Centuries of plumbing tradition revealed

Centuries of plumbing tradition revealed

The plumbing profession in the UK has a formal pedigree dating back to the 14th Century – a tradition preserved by ‘The Worshipful Company of Plumbers’ under royal charter. John Power reports.


No one celebrates heritage like our British friends who have a proud record of celebrating and preserving specialist trades through networks of historic guilds and livery companies. Pomp and ceremony have always been apparent in the structures of these institutions and it is this formality that has helped preserve a rich written archive of information relating to the profession’s evolution throughout the British Isles.

The main historical fraternity representing the plumbing sector in the UK is The Worshipful Company of Plumbers, which was established some time before 1365 – its earliest official mention. The Company was granted a Coat of Arms bearing the motto ‘Justicia and Pax’ [Justice and Peace], as well as a crest depicting St Michael the Archangel in 1588. It was then granted a Charter by King James I in 1611, arguably the most important date in the Company’s history.

The Company still exists today, overseen by the same management structure (comprising Master, Wardens, Stewards and other officials) that has been in place for centuries.

Historical records of the Company’s activities include a fascinating little volume titled, ‘A Short History of The Worshipful Company of Plumbers’, by Sir William Champness, first printed in 1951, and reprinted in 1966 in the US by the United Association of Journeymen and Pipe Fitting Industry, Washington DC.

A copy of the US edition recently caught the attention of Cliff  Hensby, a former editor of Plumbing Connection, during a trip to Tasmania. Cliff , a proud plumber with an interest in the profession’s heritage, has been kind enough to share his discovery with us.

Past meets present

A quick perusal of the text reveals an extraordinary similarity between ancient preoccupations and contemporary concerns, including quality control of workmanship, offi cial registration of practitioners, apprenticeship programs, materials control, as well as methods to help improve service delivery in the interests of improving public health. Of course, there are some historical edicts that do not translate so well to the modern era, including the 17th century pronouncement that no apprentice could be taken if he was “greatly disfi gured in any part of his body”.

Norman beginnings

The book describes the beginnings of the plumbing profession in some detail, proudly stating, “…there is no doubt that it was one of those guilds or misteries (sic) that existed as far back as the time of the earlier craft fraternities and it was probably an active body at least as early as Norman times and dealt with various kinds of work in connection with the use of lead.”

From the first days of the Company’s existence, matters of quality assurance and reputation were of the utmost importance. Even in the mid-14th century the Company operated according to a schedule of formal Ordinances under the auspices by King Edward III.

These Ordinances, as the booklet outlines, provide that no plumber shall carry on his trade in the City [London], or take apprentices or employ workmen, unless he is a freeman and that it must also be certified “by the best men in the trade that he knows how well and lawfully to work and to carry out his work, so that the trade be not scandalised or the commonalty damaged and deceived by folks who do not know their trade.”

Apprenticeship management, which historically allowed professional plumbers to maintain one apprentice at a time during eight year apprenticeships (though special dispensation could be granted for a second trainee), was an important element of the Company’s everyday business. This demonstrates that as far back as the Middle Ages the guild was well aware of the value of shaping the hearts and minds of new generations of plumbers.

Terms were strict by today’s standards. Specific Ordinances in 1611, for instance, focused on the need for apprentices to be well behaved. As the booklet explains, “an apprentice guilty of stubborn and unruly behaviour or haunting ale-houses, taverns, plays or unlawful games, shall receive such punishment and chastisement as the Master and Wardens of the Company may deem fit.”

Another significant function of the Company from its earliest days was to safeguard the integrity and safety of materials used throughout the profession. Mindful that the health hazards of lead were unknown until comparatively recently – indeed, the word ‘plumber’ derives from the Latin plumbum, meaning lead – early Company Ordinances showed surprising toughness regarding the sourcing and correct labelling of lead products, which from the reign of King James I had to be approved and stamped with an image of St Michael the Archangel. Enforcement was uncompromising.

“The Charter granted by King James I gave the Master and Wardens full power of supervision of weights and scales, works, lead, solder and various materials used for plumbing, with the right to enter premises of plumbers for the purpose of searching and ascertaining the quality of these materials in order to see if they were sufficient and lawful, and if not to seize them and place them in safe custody and to chasten and punish the delinquents.”

Other offences such as theft from the workplace were treated with even greater contempt. “If any one of them [apprentices] shall be found stealing lead, tin or nails, in the place where he works, he shall be ousted from the said trade for ever, at the will and ordinances of the good folks of such trade.”

Late 19th century

While the Company’s activities continued diligently throughout the 18th century, it was during the second half of the 19th Century that the organisation hit its straps under the energetic leadership of Mr George Shaw, C.C., who was elected to the Court of the Plumbers Company in 1878.

The booklet notes that during one of the earliest meetings after Mr Shaw’s election, “he called attention to the numerous complaints that were then appearing almost daily in the newspapers with regard to bad plumbing in houses and serious evils arising there from.”

George’s immediate response was to boost the technical education of apprentices and, following his appointment as Master in 1879, the Company moved to instigate reforms to recognise and reward competent professionals. In 1886 these reforms culminated in the formation of a voluntary register of trustworthy, trained plumbers (though a more comprehensive official statutory register, proposed as part of a ‘Plumbers Registration Bill’, failed to become an Act of Parliament in 1892.

Similar Parliamentary Bills presented from 1894 to 1902 also failed to become law due to objections from numerous vested interests). Arguably, George’s contributions were pivotal in establishing credible educational processes and certification standards that underpin many of today’s plumbing codes around the world.

By the end of the 19th Century, processes were in place to fine-tune plumbing coursework syllabuses and delineate qualifications – new workshops were opened in 1893 to enhance instruction.

20th century success

Many years later, the Company succeeded in gaining its National Registration of Plumbers, with members entitled to use the post-nominals ‘R.P.’ As part of the registration process, the Company oversaw the award of Diplomas to successful candidates who had passed their examinations and satisfied all other criteria for membership of the profession.

By 1909 some 14,250 plumbers had taken up registration and day-today management of the register was given to a National Council formed in that year. This became the Registered Plumbers Association (RPA) in 1951. When the RPA merged with The Institute of Plumbing (IoP) in 1970, the register was handed over to the new Institute. Today, the register is the responsibility of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering (CIPHE).

As a sign of the popularity of plumbing, the booklet records that the Company had issued more than 36,000 Diplomas by 1955, as well as numerous prizes and scholarships. In 1986, a century after the voluntary register had been opened, 58,687 plumbers had been enrolled with 11,548 registered at that time.

Still going strong

While much of the Worshipful Company’s contemporary work is ceremonial, with day-to-day regulatory and administrative issues handled by a range of peak bodies, the organisation maintains great dignity as one of the oldest companies of its type in the UK. Members take an active interest in promoting sanitary plumbing practices in developing nations, while a robust awards program continues to assist new generations of professionals throughout the UK. A highlight of the events program is the formal Annual Banquet.

The latest event was held on 20 March at the Egyptian Hall, Mansion House, London, by kind permission of the Lord Mayor. Most importantly, the Company’s ongoing existence provides a direct pathway to the profession’s earliest days, reminding all current practitioners that modern technical and administrative achievements must be seen in the context of 650 years of dedication, inventiveness and hard work.

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