History of The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights

Up To 1670

Incorporation and the Management of the Craft

Whilst the wheelwrights craft has been practised for more than 4000 years, it was only in 1630 that the Wheelwrights of London, having become sufficiently wealthy to pay the costs and legal fees involved in incorporation, formed a committee to approach the City authorities. Later that year the leading Wheelwrights and Coachmakers came together and petitioned for incorporation as a single company.

In the next thirty years or so the City was preoccupied with other matters including the Civil War, the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, the Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Fire of London.

Granting of the Royal Charter

The Wheelwrights, independently of the Coachmakers made a separate petition for incorporation and on 3rd February 1670, Charles II granted the Wheelwrights a Charter.

The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights became, in order of precedence, the sixty-eighth Livery Company of the City of London. After receiving the Charter the Wheelwrights Company carried on the work of the former Guild but the legal status of the Charter enhanced its power and gave it the right to make its own bye-laws and thus govern the operation of the trade. The jurisdiction of the Company covered all wheelwrights working in the City itself and a five mile radius outside.

The Wheelwrights Royal Charter is stored in the Guildhall.

Wheelwrights Royal Charter

1670 To 1700

New Powers for the Wheelwrights

The new bye-laws empowered the Court of Assistants to visit the house, shop or warehouse of any wheelwright and to search the premises to ensure that wheels were made of good materials and properly constructed. These “Searches” as they were called did not always go smoothly. An old report reads as follows:

“17th May 1688. This day Mr. Thomas Girdler appeareing in Court was accused of exposeing to sale sevrall coach wheeles made of unsound Timber and that he being informed of the penalties that would fall upon him by vertue of the Byelawes of this Compaine, the said Mr. Girdler, did in a very unseemly manner revile the Compaine and said he cared not for the Byelawes.”

Some fairly rich 17th Century language was no doubt used but Mr. Girdler had met his match. The report continues:

“Upon hearing the whole complaint this Court did fine him in all four pounds for his rotten wheeles but afterwards he declaring his sorrow for his offences and submitting himselfe to the Court his fine was remitted to 10s which he Payd and his contempt was passed by.”

A typical wheelwright’s shop of the 17th Century would have comprised a Master Wheelwright, who would be a member of the Company, several journeymen and half a dozen apprentices.

From the outset women were admitted to the Freedom of the Company. Some were widows of wheelwrights who carried on the trade of their late husbands, others were admitted as apprentices and some by patrimony. One of the earliest entries in the minute books is that of 27th May 1670 which states:

” Mrs. Rand did this day promise to pay to this Company towards their charge of Incorporation on Midsomer day next the sum of £5.” and “Mrs. Rand did this day promise to pay to this Company the remainder of her Subscription on Midsomer day next.”

However, the wheelwrights trade in the 17th and early 18th Centuries was one which, whilst requiring great skill, needed, like the blacksmiths trade, a powerful physique and brawny arms. Probably it never provided a lavish lifestyle and the problem of raising funds to meet Company commitments has been a recurring theme for successive Masters.

 

1700 to 1800

Diversification and the Decline of Trade

Considerable changes took place in the last quarter of the 18th Century.

On the one hand the Company flourished growing in both numbers and social status. The Company applied for and obtained a grant of Livery in December 1773 and, in 1783, it achieved the distinction of providing its first Lord Mayor of London – Sir Robert Peckham.

On the other hand by 1801 it was discovered that there was not one practising craftsman amongst the Company’s membership. There is little doubt that this came about as a result of the greatly increased worldwide trade that was passing through the City. This in turn led to high rents and wages so that even those men who had started life as craftsmen were probably finding more lucrative employment for themselves or more profitable use for their premises.

In short, the craft had left the City and moved to the surrounding countryside. In November 1817 twenty-seven new Liverymen were admitted to the Company, amongst them were four drapers, four brokers, two grocers, two ship owners, two pawnbrokers and one fishmonger; there were no wheelwrights.

 

1800 to 1900

A Century of Growth

Since the commencement of the 19th Century, the history of the Company has been bound up with its interests in the City rather than with the craft.

Throughout its first two hundred years of existence the Company suffered from a serious shortage of funds but with a more diverse membership, the finances of the Company showed a modest improvement and various items of valuable silver were donated. The Company also commissioned a badge in gold and enamel, surrounded by a circle of gold wheels surmounted by the Arms of the Company in pierced gold and enamel, which was first worn by the Master in 1873.

Sir George Bridges served first as Sheriff and then in 1819 as Lord Mayor of the City of London

In 1872 after an interval of nearly a century the Company again turned its attention to its responsibilities to the craft and in 1882 became a founding member of the City & Guilds of London Institute. In 1892 the Court appointed a Technical Education Committee which, in conjunction with the Carpenters Company, established a class for Wheelwrights at the Carpenters Training School in Great Titchfield Street. Whilst suffering from declining numbers these classes continued until the outbreak of the Second World War.

1900 to 2000

The Work Continues

The earliest representation of the Wheelwrights’ Coat of Arms dates from 1682 although the origins remain a mystery. However, it was not until 1965 that the College of Arms granted Letters of Patent giving the Company official recognition and rights over its coat of arms.

The Wheelwrights Company maintains a close connection with the City of London and one of its principal roles is to support the Mayoralty and Corporation.

The Company is especially proud of the fact that eight of its members have, over the years, served as Sheriff and Lord Mayor of London. They are Sir Robert Peckham in 1783, Sir George Bridges in 1819, Sir William Dunn in 1916, Lord Ebbisham of Cobham in 1926, Sir Murray Fox in 1974, Sir Anthony Jolliffe in 1982, and Alderman Sir David Rowe-Ham in 1986 and Lord Mountevans in 2015.

In addition, Michael N. Hinton, Clerk to the Company from 1965 to 1972 was Aldermanic Sheriff in 1977/78, and Kenneth Ballard and John Taylor served as Lay Sheriff in 1978/79 and 1990/91.

Sir Murray Fox,
Lord Mayor of the City of London, 1974 
Master of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, 1964

Charitable giving has, from the outset, been a major part of the activities of a Livery Company. Initially to support members and their families who had fallen on hard times and subsequently on a much broader basis. For details of the Wheelwright’s charitable activities please visit our Charities section.

 

2000 to Today

A Wider Perspective On Mobility

Past Master Richard Sermon MBE was Sheriff in 2010/2011.

David Wernick, Richard Proctor, Stephen Clark and Graham Westwell the Masters from 2009 to 2012 inclusive came together to launch BattleBack – a fund that was to provide grants for specialized sports equipment and training to enable disabled servicemen and women to have the opportunity to be considered for the GB Paralympics team. Harrow School also adopted the fund as its charity beneficiary for its Long Decker day in 2011 and in all over £ 160,000 was raised. Two of our Patrons the then Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir David Richards became an Honorary Liveryman and Sir Stephen Dalton then Air Chief Marshall has become a Liveryman and subsequently Master of the Company.

In November 2015 our Honorary Court Assistant, Lord Mountevans became Lord Mayor.

The Company increased its connections with and support of the craft. In 2016 the Company had a retired Wheelwright and two Working Wheelwrights as Liverymen and eleven Yeomen of the Company. Connections have been forged with wheelwrights in Colonial Willamsburg, Virginia, USA. In 2013 we initiated through the Livery Companies Skills Council two apprentice wheelwrights on a three-year scheme. For details of current activities please visit our Craft Section.

Lord Mountevans
Honorary Assistant of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights

Lord Mayor of the City of London, 2015

Lord Mayor Mountevans

350th Anniversary

In 2020, the Company celebrated the 350th Anniversary of the signing of its Royal Charter.  Whilst many of the celebratory activities were curtailed by the COVID pandemic, we were fortunate to be able to hold a service of celebration at St Paul’s Cathedral followed by a dinner in the crypt.

Master, Wardens and guests at St Pauls

The 350th Anniversary celebrations at St Paul’s Cathedral.
From L to R: David Mortlock, Upper Warden; Rev. Canon Nicholas Wheeler, Chaplain; Susie Morris, Clerk; Laurence Mutkin, Master of the Tin Plate Workers; Rt Hon. and Rt Rev. Dame Sarah Mullally;
Sir Stephen Dalton, Master; Lady Dalton;
Duke of Richmond and Gordon; Dr. David Best, Master of the Pattenmakers; Elliott Porte, Renter Warden.

The opportunity was also taken to create a video showcasing the work of the Company, the craft of wheelwrighting, and some of the ways in which Wheelwrights Liverymen are making a contribution to society.

Two other Livery companies also celebrated their 350th anniversaries in 2020: the Tin Plate Workers and the Pattenmakers. One of the events that had to be postponed from 2020 was a Tri-Company Banquet with these companies, and it is now planned to  hold this in September 2021.

Armorial Bearings

The earliest representation of the Wheelwrights’ Coat of Arms dates from c 1682 and painted on the Company’s Poor Box. The box is said to be made from oak from York Minster and has metal strap work, hinge and escutcheon.

In 1950 The College of Arms informed the Clerk to the Company that no Grant of Arms had ever been made to the Company. No immediate action taken.

However in 1962 the Court decided to apply to the College for a “Grant of Arms and Supporters” at a cost of £ 345 with the cost being covered by subscription by Members of the Court. After lengthy negotiations with Portcullis Pursuivant who insisted that there should be some differentiation of the Supporters the design was agreed by the Court and approved by the King of Arms. The Letters Patent were received in 1965.

The Arms:

Gules a Chevron between three Wheels or on a Chief Argent a Broad Axe blade to the sinister proper.

Crest:

Gules a Chevron between three Wheels or on a Chief Argent a Broad Axe blade to the sinister proper.

Supporters

On either side a Horse Argent each gorged with a Circlet pendent therefrom over the fore leg a Chain terminated by a Ring Or

Motto:

God Grant Unity

 

Whheelwrights Coat of Arms

Our Patron Saint – St. Willigis

The Patron Saint of the Company is St. Willigis. He was born at Schoningen, Germany, the son of a wheelwright.

He was Chaplain to Emperor Otto II, Chancellor of Germany in 971, then later Archbishop of Mainz in 973, Archchancellor of the Holy Roman Empire and Vicar Apostolic to Germany in 975.

He was one of the important and influential figures at the time, as he had been confirmed by Pope Benedict VII, with the right to crown future emperors, as he did with Otto III in 983 and then Henry II in 1002.

He died of old age on 23 February 1011 at Mainz and his body was buried in St. Stephen’s Church.

He is represented in art as a bishop with a wheel, a symbol of his father’s trade, and an emblem he had chosen as his coat of arms.

The Company Badge

The heraldic description of the Company’s Badge, as granted by Letters, the patent dated 30th December 1985 is:

A male figure representing St. Willigis bearded proper on his head a Mitre Or vested also Or mantled Gules supporting by the left hand a Crozier Gold and by the dexter hand to his front a Wheel proper.