Barbers' Company Sir Lionel Denny Lecture

Tuesday 13th November 2018

Sir Lionel Denny is a Master that looms large in the history of the Barbers' Company. Holding office in 1938, he followed both his father and grandfather in the role and, unusually for the Company, he chose to progress with civic roles, ultimately becoming Lord Mayor in 1965. However, it was his great foresight at the outbreak of World War II for which he is most revered because he saved the Company's treasures from desctruction during the war by sending them to safety in 1939. The treasures are great and many, including a magnificient portrait of Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons of the day painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. This huge and remarkable painting graces today's Great Hall.

In tribute to Sir Lionel, the Company has organised annual lectures now in their 36th year. These were initially held at the Museum of London, a stone's throw from the Hall until a former Clerk decided that the walk was too long and ever since they have been held at the Hall itself. As a setting, it is one that I prefer given the wealth of aforementioned treasures to see.

The speaker was Dr Margaret Pelling, senior research associate at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at Oxford and the subject of her lecture was that of barbers' poles; their origins and use. It seems that their iconic place in the minds of modern Britons is one not founded on their wholesale use in times past. Neither have they been simply red and white but also red, white and blue (18th Century) for reasons not altogether clear even to the scholars. Passing mention of poles can be found in certain literature and in legal records (mainly wills) but Dr Pelling has been frustrated at the overall lack of historical references particularly when other chattels in trade for Barbers have been well documented.

Whilst the search for poles lead to a certain amount of disappointment, the lecture was rich in interesting historical, medical and social content. One small example was that the numbering system that we take for granted today for address purposes only emerged after the Great Fire. Prior to that a letter would have found its way by long and complex instructions referencing an array of directions and descriptions of other buildings and features in the given road. What fun if we still had that system today!