The craft of the tin plate worker is an ancient one and there are well documented accounts of tinned copper and bronze articles dating from pre-Roman times. Tinned iron sheets, the earliest tin plates, were produced in Bavaria in the fourteenth century and imported into England from at least 1483 for use in domestic articles. There was limited production in Britain from about 1670, but the industry did not become established until around 1730.
The early tin plate was used for drinking vessels and for numerous household articles such as plates, bowls and lanterns. In the mid-seventeenth century, the trade of tin plate working flourished in London, in the vicinity of London Bridge, with the craftsmen belonging to various metalworking guilds, principally the Ironmongers’ Company, which was founded in 1463.
Wireworking as a craft was in existence in the reign of Henry VI, when the craftsmen in London were members of the Girdlers’ Company. Early wire objects in general use would have included needles, fish hooks, cages, chains and traps.
The two groups of craftsmen decided to amalgamate to form a trade guild for the management and regulation of their trades, and the company was granted a Royal Charter on 29th December 1670 in the reign of Charles II under the title of:
“The Trade Arte and Mistery of Tynne Plate Workers als Wyer Workers of the City of London”.
The first Master was Thomas Aris (or Ayres), who was also, in 1680, Master of the Ironmongers’ Company and a tin plate worker by trade. The By-laws were approved by the courts of the Chancery and King’s Bench in 1678 and the Company received its Livery in 1766.
While at the outset the Company comprised only tin plate workers and wire workers, and collectively controlled the trade in and around London, by 1805 the Company’s control was waning, and tin plate workers were forming separate associations, which resulted in attempts (apparently unsuccessful) to prosecute journeymen who refused to join the Company. Nevertheless, the Company retained enough authority as late as 1899 to convene a conference to address an industrial dispute.
The Company’s coat of arms has been used since 1670, but without legal authority until a Grant of Arms in 1957. The arms appear in stained glass windows in Guildhall Crypt, Guildford Cathedral, Ironmongers’ Hall, Tallow Chandlers’ Hall and St. Margaret, Lothbury, the Company’s Church.
Today, about 90% of tin plate consumed is used for can-making and packaging, with the balance utilised for light engineering applications. Steel wire is used in many forms, ranging from pins and needles, to engineering and automotive components such as springs, bars and rods, whilst copper-based wire is the mainstay of the electrical and electronic industries. Thus what were the Company’s exclusive crafts in earlier centuries have become highly automated, hi-tech industries.
If you are interested in finding out about ancestors who were tin plate or wire workers, click here.
There is a copy of the history of our Company, A History of the Company of Tin Plate Workers alias Wire Workers of the City of London, on the open shelves of the Guildhall Library; copies are available for purchase from the Clerk.