The Role of the Beadle, Past, Present, & Future

You will all be familiar with the Beadle at court meetings and functions wearing his gown and carrying his staff of office, but you may not be aware of the history and evolution of this role over many centuries.

If you Google the word ‘Beadle’ you can get a number of descriptions of the word. Wikipedia gives a good example of the different types of Beadle and their origins. The earliest version is that of a Roman Temple official. This role developed into medieval Parish Bedels (early churchwardens). Aldermen appointed Ward Beadles to act as Constables for the 25 Wards within the City, carrying a staff of office and wearing the familiar uniforms that we still see today.

Past

As early as the 12th Century, when the Livery Companies were forming to control the various trades within the City, they appointed Beadles to act as a central point of contact within each Company. As such they were the first employees of the company. Clerks were not appointed until much later. The Beadle took care of the Company’s meeting place, called the Court or Livery together on behalf of the Master and enforced any disciplinary measures decided by the Court. He was also responsible for recruiting potential Apprentices and carried a staff of office or stave to protect the Master and Wardens and to keep order amongst the Apprentices. He would organise the social and ceremonial functions of the company.

In summary he was a policeman, an Almoner, a friend, a social worker and communicator. They were also keepers of Ceremony and Tradition. At that time members wore tabards depicting their trade known as their Livery. Nowadays, it is normally only the Master & Wardens together with the Clerk and Beadle who wear coloured gowns within each Livery Company.

Every Beadle’s gown is different, depicting the Company Colours so that when all the Companies are called to gather by Order of The Lord Mayor, Common Hall or United Guilds Service, the Company members can recognise their own Beadle by his gown.

He would be issued with a Staff of Office, often wrongly called a mace, with which to protect the Master and enforce discipline. The Staff is usually a tall one, and surprisingly heavy, particularly when being carried in procession, so that it could be used as a rallying point at Common Hall etc. when the Livery was summoned to "Attend upon the Master".

Whilst the Livery all lived and worked within the Square Mile, the Beadle was able to summon them personally, but, as people became dispersed, there grew a need for someone who could write and so use the new postal services to summon the Court. The humble Clerk then began his rise in importance to his position today as the chief executive of the Company. The office of Beadle, meanwhile, has become a primarily ceremonial function.

Present

Today the Beadle continues to act as the omnipresent coordinator, producing the necessary gowns and regalia for the various events, on behalf of the Master; organising receiving lines, Toasts, and ensuring the smooth running of every event.

There are now some one hundred and ten Livery companies in the City of London. The overwhelming majority of which do not have their own hall. For those that do the Beadle in those Companies retains his stewardship of the Company's property, including in many cases, the fabric of buildings owned by a Company and is often called the Hall Manager a full-time role. Whereas for those Beadles appointed to companies without their own hall it is often a part time role and they maybe work for more than one company.

The Beadle advises on matters of protocol, and acts in collaboration with the Clerk, to ensure all Livery functions take place smoothly and with due decorum; That the function start and ends on time, not always an easy task! This is particularly relevant when you consider that some venues impose a penalty for functions that over run. So please members be aware that when the Beadle is encouraging you to go into a dinner function or to leave the venue at the end of the evening he is trying to ensure that the event starts and ends on time and that the Company will not incur any penalty, financial or otherwise!

For those without their own hall the Beadle has the added responsibility of collecting the required regalia, gowns, and treasure from the vaults. transporting it to the venue in good order and on time and returning to the vaults after a function. He will attend the Master and Wardens on all proper occasions, to ensure that they are properly gowned and badged.

Additionally, nowadays most Beadles are also trained Toastmasters and act as Toastmaster at all its functions.

Until twenty years ago most Beadles were recruited from senior NCOs and Warrant Officers retiring from the Armed Forces. Nowadays they come from all walks of life, but they soon learn that their main role is to maintain the traditions and decorum of the Ceremonies.

Future

So, where do we see the Beadle of the future? In the fast-moving pace of modern life email has taken over from the post and telephone in many cases. Smart phones are seen and sadly often used at formal functions. Protocols that have been in place for centuries are being eroded. Will the Beadle no longer wear a gown and carry a staff? I hope not. Yes, the staff is heavy, yes, the gown is hot but they are an essential part of the job and no matter how uncomfortable they may be at times I am proud to wear them.

As a result of the current health issues the “Loving Cup” was dropped from our last function at Mansion House. Let us hope that we will be able to ensure that it returns when the crisis is over, albeit with perhaps some additional health protection? The Beadles Guild of which I am a member has as its motto “Tradition” and as Beadles we are the guardians of those cherished traditions that embody all that is good about the Livery movement. Yes, we have to move with the times, yes, we have to embrace modern technology. Maybe that means that Court meetings will be held on “Zoom” or “Skype” and new Freeman and Liveryman will be installed “online” however I think that if we were to go down this route much of what we stand for would be lost.

Who does not want to continue to meet in the fabulous surroundings of places like The Mansion House, or Guildhall or the many and varied Livery Halls in the City of London? I for one am proud and honoured as a Beadle to be able to help maintain the traditions of the Livery movement and sincerely hope that we can continue in this vein for many years to come.

As the Beadles Guild would toast at their events and meetings I offer a toast to you: “Tradition”.

The Beadle (John Oakley) with the Master  (Andrew Whitton)
The Beadle (John Oakley) with the Master (Andrew Whitton)