The Corporation of the City of London has exercised its rights over carts and carriers since its inception, for transport is the lifeblood of commerce, and the City was ever the hub of the nation’s prosperity.
A Carman fellowship existed in 1277 and the City regulated its trade. By the 16th century, cartage was costly, sewage was uncollected and the City needed help. The Carmen obliged. They formed ‘the Fraternyte of Seynt Katryne the Virgyn and Marter of Carters’ in 1517, and undertook to ‘clense, purge and kepe clene’ the streets, and carry goods at a reasonable price. They acquired 'carrooms' or stands to ply for hire, effectively licences to trade. But Woodmongers also had carts, and the City granted them licences too.
The Carmen sought protection – they ceded control to Christ’s Hospital and paid fees to the School, though the number of carts and ‘carrs’ plying for hire within the City was limited by Common Council. But by 1605 they had fallen out and the Woodmongers secured a charter, which regulated 'carrooms' and Carmen until 1665, when Christ’s Hospital took over again. It was agreed that all licensed vehicles should be marked with the City’s arms on the shafts and numbered on a brass plate. In 1681 there were 420 licensed carts; in 1835, 600.
The Hallkeeper is empowered to license and mark carrs and carts to stand and ply for hire in the City’s streets, so long as the owner is a freeman of the City and a member of the Fellowship of Carmen. Every vehicle has to be brought to Guildhall once a year to be marked. Each year is distinguished by a letter reference, each carr by a number. For the year 2014, the letter will be 'W'.
In 1899 there were 111 licences in force, held by 16 Carmen; there were also 89 standings or 'carrooms'. As the number of carts declined, the Court of Aldermen reduced the standings. In 1965 the police pointed out that the remaining 18 contravened parking regulations. It was decided to abolish them all except one, which could be specified each year by the Carmen and police. Cart marking, it was decided, should continue.
Today, when the new Master and Wardens are installed, normally each October, the Carmen gather outside the appointed City hall, and one of their number furnishes a carr – sometimes a modern truck, sometimes an older waggon, occasionally horse-drawn – and the Master hires the vehicle before processing to the church for the Installation Service.
Once a year, usually in the summer, Carmen bring their horse-drawn waggons and carriages, steamers, veteran and vintage lorries, buses and coaches, and modern trucks and tractor units, to be branded, or marked, with a red-hot iron, on a wooden plate, with the year letter and the carr number, as a reminder of centuries of service to the City and to maintain their ancient tradition. For the Carmen of today are still the carriers of the nation’s goods, and the City retains the right of marking.
Organised by the Carmen, the Corporation's ceremony itself, in Guildhall Yard, sees each vehicle brought for the Master’s inspection, then branded by the Keeper of Guildhall, using a special brazier and gloves provided by the Glovers’ Company. The duties of the Keeper are shared with the Lord Mayor, and also the Master Carman. Afterwards the Lord Mayor, Sheriff, Master Carman and Wardens doff their caps as each vehicle passes the rostrum, and then Carmen, partners and guests join in fellowship for lunch in the Great Hall.