What follows is extracts from an excellent short leaflet published by the City of London in Sept 2009 plus some updates (including History of The Clothworkers' Company 1994) and other Livery Company leaflets.

For a little more information on the individual Livery Companies

Livery Origins
Some trade guilds, forerunners of livery companies in Britain, can be traced back to the 12th C or even earlier.
The word Guild is said to serive from the Saxon word "gildan" (to pay) since members had to pay towards the cost of the brotherhood. The earliest charter still in existence - Weavers Company (1155). Early Guilds controlled manufacture and selling of most goods and services in the City of London. As Guilds became more established they set up their own headquarters in large houses or Halls.

There was a strong religious element to the Guilds, each adopting a Patron Saint and being attached to a local Monastery or Church.  Each Guild introduced their own distinctive clothing and regalia - also called livery (possibly based on various monks habits) - and thus quickly became known as Livery Companies.

The livery companies' had a significant trading position which gave them a key role in the government of the Square Mile. In 1475 a charter confirmed liverymen the exclusive right to elect the City Sheriffs (Shire-reeve), the King's representative. This right is still carried out today every year on Mid-Summers Day at Guildhall.

In 1515 their were 48 companies. After a lethal accident on the River Thames involving various livery company barges, The Lord Mayor established an order of precedence for them resolving years of dispute. At their peak in the 17th C, politics, wars, the Industrial Revolution, traders from outside the City of London....., put them under pressure. The ability and willingness to embrace and encourage new technologies associated with their craft, supporting their industry through research grants gave then a new lease of life. They have also been prominent in Education and Training e.g. The City and Guilds (Founded 1878) vocational qualifications.  

Looking after their members in sickness and old age was part of the responsibility of the Livery companies and today their charitable donations across a wide spectrum are substantial.

In the 20th C, 2 new livery companies were formed before the 2nd World War and 29 since taking the number in November 2011 to 108. (To see all their Coats of Arms - try to get Guidhall they are displayed all round the wall - in order of precedence) The Newer companies include World Traders, Hackney Carriage Drivers, Tax Advisors and Security Professionals. Some 25,000 men and women are Members of Livery.

To become a new company, a group of people (usually at least 100) must satisfy the Court of Alderman that they have the resources and willingness to continue their association indefinitely. They must have strong ties with the Square Mile and have a significant number of members engaged in a particular trade, profession or craft.

Livery Companies - a summary of some of their backgrounds.
This section was encouraged by the 2011 Programme for the Lord Mayor's Show - in time will be added to.

Bowyers (1300's)
Originally a single company called Bowers and Fletchers (Makers of bows and arrows respectively), split in 1371 to form to separate Companies. Today they focus on the disabled and in 2011/12 actively supported those taking part in the Paralympics.

Clothworkers Based on A Short History of the Clothworkers Company (Oct 1994)
Many Livery Companies regulated areas of the cloth industry including; Woolmen, Weavers, Fullers (1480), Shearmen (1508), Dyers, Haberdashers, Drapers and Merchant Taylors - they wielded great power and rivalries developed.
Fullers, Shearmen and Weavers' amalgamated to form The Guild or Fraternity of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Clothworkers in the City of London. Took over Shearmen's Hall and their "precedence" (1508) as the most "junior" of the Great 12 Livery Companies. 

Fletchers (Fleche = Fr for arrow) (1st mention 1385)
In recent times have established an annual shoot for disabled archers together with support for the 2012 and 2016 paralympics. 

Glaziers and Painters of Glass
First mention of the Guild of glaziers 1328. No 53 in the order of precedence. Today the Glaziers Trust supports training and education in this specialst field, in addition to major involvement with the restoration and conservation of historic stained glass. They still have very old and important pieces of stained glass that might have been deposited with them for safekeeping, where the records are missing - serious research is necessary to try to restore some of these pieces to their rightful owners - if they are still in existence.

Masons
Formed to safeguard the welfare of its members and top regulate the craft of stonemasonry. Today provides financial support for students and apprentices and actively fosters the use of stone in Buildings via its award schemes

Painters - Painter Stainers
Painters applied colour to solid objects such as wood stone and metal and even saddles - also inside of Churches.The stainers had a fraternity in place at least in 1268 when they got involved in a riot also involving the Goldsmiths and Tailors.
Stainers applied colour to woven fabrics - flags, banners for pagents, processions, funerals.....
Painters had a fraternity in place by 1283. 
The two were joined together in 1502 becoming the Union of Painters and Stainers. Today they are ranked 28th.

Vintners
11th in precedence - its first Charter being granted in 1363 - monopoly of trade with Gascogny.Througout the Middle Ages contolled the Wine Trade in London and had great influence in the rest of England. Had a great deal of its powers in the 1500's and very high Taxes in the 1640's when Parliament came to power. (They had financially supported Charles I.Its Hall and many other properties were destroyed in the Great Fire of London 1666. Although Membership declined - it still had major investments and put those to good use in variouc charitiable donations and ventures. The modern Livery Company received its new Charter in 1973

Its Hall was rebuilt by 1671. Ammended in 1822 when Upper Thames Street was widened.

Swans ? The Company has had the right to own Swans on the River Thames since before its ealiest records. Every July the Swans are counted the new cygnets marked. Historically Vitner's swans were given 2 "nicks" on their beak, Dyer's being given 1, and the Queen's swans none. Since 1997 as part of the Swan Upping Ceremony the swans are ringed and do not have their beaks nicked.   

Woolmen (1180) - The origins predate the office of The Lord Mayor, but  it was incorporated as a Livery Company in 1522. Today they support they support the very important UK wool industry by providing scholarships to study wool technology, prizes for shearing competitions and organising major conferences, meeting involving international industry leaders.

 

More to be added re those that follow
Watermen (transporting people and goods along the River Thames) and Lightermen (transferring goods beween ships and quays)

Lighterman joined the company in 1555

Clockmakers (1631)
Granted their Charter by Charles I to control the horological trade in and around the City of London. Today the Company awards scholarships and bursaries to those trsaining to be watch or clockmakers and those researching the measurment of time.

Solicitors (Company Founded in 1908 and Granted Livery in 1944)
Unique in that its Members must have practised within 1 mile of the Bank of England or of Canary Wharf (a more recent regulation I presume). 
  

Information Technologists
Members leading IT professionals. Runs a programme of charitable and educational activities.

Security Professionals (Number 108 - Formed in 1999 - Granted Livery in 2008)
Members come form a wide range of differing areas including security professionals, serving and retired members of the police, armed services, consultants and academics.

In addition, The Guld of Educators - founded in 2001 as the 1st step towards becoming a full Livery Company. Supporting the Profession of Educating and Training.   

 

Freedom of the City of London - based on a short leaflet - The Freedom of the City of London prepared by the City of London Corporation.
Its origins go back to mediaeval times when craftsmen and women throuought Europe organsied themselves into trade guilds which protected customers, emploeees, employers alike by checking standards, quality, weights measures.... There were severe penalties for those who broke the rules. The guilds (became known as Livery companies in The City of London), looked after the yound and the old.
The City of London demanded that all Liverymen had to became Freeman thus controling who could join a livery company. Freedom fees were comparatively high and for some years in the 14thC was the main source of income for the City. Freemen were exempt from Market and Bridge Tolls and were the only people allowed to vote or have a say in the governance of the City of London.
Any National, worldwide of good character and over the age of 21 may apply  for the Freedom upon payment of a Fee. Freedom ceremonies take place at the Guildhall - Chamberlains Court - on a daily basis. This simple ceremony is normally carried out by the Clerk. Freemen are required to read the Declaration of a Freeman.
 "I do solemnly declare that i will be good and true to our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second; that i will be obedient to the Mayor of this city; that i will maintain the franchises and customs thereof, and will keep this City harmless, in that which in me is; that i will also keep the Queen's peace in my own person; that I will know no gatherings nor conspiracies made against the Queens peace but i will warn the Mayor thereof, or hinder it to my power; and that all these points and articles I will well and truely keep. according to the customs of this City, to my power."