023

23.02.23 Published in The City Press 1905

Coachmakers’ Company and the craft – memories from old minute books

The Coachmakers Company always had its hands in full in dealing with those “unskilful and deceitful persons” who “abused” not only the nobility, but their own craft – and craftsmen… cheats and the “scampers” kept out of company by “Searchers”.

The ancient and the modern are curiously blended in the early and latter-day history of the Coachmakers’ Company or, to give the Guild its full title, Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers Company. There is a wide gap between that delightful period of English history when stagecoaches were the fashion, and the present time, went motor cars all the rage, and the sharp crack of the driver’s whip has been superseded by the discordant hoot of the motor autocrat. Yet the Coachmakers’ Company has bridged that enormous gulf by promoting the artistic manufacture of motors, while encouraging the art of the coach and carriage building. There are many relics of an honourable old age to be found at Coachmakers Hall*, which is situated in Noble Street, and is probably unknown by 99 citizens out of 100.

Displayed under a glass case is a beautiful carved armchair which was presented to the company in 1863 by Mr J.W. Peters, a member of the Guild. The chair was originally the property of the company and was made in the year 1670.

A poor box, dated 1680, on which the figures of the four Apostles are carved, is another piece of ancient “furniture”, also is a handsomely carved chest, or sideboard, which bears the date of 1606, and is almost as good now as it was when it left the hands of the mediaeval cabinetmaker.

We may now pass on to the history of the company, which received two charters – the first by Charles II, in 1677, and the second by James II in 1687. The orders, regulations, and ordinances were confirmed by the Lord Chancellor, Lord High Treasurer, and Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, in 1677, and a livery was granted by the Court of Aldermen in 1687. The company was founded for the purpose of making, fitting and furnishing of coaches and coach harnesses, and it possessed wide powers or supervision with regard to the workmanship and materials used in the construction of coaches and coach harnesses, indeed, the early records provide that the company kept a very tight rein over the craft it represented. It dealt severely with unskilful persons, who, by want of knowledge and training, or else by fraud and deceit in their materials and workmanship, “daily abuse so many of our nobleman.”

The company’s law applied to the cities of London and Westminster, and its jurisdiction extended within a radius of 20 miles round London. As coaches were for centuries the only means of locomotion, it will be readily understood that the Coachmakers Company always had its hands in full in dealing with those “unskilful and deceitful persons” who “abused” not only the nobility, but their own craft – and craftsmen.

It appears that at one time the Court of the company was held at “The White Hart in Ye Old Bailey” and, unfortunately, the minutes of the Court embracing the period from 1680 to 1687 are lost. If the Guild was severe in its dealings with offenders against its laws and ordinances, it was on the other hand given much to hospitality and conviviality, as we find that soon after its incorporation a loving cup was presented to the Court in order that the health of the Master might be drunk therein. In this connexion it is interesting to know that there is in the possession of the company a complete record of the names of the Masters, Wardens and “Stewards” from the year 1678 to 1797.

The duties of the stewards appeared to have been confined to providing of breakfasts for the members of the Court at their own cost. The present article can only claim to be a brief summary of some points of the interesting history of the company and the writer is indebted to Mr. T H. Gardner, the Clerk of the company, for his courtesy, and the facilities he afforded for access to the old minute books.

The principal shopkeeper’s i.e., coachmakers, were, in the earliest days of the company’s history, to be found in Cow Lane, Smithfield, Hosier Lane, Aldersgate St “and thereabouts”, Bishopsgate, Shandois St probably Chandos St, “Bedfordbury”, the Haymarket, and Long Acre. It is exceedingly interesting to know that throughout three centuries Long Acre has been closely identified with the coachmaking craft. It remains today the great emporium of the trade, though it must be confessed that there are now to be seen in the Long Acre showrooms almost as many motors as there are carriages and coaches.

There were many occasions in history when the Masters of the company invoked the higher authority of the Lord Mayor in dealing with obstinate offenders. In one instance in 1696 a liveryman, who had set the company at defiance, was hauled before the Lord Mayor, who told the delinquent that he had done “exceedingly ill” in giving trouble to his company, and fined him £25 – a substantial sum in those days. Periodical visits were paid to members of the craft by duly authorised officers, called searchers, who possessed the right of search, and did not fail to exercise it, the consequences being that faulty construction and bad workmanship were soon discovered. A little side light upon the social life of the early members of the company is at an entry in a minute book to the effect that in celebration of the visit of the King to the city, the Masters and Wardens dined together at the Half Moon, in Cheap Street the cost of the dinner being £10.

The Coachmakers’ Company, in common with other guilds, continually found the sinews of war for successive kings, who could not pay their way without levying a species of blackmail upon the citizens. The records of the company bear testimony to their frequent appeals that were made for cash. One particular occasion the company subscribed £100, which was paid to the Chamberlain on the credit of two votes of the House of Commons. On other occasions much smaller sums were advanced on the credit of the House of Commons. It would be interesting to know whether these debts were ever paid and if so in what manner. A glance into the minute books of the company reveals the fact that in those early days the calligraphy of the Clarke, or the recorder of the minutes, left much to be desired indeed, many of the earlier records were written in so confused a manner that their purport is only to be arrived at after patient investigation. The register of apprenticeships was faithfully kept and the information on that subject is painfully precise; but then it must not be forgotten that in those golden old days the binding of apprentices, and the registration of the addresses of masters and men were matters of almost religious record.

The old books also contain many quaint items of interest to those who desire to delve into the long forgotten past, and it will be found that human nature then was very much like it is now. There were the honest men and there were the cheats and the “scampers”. For instance an important case was that in which a coachmaker was summoned before the Court to show cause why he had used old materials in the building of the Queen’s coach. A severe penalty was inflicted. That fact shows how strict a watch “the searchers” of old kept up on the trade they so scrupulously represented. Numerous instances are on record of employers being fined for putting “old iron” – whatever that description may actually mean into new coaches. One unscrupulous tradesman was severely punished for putting old iron and old timber into “a certain lord’s” carriage, a fact which indicates that the “scampers” were no respecters of person. The fine in that instance was £7.

The old coachmakers solved in some degree that difficulty of dealing with disobedient craftsman by prohibiting their employment. In other words they were thrown completely out of work, and remained so until they thought fit to conform to the ordinances of the company which governed the trade.

As time went on the company found itself in conflict with the Saddlers’ Company who disputed the right of search by the former. There is little doubt the competition between the two companies became very keen, the many books bear witness to a long correspondent on those subjects. There was not much to choose between a coach harness maker and Sadler, but the Coachmakers gained the right by refusing to entertain the right of the other company to interfere with the historic right of search. It was not easy to say when these rights lapsed, or to state the conditions under which they were forfeited, but it’s safe to assert that the company’s powers weakened, and finally died way altogether as the trade secured its freedom from restraint and restriction. The interest of the Company in the trade remains, and, probably, will remain for many years yet to come.

Even to this day many of its members are coachmakers and occupy a foremost place in their trade. They are naturally anxious that the old Guilds should keep in touch with the craft from which it takes its title. Around the walls of the hall are displayed many interesting photographs initiative of state and other coaches of various periods. The gorgeous character of the state coaches of the Kings of France is shown by photographs of the vehicles to be found in the Musée Cluny. One photograph is of special interest, as it represents a carriage in which President Carnot was assassinated. In this connexion it should be stated that Mr George N. Hooper, a member of the Coachmakers’ Company, and one to whom the Guild is much indebted, went to Paris, made the suggestion that the state coaches, instead of being hung very low, as was the fashion, should be hung higher, in order that persons inside could not be reached as easily by a man on the ground. There French Government adopted that practical proposal.

*Destroyed in an air raid in December 1940