The almshouses built in front of St Mary's Church in 1444
Drapers are first mentioned in Shrewsbury in 1204, when they occur as individuals in the first Guild Merchant Rolls of the town. In the late twelfth and the thirteenth centuries all trade in the town was administered by the guild merchants, but by the late fourteenth century the Drapers, like other trades, had achieved independent Guild Status as a religious, economic and political unit. The Guild’s position was further strengthened by the foundation of their almshouses adjacent to St Mary’s Church in 1444, and by the Company’s incorporation by Royal Charter in 1462. By the mid-sixteenth century the Drapers were of major economic importance and for the next 150 years dominated the political oligarchy which ruled the town.
In medieval and Tudor times ‘Drapers’ was the name given to merchants dealing in woollen cloth, and in Shrewsbury’s records of 1204 the names of individual drapers are recorded in the town’s first ‘Guild Merchant Rolls’. In the late twelfth century and throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the ‘guild merchants’ administered all trade in the town, but by the fifteenth century, the Drapers had achieved independent guild status as a unit of religious, economic and political influence; As an organised body, the Shrewsbury Drapers became prominent by their founding of almshouses in 1444, and became even more important when their guild was incorporated by Royal Charter in 1462.
In this Charter the Shrewsbury Drapers were given the title ‘A Fraternity or Gild of the Holy Trinity of the Men of the Mystery of Drapers in the town of Salop’ and this title had religious connotations; the Charter required the Guild to appoint a chantry priest to say Mass for the Guild and to pray for the souls of Richard, Duke of York, and his son Edward, Duke of Rutland, both of whom were killed in the Wars of the Roses. Both the Guild and Chantry Chapel in the nearby St Mary’s Church were dedicated to the Holy Trinity, and Chapel still contains part of an altar, decorated with the symbols of the Trinity, erected by the Drapers in 1501. The symbols of the Trinity also appear in the Company’s Common Seal which was authorised in 1462. The Company’s coat of arms, as allowed by Richard Lee, Portcullis Herald, in 1585, is the same as that of the London Drapers and is depicted on the painted hatchment dated 1625 hanging in the restaurant. The religious obligations of the Guild, along with the chantry priest, were swept away in 1547 during the Reformation.
The prosperity of the Drapers lay in their role as ‘middlemen’ in the woollen-cloth trade of north and central Wales. Much of the wealth of early medieval England and the Welsh Marches was built on the wool trade, but in the late Middle Ages the trade in cloth became more important than the trade in wool. During the fifteenth century, as Wales became more settled, and particularly in the sixteenth century (after the Act of Union of 1536), the light coarse Welsh cloths, known as ‘cottons’ and friezes, and later ‘flannel’, found an export market through the Shrewsbury Drapers. The Welsh trade, well established by 1450, was most prosperous from the middle of the sixteenth century until about 1660.
The name ‘Staple’ referred to the official trading centre for woollen cloth; this was located sixteen miles north-west of Shrewsbury in the town of Oswestry, until moved to Shrewsbury in 1620. The Shrewsbury Drapers bought cloth at the weekly market in Oswestry. The Guild rules required their members to be armed, presumably for the protection of body and cloth; they met at “The Old Three Pigeons Inn” at Nesscliffe, where they congregated until a strong enough group was formed to venture upon the dangerous ride to Oswestry. When they returned to Shrewsbury they put the cloth out to ‘shearmen’ to be finished. Thereafter it was sent on weekly packhorse trains to the City of London cloth market at Blackwell Hall, whence the London merchants exported the cloth to Rouen, the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Peninsula and eventually to distant parts of the known world. In good times the trade was straightforward and profitable but wars, both in England and on the continent, could severely interrupt the trade with serious consequences for the Welsh weavers and everyone else involved.
The Welsh cloth trade in Shrewsbury was not originally exclusive to the Drapers as the Shearmen, who were cloth finishers, and the Mercers, who were essentially retailers, also claimed a share. During the early sixteenth century the Drapers effectively excluded the Mercers from the wholesale trade and reduced the Shearmen to a state of total dependence upon them. Thus the Drapers established a virtual monopoly. For a century the economic and political power of the Drapers was such that they virtually ran the town. In 1582, despite the unpopularity of the Drapers, the townspeople united with them to defeat an attempt to divert the trade to Chester, a city in economic decline. King James’s Royal Charter of 1609 confirmed the constitution and rights of the Drapers Company and its possession of land. Virtually all the leading men of the town were Drapers. They built fine town houses, established county families, held office and enjoyed high social status. When, in 1638, Charles 1 granted Shrewsbury its first Mayor it was not by coincidence that the man chosen was Thomas Jones, a leading Draper, who had been one of the two Bailiffs in the town on a number of occasions; his fine house is now incorporated into the Prince Rupert Hotel.
As long as the roads in England and Wales remained evil, and as long as cottage industry prevailed, the Shrewsbury Drapers were relatively safe from competition, but in the eighteenth century, as the turnpike system revolutionised transport and as Welsh capitalism developed, the importance of the Shrewsbury merchants declined. By the 1790’s, the trade was dead.
The Guild also received a setback during the Civil War and at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Many drapers were Parliamentarians and therefore suffered the consequences. Furthermore, the cloth trade slowly declined, the Guild became smaller and by the nineteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution well under way, the trade guilds became an anachronism. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 abolished their regulatory powers; but although the Drapers lost both power and influence, they retained their ownership of the Hall and of their almshouses which, in the 1830’s were established within a charitable Trust. The Drapers acted as trustees and co-opted their successors, but never became a hereditary livery. The form of the Guild remained, with Master, Wardens and Freemen. Above all, they retained possession of the Elizabethan guildhall and its seventeenth-century furniture.
The company’s commercial activities ceased and its regulatory role in the trade of the town ended after the passing of the municipal Corporations Act of 1835. Most of the surviving guilds sold their property and divided the proceeds amongst the few remaining members of their companies. In Shrewsbury the majority was placed in the hands of a small bank of trustees incorporated as the ‘Master, Wardens and Freemen of the Worshipful Company of Drapers of Shrewsbury’. By the close of the nineteenth century the Company existed as little more than trustees of an almshouse charity, the dwellings now rebuilt in Longden Coleham.
In the late 1960’s the Charity Commissioners persuaded the Company to become trustee of the almshouses known as ‘The Hospital of St Giles’ which was on the site of the early twelfth-century leper hospital of that name. The Company replaced the row of four derelict Georgian cottages with four attractive bungalows.
By 1990 the Company consisted of about a dozen members who were mainly concerned with the management of the two sets of almshouses. As throughout most of its history, the Hall was let as domestic accommodation, although members continued to use the principal room for occasional meetings. The cost of maintenance was proving a heavy burden on the resources of the charity; the building was becoming increasingly dilapidated and it was proving impossible to let it on economic terms. The members were advised that it was their duty, as trustees, to convert the building into an asset for the benefit of the almshouses.
The Deed Chest
In the 1980's, Drapers Hall was needing much repair and maintenance which the Drapers Company could not afford. Consideration was made about selling it as a private house. It was at this stage that the Worshipful Company of Drapers of the City of London became aware of the situation. They were anxious to promote the revival of an ancient sister guild and to ensure the restoration of an historic building (one of only four provincial guildhalls to remain in use by the original owners). The London Drapers proposed that they should buy the Hall for such sum as the Charity Commission might accept as being a fair price. They would repair, extend and modernise it before leasing the ground floor to the Shrewsbury Drapers, until such time as the latter could buy back the whole building. At the same time the Company would recruit additional freemen and become once more an active body, after the fashion of the Livery Companies of London. Moreover, the aim was that the building that had played such a significant role in the early history of the town should be accessible to the people of Shrewsbury. This solution was gratefully accepted, and the work was carried out under the supervision of Harry Wilson and to the satisfaction of English Heritage and local conservation authorities. The work allowed for a public restaurant on the ground floor which would also provide catering for the Company’s banqueting. On the upper floors there are now bedrooms and suites, forming (with the restaurant) a boutique hotel of superior quality and great charm.
In 1992, as part of the revival of the Guild, the number of Freemen was increased to sixty and later to a maximum of eighty. The Court of Assistants, consisting of the officers and up to thirty Freemen, manages the affairs of the Company. The officers are the Master, Senior Warden and Junior Warden, who are elected annually, and the Clerk, who may be elected for a number of years. Formal feasts are held in March (Charter Night) and October (Guest Night). There are other occasions such as Christmas and Trinity Sunday, when services are held in St Mary’s Church followed by feasts in the Hall. The Company holds other events to support charities and local colleges. The Hall may be hired for banquets or receptions.
In 1998 the Company felt able to buy the Hall back from the London Drapers, but found that there were many advantages in the Hall being owned by a registered charity. The existing Drapers’ charities, concerned primarily with the almshouses and the relief of the poor, were not able to expend funds on the preservation of an ancient building; therefore the Company decided to set up the Shrewsbury Drapers' Hall Preservation Trust specifically to raise funds and to buy, preserve and manage the building.
The Trust is both a Company Limited by Guarantee and a Registered Charity, and at least two thirds of the trustees must be Drapers. Funds were raised mainly from Freemen of the Drapers Company and a grant of £60,000 was obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Trust leases out the building as a boutique hotel, with certain rights reserved for the Guild to hold meetings and feasts in the Hall and for its historic furniture to remain in place. The rental income is used to maintain the Hall, pay off debts and thereafter build up an 'extraordinary repair fund'. The public rooms of the hotel are normally open for visitors to view.