08 May 2022

Drapers’ Hall, the Drapers’ Company, and
Nicholas Comberford’s 17th century maps

The coat-of-arms of the Drapers’ Company at Drapers’ Hall … the livery company was founded in 1361 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us were in London yesterday (Saturday 8 May 2022) for a service in Saint Stephen Walbrook and dinner with some friends in Drapers’ Hall.

I have been in Saint Stephen’s on many occasions in the past. But this was my first time to visit Drapers’ Hall on Throgmorton Street in the heart of the City of London, home to the Worshipful Company of Drapers, one of London’s 12 great, historic livery companies.

Sitting in Court Dining Room, looking up at the coats of arms of past members of the Court of Assistants and masters the company, I was also reminded of the interesting links between the Drapers’ Company and Nicholas Comberford, an important 17th century mapmaker who was born in Kilkenny and who charted most of the then known world.

Drapers’ Hall is described as ‘one of the most magnificent venues in London’, with ‘some of London’s most elegant interiors.’ Opening one unto another, the great Livery Hall, the reception rooms and the tranquil outdoor spaces, including the garden and the courtyard, where we attended a reception, make Drapers’ Hall a special venue for dinners, banquets and receptions.

The Court Dining Room, where I attended a meeting before dinner, has a ceiling painting of Jason and the Golden Fleece by Felix-Joseph Barrias, and Gobelin tapestries dating from the reign of Louis XV.

The Court Room also has Gobelin tapestries and portraits of Nelson and Wellington. The Livery Hall, where we had dinner, has royal portraits. The Drawing Room has Morris carpets.

The Drawing Room in Drapers’ Hall was designed, decorated and furnished by Herbert Williams and John G Grace in 1866-1870 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Drapers’ Hall dates from the 1770s, but the Drapers’ Company has been on the site for almost 500 years. The company was founded in 1361 and received a royal charter three years later. Originally it was a trade association for cloth and wool merchants, but today it is one of the London livery companies and a charitable organisation.

The Drapers’ Guild decided to build its own hall in the 1420s. The first hall was in Saint Swithin’s Lane. The present hall on Throgmorton Street was bought from Henry VIII in 1543 for the sum of 1,800 marks or £1,200. This had been the home of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex and Chief Minister to Henry VIII, but had been forfeited when Cromwell was executed in 1540.

Many of the members of the 17th century ‘Thames School’ of mapmakers were members of the Drapers’ Company, including the cartographer Nicholas Comberford or Comerford (ca 1600-1673) of Stepney, John Daniel, to whom Nicholas had been apprenticed, and Nicholas Comerford’s own apprentice, John Burston.

Although Nicholas Comberford lived most of his working life in Stepney and Wapping, he was born in Kilkenny. He remained a member of the Drapers’ Company all his life. His maps charted the world from the East Indies and India to Brazil and the North coast of America.

Nicholas Comberford is mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary in 1663. Yet, at the height of his career in the 1650s, Nicholas was poor and was paid little for his work. The historic and artistic importance of his work and the work of other members of the ‘Thames School’ have come to be appreciated only in recent years.

The Drapers’ Hall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt in 1667-1671 to designs by Edward Jarman. The hall was rebuilt by John Gorham in 1772 after a fire caused considerable damage. The frontage was changed in 1860s and the interior was altered by Herbert Williams. It was altered once more by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson in 1898-1899.

The formal name of the Drapers’ Company is the Master and Wardens and Brethren and Sisters of the Guild or Fraternity of the Blessed Mary the Virgin Mary of the Drapers of the City of London.

More than 100 Lords Mayor of London have been members of the Drapers’ Company, and during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century the company held land around Moneymore and Draperstown, Co Derry. Lady Elizabeth Letham was the first woman to be elected Master of the company in 2012.

The Drapers’ Company continues to have wide-ranging interests and responsibilities in the City of London. It administers charitable trusts involved in the relief of need, education and almshouses, it provides banqueting and catering facilities, and it fosters its heritage and traditions of good fellowship. The Drapers’ Company ranks third in precedence among the 12 city livery companies. The guild church is Saint Michael’s Church, Cornhill.

Entering the Drapers’ Hall on Throgmorton Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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