Livery Companies: How traditional City institutions have key roles and influence in a digital world. The Stationers’ Company: The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers

At the very mention of stationers the names of W H Smith and Ryman come to mind  until you reflect on the connection with stations and there is none. The origin of the name comes from fixed benches or stations. Newspaper makers used to be edited and printed in Fleet Street but by 1988 most national newspapers had moved to other parts of London such as The Times in Wapping abandoning hot metal type for computerised printing.  The worlds most famous publishing centre has disappeared along with the trade unions or chapels as they were known yet the pubs that buzzed with the latest news and scandal are still there. You will find The Punch, The Bell, built at the time of St Brides church in 1670 after the Great Fire, the Cheshire Cheese and the Wig and Pen, a private club for lawyers and journalists. From Private Eye to the Sunday Times the printed editions are what most of us prefer to read.

So what did we do before print? There were scribes who wrote on parchment and this story starts with London where in the old St Paul’s Cathedral, some 200 yards in length, in the 1300s there were scribes or scriveners, book binders and limners and illuminators who embellished texts with extracts of lapis lazuli, all working from  fixed tables or stationarius  from which came “Stationers”. In 1403 they formed the Stationers, a guild approved by the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, and were regulated by the wardens of the Guild. These stationers also sold pens, paper and writing materials.

It was William Caxton, a member of the Mercers, a guild for cloth makers that subsequently became a livery company, who brought the first press to London setting up trade in Westminster in 1473 and  on his demise it was his apprentice , Wynken de Worde who transfeerred the Caxton press to the churchyard of St Bride’s and so to the development of Fleet Street as home of the newspaper industry . By the  1500s printers replaced the manuscript trade and it was no coincidence that this geographical location was near religious institutions since these learned clerics were the first and most important clients. The power of print was soon to catch the eye of the monarchy to suppress seditious and treasonable publications and in 1557 by Royal Charter from Queen Mary Tudor and King Philip of Spain  the Stationers had the right to destroy such “naughty” books and what better way than on a bonfire, the site of which exists in the courtyard garden of Stationers Hall where today stands a plain tree planted in the early 1800s under which todays members and their guests enjoy socialising in the summer with a glass of wine and canapes. Two years later the Guild received a Royal Charter of Incorporation (1559)and the right to wear a distinctive costume or livery, hence the term livery company. Numbering 47 in order of preference at the Lord Mayor’s Show, the Stationers had their own barge or “float “for the procession along the river Thames, a term we still use for pageants and carnivals. Today there are 110 livery companies and Stationers has had to look afield for new members in digital sectors as the old trades have virtually disappeared.

Rafael Pittman

Read more next week on The Cakes and Ale ceremony and more history on the Stationers.

Rafael Pittman is a Freeman of The Stationers’  Company, a Freeman of the City of London and worked at Reuters in Fleet Street and is a printmaler-artist. He leads guided tours of Stationers Hall and is a member of the Institute of Tourist Guides.

RFP/ms May2020

Copyright  reserved Rafael Pittman 2020

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