Here I am, a man of ‘mature years’, who has lived in Wales all his life, who has always taken a close interest in what goes on, and yet this little country of ours can still throw up organisations of which I’d never heard. This time in the form of the Welsh Livery Guild, which came into being in 1992. (The founders had hoped to start a livery company, but the City of London said Nay.) My attention was drawn to this outfit by a route I choose not to elaborate on, for reasons that might become clear later in this article.
Let’s start with the Guild’s website. Well, in design, it’s very basic, amateurish even (black writing on a dark green, patterned background!); and poorly written. Be that as it may, the website tells us that the Guild is organised with a Master, a Senior Warden, a Junior Warden, and a Deputy Master who together appear to make up the Court, (which may, or may not, include the Past Masters). This Court is served by fourteen Assistants, a Chaplain, a Clerk, a Treasurer, a Beadle, a Master’s Steward, a Senior Warden’s Steward and a Junior Warden’s Steward. What possessed a bunch of grown men, coming together towards the end of the twentieth century, to set up a fancy dress club complete with a bloody Beadle! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against grown men dressing up, ‘some of my best friends’ and all that . . . But this is supposed to be a Welsh organisation for the twenty-first century, yet the only template it could think of was both English and medieval. That says a lot.
What else do we learn from the execrable website? One thing that struck me about the Past Masters was the disproportionate number of military men who’d filled the role. Of the seventeen Past Masters between 1992 and 2011 seven were military men. A very high figure when you remember that (at least) two of those Past Masters were women. The current Master is a Lancashire lad. The miltary is also well represented in current roles, with a colonel and two majors among the Assistants, the Clerk is a Squadron Leader and the Treasurer a Commander.
Then there’s the Cardiff-centricity of the Guild. If you look at the organisation’s Calendar for 2012/13 you’ll see that of the twenty-eight events and gatherings listed just five are held outside of Cardiff. That is appalling for what purports to be a national organisation. The Guild visits Bridgend a couple of times, but Swansea is obviously a step too far. Then there are a couple of safaris to the north, and a WWI battlefields tour! Which I suppose makes sense given all the military men involved with the Guild. The miltary theme was also present in a January get-together where a talk on Rorke’s Drift was given at the Firing Line Museum, Cardiff Castle. Though it’s not all blood and guts. One of those northern safaris revolved around a carol service last December. Followed by sherry and mince pies at the home of Liveryman John Solbe, or to give him his full name – and why not! – John Frank de Lisle Guerin Solbe, a big shot at the English cathedral in St. Asaph.
I’m sure I’ve whetted your appetite, and now you want to join, go on – admit it. Well you can’t. For as it says on the relevant page, “Admission depends on professional attainment and citizenship. Membership is for life, so that the knowledge and experience of several generations is available for the benefit of the Livery’s objectives.” So there! Membership is by invitation only and “for life“! Holy Moley, what is this, the Mob! While that might rule you out from becoming a full Liveryman, there might yet be hope for you as a Freeman, or associate member. (What are the women called – Liverywomen, Freewomen?)
So apart from poncing about in costume, revisiting someone else’s glory, or engaging in festive chit-chat in Llanelwy, what exactly does this Welsh Livery Guild do? To believe the website, the Guild exists solely to administer its Charitable Trust, which gives out grants, scholarships and awards to promising youngsters in fields as diverse as scaffolding and cello playing. But I don’t buy that. There are countless organisations doing the same bloody thing, we don’t need another. And even if we did, why should it model itself on medieval English Guilds, and contain so many military men? No, this is Al Capone, ‘philanthropist to Chicago’s poor’. In other words, a ‘front’, or public face, for something less commendable. Maybe something more sinister.
My view is that this is a kind of top notch – but ostensibly open – freemasonry, organised on a London-Cardiff axis, and operating across Wales. Hiding behind the Charitable Trust is the organisations’s true purpose. Given its membership we can safely deduce that it is both royalist and Unionist. That being so makes a nonsense of its claim to be serving the best interests of Wales. What we should be asking is, ‘How much influence does the Welsh Livery Guild exercise, both in Cardiff and London’?
Finally, as a post script, I suppose the Guild’s logo needs to be interpretated for those – unlike me – without a grounding in heraldry. The lion (on the right) has obviously just killed a bishop, which explains why he’s wearing a mitre. The three stars stand for the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. And the waves underneath are a reminder of Rule Britannia.