A Guild is an association of merchants or skilled workers who control the practice of their craft in a particular town. The earliest types of guild were organised like a secret society. They were created by grants of letter patent by a monarch or local authority to ensure that work for certain trades only went to their members. The guild was made up of experienced experts in their field of handicraft called Master Craftsmen. A new employee began as an Apprentice and would only learn the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild's secrets. After a set period of around 7 years, he could rise to the level of Journeyman. After several years of experience, a Journeyman could be received as Master Craftsman. Some of these Guilds still exist today but now mostly concentrate on charitable activities. They are most evident as Livery Companies on the floats in the Lord Mayor’s Show in London.
In Shropshire the first known guild was the Guild of Drapers, dealing in woollen cloth. It had existed in Shrewsbury since at least 1204, when the names of individual drapers were recorded in the town’s first Guild Merchant Rolls. The Shrewsbury Drapers founded almshouses in 1444 and the guild was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1462. In this Charter they were given the title “A Fraternity or Gild of the Holy Trinity of the Men of the Mystery of Drapers in the town of Salop” and this title had religious connotations. The Guild was required to appoint a priest to say Mass for the Guild and to pray for the souls of Richard, Duke of York, and his son Edward, Duke of Rutland, both of whom were killed in the Wars of the Roses. Both the Guild and Chantry Chapel in the nearby St Mary’s Church were dedicated to the Holy Trinity and the Chapel still contains part of an altar, decorated with the symbols of the Trinity, erected by the Drapers in 1501. The symbols of the Trinity also appear in the Company’s Common Seal which was authorised in 1462. A coat of arms was approved in 1585 and is the same as that of the London Drapers. The religious obligations of the Guild, along with the chantry priest, were abandoned in 1547 during the Reformation.
The Drapers were middlemen in the woollen-cloth trade of north and central Wales. In the late Middle Ages, the trade in cloth became more important than the trade in wool. During the 15th Century, the coarse Welsh cloth known as cottons, friezes and flannel found an export market through the Shrewsbury Drapers. The official trading centre for woollen cloth was located in Oswestry, where the Shrewsbury Drapers bought cloth at the weekly market, until it moved to Shrewsbury in 1620. The Guild rules required their members to be armed, presumably for the protection of the valuable cloth. They met at the Old Three Pigeons Inn at Nesscliffe, where they waited until a strong enough group was formed to venture on the dangerous ride to Oswestry. When they returned to Shrewsbury, they put the cloth out to shearmen to be finished. Thereafter it was sent on weekly packhorse trains to the City of London cloth market and onwards to Europe.
Mercers were retailers but, during the early 16th Century, the Drapers effectively excluded the Mercers from the wholesale trade and reduced the Shearmen to a state of total dependence upon them. Thus the Drapers established a virtual monopoly. For a century the economic and political power of the Drapers was such that they virtually ran the town of Shrewsbury. In 1582, despite the unpopularity of the Drapers, the townspeople united with them to defeat an attempt to divert the trade to Chester. Virtually all the leading men of the town were Drapers and, when in 1638 Charles I granted Shrewsbury it’s first Mayor, it was no coincidence that the man chosen was Thomas Jones, a leading Draper.
The Guild received a setback during the Civil War and at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 as many drapers were Parliamentarians and therefore suffered the consequences. The cloth trade also began to decline and the Industrial Revolution made trade guilds an anachronism. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 abolished their regulatory powers but they retained their ownership of the Guildhall and almshouses which, in the 1830s, were established within a charitable Trust. There are still 80 elected Freemen of the Guild, who are trustees for three charities which manage and support almshouses in Shrewsbury. The Drapers Hall is now in the custody of a fourth charity, which leases it for use as a boutique hotel and restaurant. The Guild still retains its rights to hold meetings and feasts there.
A Shrewsbury Show had been held annually at Kingsland since medieval times and was organised by the trade guilds. It started with a procession that included figures wearing huge comical heads and leading the guild masters, journeymen and apprentices of each respective guild, ie Crispin and Crispianus (shoemakers), Vulcan (smiths), Rubens (house painters), Cupid (tailors), a Stag (skinners), Henry VIII (builders), the Black Prince (cabinet makers and hatters), Elizabeth I (hair dressers and bakers) and Katherine of Aragon (flax dressers). There was also one of Henry I as he had first granted a charter to Shrewsbury. The guilds erected stalls in the area now covered by Ashcroft Road and Beehive Lane to advertise their wares and entertain their guests.
During the French Wars between 1793-1815, only the apprentices went up to Kingsland and their behaviour was described as “an undignified ritual”. By 1808, the Show was said to be in serious decline so the various trade guilds decided to give financial incentives to encourage people to “take treats at Kingsland”. This was successful and, in 1831, representatives of 8 Guilds attended together with the Mayor and Corporation, along with the two County MPs and the Earl of Powis. Food was provided for the poor. However, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 brought this to an end with the guilds losing their legal status, one result of this being that there was no longer a formal obligation laid upon the Mayor to attend. Consequently, the show of 1835 saw only the Butchers Guild attending, along with a random assortment of apprentices from other guilds. Nothing was set up on the field except for a solitary hobby horse but there was plenty of food and dancing.
Things got back to normal and a contemporary record of 1846 describes the show as a “tented field of glorious pastimes in all its enticing forms. These included fun shows, shindies of every sort, shooting, wines, cakes, comfits, beef and ham sandwiches, coffee, brown stout, beer and backey. Slapbangs were also on offer”. The fortunes of the Show changed in 1849 when the railway came to Shrewsbury. That year's Show was a huge success, so much so that afterwards its organisation was taken from the guilds and put into the hands of a Show Committee. The Shrewsbury Chronicle described it in 1859 as a “ridiculous pageant with its usual array of drunken kings and queens promenading the streets”.
By 1866, the Headmaster of Shrewsbury School (claiming support from all right-thinking people in the town) suggested moving its location from Castle Gates. According to the case presented by the Chairman of Shrewsbury’s Quarter Sessions to the Home Secretary, “it wasn’t just a trade fair but a pleasure fair attracting a lower sort of person and resulting in much drunkenness. Not only did it have no necessary purpose, but it brought injury to the town and was the cause of immorality”. Until then the police had turned a blind eye to the excesses of the Show, locking up the worst offenders and releasing them next day. The argument to keep it was voiced by the guilds such as the Carpenters, Brickmakers, Shoemakers, Tylers, Plasterers and all the rest. On the other side were the great and good of the town, including the clergy. In 1878, the Home Secretary used powers under the Fairs Act of 1871 and abolished the show.
The following guilds were based in Shrewsbury :-
· Carpenters, Bricklayers, Brickmakers, Plasterers and Tilers
· Mercers, Ironmongers and Goldsmiths
· Painters, Glaziers, Plumbers and Curriers
· Tailors and Skinners
· Weavers and Clothiers
Ludlow, being a smaller town, decided to combine trades into a few guilds :-
· Stitchmen - Glovers, Tailors, Breeches-makers and Stay-makers.
· Hammer Men - Blacksmiths, Braziers and Masons
· Leather Men - Tanners, Curriers and Shoe-makers
Ludlow also had the Palmers Guild, which was the common name for the Guild of St Mary and St John. It was formed in 1250 and a Palmer was a pilgrim who had been to the Holy Land, bringing back a palm branch as proof that he had reached his goal. Few of the Ludlow palmers actually went on a physical pilgrimage but all wished to identify themselves with the concept of pilgrimage. Membership of the guild was expensive and largely confined to the upper and middle ranks of society. The Guild initially employed 3-4 priests but in 1394 built a residential college in what was subsequently called College Street, with a communal hall and cells for up to 10 priests. The Guild’s secular headquarters was the Guildhall in Mill Street, which was rebuilt in 1411. Through bequests and purchase the Guild accumulated many properties, eventually owning about a third of Ludlow, as well as farms and lands elsewhere. They took on new responsibilities, including the grammar school and the almshouses. Following the dissolution of the monasteries and the later Chantry Acts, the Guild was dissolved in 1551.
Letter written on 20th June 1344 from King Edward III granting a licence
To "the Guardian and Company of the Palmer's Guild confirming land and
rents in Lodlowe, Staunton Lacy, Sete, Steveton and Huntyton"
A Guildhall was a building where the local guilds held meetings and celebrations. In some cases they have subsequently been used for local government. In Shropshire, there are guildhalls at :-
Bridgnorth Guildhall (SO716931)
Timber framed building built over an open space used as a market.
Ludlow Guildhall (SO510745)
14th Century timber aisled hall which was encased in brick in 1768.
Much Wenlock Guildhall (SO623999)
14th Century timber framed building, originally a prison.
Newport Guildhall (SJ746188)
Timber framed building constructed in 1486 and restored in 1995.
Oswestry Guildhall (SJ291298)
Constructed in 1893 of Limestone ashlar, in a style derived from the chateaux of the Loire Valley.
Shrewsbury Drapers Guildhall (SJ493125)
Timber framed building constructed around 1560 for the Drapers Guild. Altered in the 18th Century and restored in the early 20th Century.
Shrewsbury Fellmongers Hall (SJ487128)
Built around the same time as the Drapers Guildhall but for processing fleeces. It was still used for this until 1971.
Whitchurch Guildhall (SJ542414)
14th Century timber-framed building with two-storey 19th Century brick front elevation done when it became a public house.