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What links 6’s and 7’s and ‘the Old School’?

'Aqua Triumphalis' by Theodore Stoop - 23 August 1662.=

Merchant Taylors’ Livery Company and the livery companies are the source of the expression ‘being at 6’s and 7’s' . The Old School founder, Edmund Flower, was the Master of the Merchant Taylors livery company in London (equivalent to managing director) and the phrase relates to a famous dispute concerning the Lord Mayor’s Procession held on the River Thames. These days this happens through the streets of the City of London.

There are 12 ‘Great Companies’ (each technically should be preceded by the words ‘The Worshipful Company of …’): Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Fishmongers, Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Taylors’, Haberdashers, Salters, Ironmongers, Vintners, Clothworkers.

Merchant Taylor's barge built c1800


The term being at ''At Sixes and Sevens' is well explained by the Skinners livery company on its website:

The Barge Sternboard from Merchant Taylors’ Company barge made 1800.

'Relations between the livery companies were not always fraternal, with disputes over trade rights and precedence quite often leading to violence, especially between the hot-headed apprentices of each company. The City authorities could impose severe penalties, including execution, for particularly serious incidents.

'Rivalry over precedence - specifically which company was entitled  to be 6th in order of seniority - had been a source of trouble between the Skinners and the Merchant Taylors for some time in the 15th, and perhaps even 14th centuries.

'Both companies had received their first royal charters in 1327. It erupted into lethal violence in 1484 during the Lord Mayor's river procession, an occasion which the two guilds treated as their own private boat race.  After the administration of justice to some of the offenders, the Lord Mayor, the Haberdasher, Robert Billesdon, mediated between the two companies at the request of their Masters. He resolved that each company should have precedence over the other in alternate years and that each company's Master and Wardens should be invited to dine at the other's Hall every year.'

'A fixed procession order was laid down in 1516 for the 48 livery companies of the time. That order remains unchanged to the present day, though there are now 108 companies. Lord Mayor Billesdon's judgement was confirmed, with the Skinners and Merchant Taylors alternating between sixth and seventh place, probably the origin of the phrase: 'to be at sixes and sevens' .'

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.

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