Tall, dour, pasty faced, and immaculately clad in a somber grey suit with vest in a slightly darker shade of the same somber grey, the butler carried a tray set out for tea to some unknown executive of the Drapers' Company. Afterwards he walked past us on some other errand, unsmiling but exuding competence.
The postal address of the Drapers' Company is simply Throgmorton Street, London (plus the appropriate Postal Code); other more recent establishments have numbers on the building. The Drapers' Hall has a narrow facade, dominated by statues of bearded Persians, its ceremonial door set behind a locked Main door, Throgmorton St. wrought iron gate, with a discreet brass sign directing enquirers to the side entrance on Throgmorton Avenue. Just across the street is the London Stock Exchange, and a block away the mighty fortress of the Bank of England. The Drapers' Company predates these sister institutions by centuries.
Throgmorton Avenue is a private road, owned by the Drapers' Company, whose building expands into a private close with a lovely garden. The garden is a mere shadow of its former size, but still retains a startling piece of serenity snuggled deep behind the massive skyscrapers of the City of London - the heart of the financial district. Mulberry trees in the Drapers' garden were planted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1955 and by Prince Charles in 1971.
We tried the door and were buzzed in to a carpeted hall, past a Holbein oil of Henry VIII, to a tasteful enquiries desk next to a picture of Henry Fitzalwyn, elected the first mayor of London in 1189, and traditionally a member of the Company.
Originally started as mutual protection societies, the London Companies evolved into business and professional guilds during the middle ages. With Royal Charters granting them exclusive legal powers to govern their trades with complete internal autonomy, these mediaeval guilds acquired and retained great wealth and power. In modern times, the Companies evolved again, becoming some 90 social, religious, and charitable fraternities, to which belong the upper crust of the London business community.
The Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Mystery of Drapers of the City of London (for that is the full title of the Drapers' Company) received the first of its many royal charters from Edward III in 1364, and its Grant of Arms in 1438: three sunbeams issuing from three flaming clouds crowned with three Imperial crowns of gold on a shield of azure. In 1516 the Drapers' position in the Side door to Drapers' Company order of precedence was confirmed as being third, after the Mercers and Grocers. The Company worships together at the nearby Church of St. Michael, Cornhill.
The interior rooms, which we did not view, but read about in a full color brochure (available to the first reader who requests it), are at the least, opulent, and at the most, dazzling, filled with painted ceilings, Gobelin tapestries, antique furniture, and a vault to hold the Company's silver.
The Drapers' Company today serves as Trustee of twenty-three charitable trusts relating to almshouses, schools and colleges, administering the principal and income of numerous bequests made to the Company over the centuries by successful members. In the words of the Company's brief history, "The continued prosperity and influence of the Drapers' Company, and the other medieval guilds of the City of London, is unique in the world; it is a remarkable instance of the continuity of English history and the stability of English institutions."
As the reader may have guessed, we had not been invited to join the Company, but were in pursuit of our eighth great grandfather Brian who had been an apprentice draper in 1610. So we were soon met by the resident archivist and taken down to the bowels of the building, which were accessed through a hidden door and looked like any other urban basement -- not at all elegant! We saw the lovely old books with the ancient handwriting. As it turns out, a certain Mr. Percival Boyd, a very well-known London genealogist, had also been the Master of the Drapers' Company, so he had compiled an accurate transcription of the Company's membership records.
We were disappointed that the name of Brian's father was missing, but we had the name of his master -- the man to whom he was apprenticed -- who had Arms of the Drapers' Company evidently emigrated to America also. As we chatted about the significance of Brian's apprenticeship, perhaps terminated when his master did not continue to make use of the resources of the Company, we happened to mention that various family genealogists had been studying this Brian for over a century. We mentioned that a Mr. Hoppin, and a Mr. Pickering, had tried to find records of Brian, and others of his surname, quite a bit earlier.
As swift as you could imagine, the archivist opened a file drawer and pulled out a folder, inside which were two letters from Mr. Pickering and dozens of letters from Mr. Hoppin, written in 1938! So while we didn't find the name of Brian's father immediately, we are privy to the thinking of the best genealogists of 65 years ago who were studying the same problem we are working on today.
For us this was a thrilling day - we visited Drapers' Hall not as tourists or guests, but as students of family history; our enquiries have given us not only a little more knowledge of one branch of our family, but also a fascinating peek into the history of England.