Bridge over troubled water

Categories: History of food

North-south divide, powerful merchants, and ceremonial gowns: the history of the London Bridge Sheep Drive

The City of London and Borough Market haven’t always been the best of friends. In fact, in the middle ages, despite being joined together by the heaving, chaotic structure of London Bridge, they could hardly have been further apart.

On the north side of the bridge stood a self-governing metropolis dominated by powerful guilds that fought tooth and nail to protect their hard-earned monopolies. Along the road that led up to the southern end of the bridge, just beyond the reach of the City authorities, stood a market that paid no heed to those guilds, and flogged competitively-priced produce without a single penny in tax making its way into London’s coffers. This was, understandably, the cause of more than a little friction.

In the 1270s, the City explicitly banned its citizens from crossing the bridge to buy “corn, cattle, or other merchandise” from the market. The authorities also worked themselves into a froth about women, known as “regratresses”, who bought bread from Borough then took it back to the City to sell for a profit. Nor was Borough Market the only bone of contention. The vagaries of the medieval legal system meant that anyone who committed a crime in London could escape from justice by simply crossing the bridge into Southwark, where the City’s bailiffs held no sway.

After much lobbying from London, in 1406 Henry IV granted the City authorities the right to arrest criminals found in Southwark and tax the sale of “bread, wine and ale and other victuals” at the rogue market. The people of Southwark (and, no doubt, the petty criminals of the capital) were largely unimpressed by this encroachment and fought hard to overturn these new rights, but bit by bit, the power of London’s merchants won out. Eventually, in 1550, Edward VI ended the debate by selling Southwark to the City for just over £1,000.

Powerful medieval guilds
Nowadays, the rift between the two banks of the river has been thoroughly healed, to the extent that a team from Borough Market is, at the end of September, joining the Worshipful Company of Woolmen—a City institution with roots in one of those powerful medieval guilds—for its annual Sheep Drive fundraiser: a ceremony that celebrates the rich and somewhat arcane history of the City’s merchants while also raising money for charity. All while shepherding a small flock of sheep back and forth across the bridge.  

The Woolmen’s Company is what is known as a ‘livery company’. Starting in the 14th century, the largest City guilds began to be given formal charters by the crown, an act that cemented their status and conferred upon them even greater commercial power. As with any powerful, exclusive entity worth its salt, these companies liked to dress up a bit, in fine robes known as ‘liveries’—hence the name. The original woolmen’s guild had been around since at least 1180, and it was awarded livery company status in the early 16th century, at a time when the wool trade had become fundamental to England’s economy.

Back then, the power of the livery companies was considerable, both politically and commercially. Any person who wished to conduct a trade within London had to be a ‘freeman’ of the City, and until 1835 the only way to become a freeman was to be accepted as a member of a livery company. Only liverymen were (and still are) eligible to elect the Lord Mayor of London and fill the many offices that ran the City’s powerful bureaucracy.

While these historic companies no longer have quite the same clout they enjoyed in their heyday, most still endure. Some are still actively involved in their original industries. The Woolmen fund research, offer innovation prizes and academic scholarships, and work to promote the wool industry. The Fruiterers have a similar relationship with fruit, while the Fishmongers, as well as promoting a fisheries strategy, is responsible for monitoring the quality of fish at Billingsgate. Others have evolved as their industries have changed. The Girdlers’ Company has, for example, a fairly broad charitable remit—demand for girdles no longer being quite what it was.

Ceremonial gowns
For several years, the Woolmen’s charitable trust has been using the Sheep Drive to garner donations and public awareness, with great success—there’s something endlessly newsworthy about the capital’s most famous bridge being taken over by some picturesque livestock, a celebrity sheep driver (this year, Alan Titchmarsh) and a bunch of people in ceremonial gowns.

The Company took its inspiration for the event from one of the many historic privileges enjoyed by these grand institutions. Thanks to their grip on the City’s economy, only liverymen had the right to drive livestock across London Bridge without paying a hefty toll—and given that London Bridge was the only artery into the City from the south, and that in the pre-refrigeration days transporting animals whole and very much alive was the only viable way of moving them, this was an important privilege.

Many of the more colourful privileges associated with the livery companies are either entirely apocryphal or irrelevant in common law—not even the most senior of liverymen could wander around the Square Mile with an unsheathed sword, an oft-cited privilege, without being tasered into next week. But while the Woolmen would struggle to get away with driving a herd of romneys across the bridge to King William Street without warning on a regular working day, that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the right on the one day they can, with all the necessary forms filled in.