27 November 2017
It’s hardly surprising that in a Company founded in 1438 (and whose less formal history goes back even further), certain traditions have developed. One such is that of a new Freeman being required to sign a Bond when admitted into the Company. Many hundreds of such Bonds are preserved in our Company archives. It’s unclear when exactly the tradition began, but it certainly goes back for over 150 years.
These Bonds are effectively an insurance policy, in favour of the Brewers’ Company, against the risk of the new Freeman eventually going on to be elected as one of the two Sheriffs of London – or even as Lord Mayor. Although the Company would be delighted if a Brewer were to become Sheriff or Lord Mayor (and we would – honestly!), in former times this high office brought high costs with it, and the Livery Company to which they belonged could find itself in the less delightful position of footing the bill.
Until 1752, when the Mansion House was built, the Lord Mayor was actually expected to do much civic entertaining in his own home, helped out by his Livery Company (sometimes the Company silver was loaned to him for the year). Things improved after 1752, with Mansion House now providing a grand setting for feasts and entertainments. The Lord Mayor that special year was, in fact, a Brewer, with the memorable name of Sir Crisp Gascoyne. However, even after then, the office holder was expected to meet many hospitality and ceremonial costs, and Livery Companies could be coerced into contributing - a particular worry for those, like the Brewers at number 14, who were outside the wealthier Great Twelve Companies.
The Bond guarantees that the new Freeman will NOT, if ever a Sheriff or Lord Mayor, involve the Brewers’ Company in any such costs. Should they try to pass on the bill, they immediately forfeit £500 to the Brewers, a substantial sum 150 years ago - equivalent to about £25,000 today. The wording of the Bond has remained unchanged throughout that time, although they are now printed, not laboriously handwritten by our Clerk. The special paper used for Bonds ceased to be taxed by the Government after 1971, and nowadays the Clerk no longer applies hot red sealing wax after each one is signed.
The last Sheriff to be a Brewer was Alfred Bevan in 1899. The last Brewer Lord Mayor is even further back - Harvey Combe, elected 100 years earlier, in 1799. So the issue raised by the Bond has been largely academic for well over a century, and the signing of the Bond is now simply one of our Company’s special traditions - part and parcel of becoming a Freeman. Even today, however, a Sheriff or Lord Mayor is expected to dip into his or her own pocket during their year of office - so perhaps we should think of upping that figure of £500…!