The first 400 years
By 1333, the Carpenters’ Company had developed a ‘Boke of Ordinances’ setting out a number of rules. Most related to the provision of help to members in need and included a payment of 12 pennies a year to help those who became ill or were injured at work. Members of the fraternity were also required to employ other members who had no work in preference to other carpenters. Members were expected to attend mass twice a year and go to the funerals of brothers and sisters of the Company.
The ‘Boke’ also records that the members met at the Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr, a religious community in West Cheap.
The Company was incorporated by Royal Charter as a City of London Livery Company in 1477 by King Edward IV. The charter defined the Carpenters’ Company as ‘a body Corporate and Politic by the name of the Master Wardens and Commonalty of the Mistery of Freemen of the Carpentry of the City of London’.
The charter gave the company the power to receive bequests and gifts of property, to plead in any court, and to have a common seal.
In a further charter of 1607, James I extended the jurisdiction of the Company to two miles beyond the City Walls, and in 1640, Charles I extended this to four miles.
The age of timber and plaster
During the medieval period, most domestic buildings were built of timber and plaster. The Carpenters’ Company, along with the Masons’ Company, was mainly responsible for the building trade in the City of London.
The Company’s ordinances or regulations of 1455 stated that the Company would be governed by a Master and three Wardens elected annually. The Master and Wardens had powers to search carpenters’ workshops and ensure that the timbers they were using met the standards set down by the City of London.
A Court of Assistants was also appointed to help regulate the carpentry trade. Members of the Court had to be ‘six or eight of such men as have already held office or are of the same weight in their craft.’
The Great Fire of London
In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed most of the City’s timber buildings. Initially, the rebuilding work brought prosperity to many working in the building crafts, including carpenters. However, the 1667 Act for Rebuilding the City of London required brick and stone to be used for the new buildings.
The new buildings required less repair and maintenance than those of the old City, and by the 1670s unemployment began to appear among carpenters in the City. The rebuilding Acts also removed the remaining powers the Carpenters’ Company had over the craft.
Along with the reduced demand for carpenters, the income and prestige of the Carpenters’ Company began to decline.