Origins & History

Granted its Royal Charter in 1638, by Charles I

It was given the power to exercise a monopoly and regulate the distilling trade within the cities of London and Westminster and a radius of 21 miles.

Charter of the Incorporation

Charter of the Incorporation

The Worshipful Company of Distillers is a Livery Company of the City of London.

Our founder was Sir Theodore de Mayerne, physician to Charles 1st, who in 1638 obtained a Royal Charter to regulate the distilling trade in the Cities of London, and the City of Westminster and within 21 miles thereof (later extended to 31 miles).

Few of our Liverymen will be aware just how eminent a man our Founder was. Not just a Physician, he was a polymath, renaissance man and entrepreneur, whose repute spread all over Europe.

Born and educated in Geneva and later at Heidelberg, he then studied medicine and took a doctorate at Montpellier. He first established his reputation in France as a pioneer of “chemical medicine” and adherent of Hippocrates. Such principles would now be recognised as mainstream medicine, but in the late 16th century they were considered revolutionary and unfashionable: conventional medicine then devotedly following the absolutist principles of Galen. He nevertheless found success and fame as a doctor and became physician to King Henri IV in France. When Henri was murdered in 1610, the political climate in France became unfavourable for him (as a Huguenot), and he fled to England.

In England, his fame and his practice grew rapidly and he quickly became Physician to the English King, Charles I. He became an influential courtier and a very wealthy man, with a vast and lucrative medical practice amongst the great and the good. His talents were such that even when his skills (indeed any medical skills) were insufficient to keep Charles’s head on his shoulders, he continued to prosper during the Commonwealth, even treating Cromwell, such that his many privileges and sinecures were confirmed and continued.

His interests went far beyond medicine; he was essentially an entrepreneur, and was consistently on the look-out for money-making schemes. He invented new pigments to aid artists and enamellers; he procured monopolies for dealing in coal, and it would even appear that his foundation of our Company may well have been motivated with an eye on securing the distilling monopoly as a means of making money.

So far as his Livery interests are concerned, when he first came to England he became involved with the dispute which had been rumbling for some time among the ranks of the Apothecaries, who were at that time irked by being a mere sub-set of the Grocers’ Company. As a devotee of “chemical medicine”, de Mayerne’s sympathies lay with the apothecaries, and his natural inclination was to ally them with the Physicians. His influence at Court was instrumental in assisting the Apothecaries in breaking away from the Grocers Company, and he was involved in the formation their own Company.

Thus he was familiar with the ways of the livery world when, some decades later, the question of forming the Distillers’ Company came up. He had meanwhile been knighted and this time was not just instrumental, he was a prime mover in the foundation of anew Livery Company, our Company, and was able to procure our first Royal charter through his connections at Court and influence with King Charles. Unfortunately, of course, the King only survived a few years after our foundation, and the political climate in our early years became radically different.

De Mayerne died at a ripe age and fabulously wealthy, his fortune running well into six figures in addition to his numerous properties and an estate in Switzerland. The value of this six-figure fortune must be viewed in light of property prices at around this time: the manors of Ham and Petersham, including the palace at Ham House, were sold for a total of £1,131. Why we did not get a Hall with some of his loose change remains a mystery, as he outlived his children and his hopes of founding a family dynasty with his vast fortune were thwarted.

His eminence during his life is indicated by some the portraits and memorials left behind. The contemporary portrait which is reproduced in the Company’s “Short History” by Berlin hangs in the Royal College of Physicians; though a full-size portrait and not a miniature, it was probably by Jean Pettitot, the well-known miniaturist. There are some miniatures of de Mayerne, also probably by Pettitot though the attribution is doubtful; one copy is in the National Portrait Gallery and another in Ham House, the home of William Murray, who was a friend of de Mayerne and, as Charles I’s “whipping boy”, an intimate of the King and an essential intermediary for de Mayerne with the King.

Other contemporary full size portraits also exist, most famously one by Rubens, two copies of which are known to exist, both now in America (one in North Carolina, the other in Chicago). There is a further portrait of de Mayerne painted in about 1635/36 by John Hoskins. One copy is in Longleat House and another copy hangs in the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford.

And the most enduring monument, though in poor shape at present, is a statue of him on his tomb in the crypt of St Martins-in-the-Fields. He is shown seated above a lengthy Latin inscription, eulogising him as the “Hippocratus Alter” – the second Hippocrates. Those liverymen fluent in Latin would earn great credit by viewing the monument and supplying a translation of the florid eulogy.

Closest to home of all the depcitions is the splendid gilt relief head and shoulders portrait on the reverse of the Master’s Badge. The obverse has the Company’s arms. The badge dates from 1852, making it one of the earliest Master’s badges. The portrait would seem to be modelled on the miniature in the National Portrait Gallery.

Acknowledgement for much of the above material is due to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s historical evaluation of our Founder’s extraordinary life in his book called “Europe’s Physician – the Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne”. The title alone gives a hint at the breadth of his interests, such that his foundation of our Company garners only a passing mention.

The activities of the Company are more fully described in our Aims and Objectives.


A selection of Company treasures

A Pair of Loving Cups

Presented in 1854 by James Scott Smith of the Whitechapel & Phoenix Distillery, Master 1849.

Dirk

Presented by the Chairman and Directors of the Distillers Company Ltd. (now Diageo) to mark the mastership of their colleague Michael Boileau Henderson, Master 1982-1983.

Eight Decanter Labels

Showing the Company’s Coat of Arms, produced in 1988 to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of the Company’s Incorporation. The first set was sent to Buckingham Palace as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II by members of the Livery.

Four Goblets

One gold goblet (Master) and three silver goblets (Wardens) (silver), Gift of E. Price Hallowes, Master 1930-1931.

Gavel

As used by the Master at Court Meetings, presented by Charles Curtis, Master 1855-1856.

Pair of Quaichs

Presented to the Company by The London Scottish Regiment in 1966.

South Africa Medal with seven clasps

Was presented to the Company by H.M. King Edward VII in commemoration of the part taken by the Company in raising and equipping the City of London Imperial Volunteers in 1900.

Tercentenary Appeal Fund Cup

1672-1972, 107 Liverymen contributed to the Fund.

The Beadle’s Stave Head

A silver mounted beadle’s staff, the finial decorated with cast acanthus leaves topped with the Company arms, 6ft long, probably circa 1690.

Victorian Silver Gilt Rose Water Dish and Ewer

In form of a baluster still. Presented in 1849 by Joseph Benjamin Claypole, Master. The still is placed on the Master’s table at all Company functions.


Loving Cup Ceremony

The Ceremony of the loving cup, which is traditional in all livery companies, is said to date back to Saxon times (before the Norman Conquest of 1066), and to derive from the assassination of King Edward.

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