Anyone strolling the streets of Southwark between 10am and 5pm on Sunday, 24th September, might have noticed something rather unusual going on. This year, national icon Mary Berry opened the annual Sheep Drive across London Bridge, as The Worshipful Company of Woolmen gathered to observe their (somewhat peculiar) time-honoured tradition. And that’s not all – the second annual Wool Fair, associated with the Sheep Drive, took place in Monument on the same day.
Tracing its roots back to 1180, The Worshipful Company of Woolmen is one of the oldest Livery Companies – associations and guilds of ancient and modern trades – of the City of London. It began as an organisation responsible for overseeing woolpackers and wool merchants, ensuring industry standards remained consistent for wool producers and wool merchants.
Originally, the term ‘freemen’ referred to someone who was not the property of a feudal lord but rather, by the middle ages, indicated individuals who had the right to trade and conduct their craft in the Square Mile. Sheep drives across London Bridge were common when they had to be taken to market in the City, especially until the sixteenth century when London Bridge was the only crossing of the River Thames in London.
Besides driving sheep across London Bridge, freemen of the City were traditionally afforded three other privileges. They could carry a sword in public, and if they were to be hung for a crime, they would be allowed to hang with a silken rope. Perhaps best of all, if found helplessly drunk on the streets by the authorities, they would be bundled into a taxi and sent home rather than thrown into a cell for the night.
Nowadays, The Worshipful Company of Woolmen’s Sheep Drive serves to promote the wool industry and encourage interest in the environmentally friendly fibre, the products it creates and the sheep farming that produces it – not to mention the eternally fascinating process of sheep sheering.
The London Wool Fair was inaugurated in 2016 and thanks to its success it returned in 2017 to provide Londoners with a day of wooly wonder. As well as product-making demonstrations and a range of live entertainment, the fair will host 50 stands selling an assortment of goods that includes everything from wool and luxury accessories to street food, craft ales and ice cream.