Monday 5 February, 2018

Women and The Goldsmiths' Company

As this month marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the law that gave the first women the right to vote in the UK, we look back at the history of women in the Goldsmiths’ Company.

In May 2017, Judith Cobham-Lowe took her place as Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company, the first woman in seven centuries to do so. The long wait for a female Goldsmith to take the chair lies in contrast to the fact that women have always played a part in the Goldsmiths’ Company, even if that part was, for many centuries, in the margins of official record.

From the Company’s earliest times, women were involved in the craft (often working as burnishers or polishers) and family and business intermingled. On St Dunstan’s Day 1401, it was ordained that “if anyone of the goldsmiths’ mistery should take or send any piece of goldsmiths’ ware to any woman married to a man of another mistery, he shall pay for each time he is found guilty of the offence 6s 8d”, showing that wives of goldsmiths were expected to share in the secrets of the trade.

Some consequences of medieval women’s involvement with the Company reverberate down the centuries. Agas Harding was the widow of a senior goldsmith, whose independent command of her considerable wealth made her an important figure. At Agas’ death in 1514, she left a small farm north of Fleet Street to the Goldsmiths’ Company. Five centuries later, the redevelopment of this land financed the building of the Goldsmiths’ Centre.

The uncertainty of life in past centuries necessitated the involvement of women in the trade, even if they weren’t working at the bench. If a goldsmith died, his widow would be granted a connection with the Company ‘by courtesy’, allowing her to inherit her husband’s apprentices and to register a maker’s mark, usually in the shape of a lozenge, the heraldic shape for a widow. One prominent example is Eliza Godfrey, born Pantin, the daughter of one goldsmith and the widow of two, Abraham Buteux and Benjamin Godfrey. The workshop she managed – for 17 years after the death of her second husband – produced some of the finest quality silver in Georgian London.

The women involved with the Goldsmiths’ Company were not always widows. Discussing her recent research on female masters and apprentices in the Company’s records during the Early Modern period, Dr LaJean Chaffin revealed that between 1576 and 1800 there were 168 girls apprenticed through the Goldsmiths’ Company. Many of these were not trained in the craft, but in other occupations such as millinery. The last woman to be apprenticed as a jeweller before the 20th century was Elizabeth Relly in 1781, and she did not take up her freedom.

Reflecting a wider cultural shift towards a polarisation of the male and female spheres, the Victorian period did not see any women admitted to the Company after 1845. As the early 20th century saw more women makers emerging, particularly in connection with the Arts and Crafts movement, and in the postwar years female designers and makers made a bigger impact than ever before. Joyce Himsworth, who studied at Sheffield School of Art, was one such pioneer, and the Company’s Collection holds seven pieces by her. A letter from her remains in the Company’s archives. Dated 22 July 1945, she asks that “whatever plans are made to assist craftsmen, exactly the same may apply to craftswomen”.

It would be some time before Joyce Himsworth’s words were honoured. The first woman to gain her freedom by service in more than 200 years was Wendy Cook (later Coombs), who became free in 1983 having been apprenticed as an engraver to William Summers of Garrard. She followed Ida Cane, the first woman to be admitted by patrimony in 1961; the female staff lined the stairs to welcome her.

In 1971 the jeweller Gillian Packard became the first woman to enter by redemption. Dame Rosemary Murray, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, was the first woman on the livery in 1978. And in 2006, Dame Lynne Brindley became the first female member of the Court of Assistants.

As of 2017, a third of Goldsmiths’ Company’s apprentices are women, succeeding on their own terms in a trade in which women have always had their part. 51 women are members of the Livery, and five women sit on the Company’s Court of Assistants, including the Company’s Prime Warden.

Text adapted from Sophia Tobin's article for the 2017 Company Review

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