Ming Cherng Teong 

The City of London is an island, separated politically and financially and socially. It distances itself from the rest of London and the UK . This article questions the legitimacy of the City of London Coporation status, and specifically its relationship to the London Liveries and wonders whether imposing the very opposite, a form of commons to that which is definitely uncommon can claim this territory for the commoners.

An uncommon place: The City of London 

“In all social animals, including man, co-operation and the unity of a group have some foundation in instinct. This is most complete in ants and bees, which apparently are never tempted to anti-social actions and never deviate from devotion to the nest or the hive. Up to a point we may admire this unswerving devotion to public duty, but it has its drawbacks; ants and bees do not produce great works of art, or make scientific discoveries, or found religions teaching that all ants are sisters. Their social life, in fact, is mechanical, precise and static. We are willing that human life shall have an element of turbulence if thereby we can escape such evolutionary stagnation.”1

The City of London is not governed by London. It resides within its own jurisdiction, another city, separate from the rulings of Parliament and managed by the City of London Corporation. The City’s legitimate power derives from its age and traditions. The land it sits on marks the territory of the Roman settlement Londinium, a chosen spot due to its two high hills and proximity to the River Thames and River Fleet. Its government is the “Common council” a council not so common made up “freemen” representing the 25 wards of The City. Their freeman status is granted only if one is a member of the London Livery Company. It is this complex web cownsisting of the London Liveries and their relationship in supporting the governance and autonomy and elitism of the City of London Corporation that should be once again, questioned.

This city historically was the centre of material trade, and the London Liveries were formed in response to manage these resources. Today the London Livery’s struggle resides not within trade but the campaign to remain relevant. If anything the fear of relevance is all too apparent, as seen when browsing the Worshipful Company of Haberdasher’s website; statements flash “OUTWARD FACING” “RELEVANT TO THE 21ST CENTURY” , “FORWARD THINKING”2 . The reality is the majority if not all of these guilds are no longer directly associated to their trade or craft, many members’ occupations not even remotely related to their guild and many trades or crafts are not even practiced anymore. The beginning of the decline in their importance, the industrial revolution, which saw last set of economic privileges stripped from the livery companies, marked their increased efforts in focusing on the charitable and philanthropic The London Liveries are a rare phenomenon because despite their decline in relevance, their establishment through the crown and church as well as their geographical location enabled them rights and access as well as spiritual means for gaining wealth and power. In the Medieval ages, each Livery Company was associated with a church and it was common practice to leave a bequest to the church in one’s will in order to secure their afterlife. These fixed assets, spanning over hundreds of years form part of the support system that has allowed the Livery Companies to survive to date. “If you have property in the Square Mile, you never ever sell” a Beadle tells me seriously. Even outside of the The City many companies have held on to their assets. The Worshipful Company of Mercers own much of Covent Garden as well as the Royal Exchange within The City. Their annual report in 2013 reported it had granted just over £6m to charities and educational causes, but also that it had made a turnover of £18m and that its fixed assets were growing in value, to £545m (69% in property)3.

Unlike the Mercers, most guilds refuse to publicly publish their assets and wealth apart from their charitable giving which leaves us only to speculate the extents of their wealth. Rumour has it that the Worshipful Company of Girdlers own much of High Street Kensington after purchasing it when it was strawberry fields so that King James I could have strawberries and cream… These strange sorts of myths are befitting for a city based on traditions 700 years old. Those traditions however, along with “convivial” dinners and meetings full of expensive wine and port clash with the nature of operations of the City, the Square Mile, the “financial and commercial heart of Britain”4. “PLENTY AND PROGRESS” screeches a new piece of art, placed in the centre of Guildhall Art Gallery perhaps to illustrate the strange juxtaposition with the Corporation’s interests and their anachronistic traditions. The 300,000 commuters stampede in at 9, and rush out at 5. Their companies have votes, to account for the lack of residents in this City, a mere 7000. Admission to a Livery is either through patrimony, servitude or redemption though it is common knowledge that getting into a livery is as much about how you can help them (financially) as much as they can help you. This gentleman club scenario paints the very real picture of the Liveries and City as a closed system, and the very definition of uncommon. Its power of traditional legitimate rule should be questioned. How might imposing the values of common land onto the London Liveries potentially stage the transformation of an institution experiencing “evolutionary stagnation” and what are the consequences to the land and architecture from this?

Common collective action: The medieval guilds and common land 

[institutions of collective action are] institutional arrangements that are formed by groups of people in order to overcome certain common problems over an extended period of time by setting certain rules regarding access to the group (membership), use of the resources and services the group owns collectively, and management of these resources and services”5

Though closed as a system, the Liveries historically can be seen as a form of collective action, similar to the notion of common land. The root of their collectivity lay within the locality of their situation and a mutual need for action. The trade and craft guilds in London (London Liveries) were organised in order to regulate and control the quality of manufactured and processed goods coming into and out of the City. They grew out of a common interest to govern their respective trades and formed to protect and establish rules to govern the market.

“What we call Land is an element of nature inextricably interwoven with man’s institutions. To isolate it and form a market out of it was perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors. Traditionally, land and labor are not separated; labor forms part of life, land remains part of nature, life and nature form an articulate whole.”6

The commons were formed from mutual agreement between the commoners and the landowner (and the land). The importance of self-regulation and abiding by non-formal but established self-organised rules ensured that the land was never over exploited so that the land’s longevity and health would continue. A symbiotic relationship formed between the land (seasonal shifts), commoner and manor lord.

The qualities and structures of operation in terms of collective assembly are useful today in redefining our understanding and common perception of “institution” and can also give cues as to how might a new form of collective action institution create a new common domain (be it material and related to the land, or immaterial and focused within the sphere’s of knowledge and creativity). Elinor Ostrom underlined many of the features of a self-governing, self-organising institutional approach to resources7. Her argument was in opposition to Garrett’s “Tragedy of the Commons” who didn’t believe the notion of the commons were self-sustainable because of individual selfishness. Rather than starting from the assumption that the users of common resources are helpless without an outside authority intervening to protect them from themselves, she believed that individuals had the capacity to “extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation,” . This idea, in favour for the common people and the commons can question the legitimacy of elitist operations that occur in the middle of our city yet, ones which we have no control over.


1.     Topping Ceremony of the Salter’s Hall
2.    Sovay BERRIMAN, 2003, Sculpture, Rock Salt
3.    Becky WHITMORE, 2012, Sculpture, Inhumation (where there is shit, there is power)
4.    Eleanor LINES, 2012, Printmaking, Igneous Amorphous 5.     Wealth geology, City of London


1.    Reith Lectures 1948: Authority and the Individual Bertrand Russell Lecture 1: Social Cohesion and Human Nature
3.    Mercers Company Annual review 2013
4.    City of London statement in a City of London Corporation brochure
5.    Homepage. Available at:
6.    Polanyi, K.,The great transformation the political and economic origins of our time, Beacon Press, 2002 7.    Ostrom, Governing the Commons, Eggertsson and Calvert, 1990