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Professor James Carley is the first Canadian to be a master of one of London’s 108 liveries. The Barbers are ranked as the city’s 17th most important livery, and the guild can trace its roots back to 1163.

When York University professor James Carley was on a research stint in London in the early 1990s, a relative invited him to a meeting of The Worshipful Company of Barbers.

Prof. Carley knew nothing about the organization, which is one of London's oldest livery companies and traces its origins to the city's ancient guilds. He went to the gathering and was intrigued enough to become a "freeman," the first step toward full membership. He eventually became a member, or liveryman, and later joined the governing council. Then, last August, he was appointed Master, making him the first Canadian to head one of London's 108 liveries.

"They would never say it, but I think there was some concern about a colonial," said Prof. Carley, 70, a renowned medievalist who retired from York in 2013 but still holds a research position at the university along with a chair in history at the University of Kent. He was such an anomaly that he was once asked to greet guests at a company dinner just to see how they would react. "I swear I was asked to do this to see if they could stand my accent if I ever became master," he said.

Like most liveries, the Barbers date back to the Middle Ages, when tradesman formed guilds that served as a kind of labour union or association for people in the same occupation, such as cobblers and fishmongers. Guild members set the terms of their trade and usually wore distinctive clothing or badges, known as livery. Today, liveries are involved mainly in charitable work and while their rituals and traditions can seem outdated, liveries are enjoying something of a revival with membership rising, and more groups being created.

Most of London's liveries still carry the names of their original guilds, such as the Haberdasher's Company, the Goldsmith's Company and the Skinner's Company. But new companies have been formed in recent years representing more modern pursuits such as information technologists, airline pilots, investment managers and public-relations specialists.

Some, such as the Mercers, have inherited enormous wealth, holding property that dates back centuries and is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Many liveries have ornate halls and own buildings across the City of London, also known as the Square Mile, which is dominated by financial firms. The liveries also still elect the Lord Mayor of London, a largely ceremonial post that promotes the City's interests. And, in keeping with a 500-year-old tradition, liveries are ranked in order of precedent with the top tier, known as the "Great 12," considered the most prestigious.

The Barbers, ranked 17th, go back as far as 1163, when Pope Alexander III prohibited clergy from practising any form of medicine including bloodletting. Since barbers working in monasteries used blades to cut hair, they became the de facto doctors and began performing bloodlettings, lancing boils and tending to the wounded on battlefields. The Company of Barbers and Surgeons was formed and got its first charter in 1462. In 1540, the roles of barbers and surgeons were properly defined by an act of parliament. The act laid out the duties of each profession, adding that the only thing both could do was pull teeth.

Roughly 200 years later, in 1745, the surgeons pulled out of the company, creating the Royal College of Surgeons of England and leaving the Worshipful Company of Barbers struggling as an organization. The bonds between the two were re-established in the early 1900s, and now most of the company's members are medical practitioners, including physicians to the Royal family.

Prof. Carley is among a small but growing number of historians in the company and he is hoping to expand the membership further by adding more Canadians such as Moya Greene, the chief executive of Royal Mail. He's also launched a new fundraising campaign.

Unlike many other liveries, the Barbers are far from wealthy. They don't own much property and they've had an unfortunate history with meeting halls. They lost most of their first hall to the Great Fire of London in 1666. The remainder of that hall was pulled down in 1784 to make way for housing and a small replacement hall was bombed by the Germans in the Second World War. Their current, more modest hall opened in 1969, not far from the original site and their only other property holding is a small apartment. Their prized possessions include a painting of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein that commemorates the formation of the Barbers and Surgeon Company as well as a number of artifacts and historical documents. And while the livery doesn't charge membership dues, liverymen are strongly encouraged to donate to one of the company's many charities, which include schools, scholarship funds and a hospice.

Prof. Carley is hoping to raise money to help the organization buy back some ancient medical books that were sold in the 1700s when the surgeons left. "I am trying by setting up a Canadian friends [of the Barbers] and trying to raise money to buy back books," he said.

He added that he still marvels at the ritual of the liveries, joking at the lush costumes and headgear worn by masters at some liveries and poking fun at his own garb that includes a gold chain worth nearly $800,000. There's also the complicated method of drinking from the "loving cup" during company dinners, a practice so intricate guests are given written instructions.

While his Canadian accent has been an asset at times, his Canadian citizenship is not always helpful. "I was invited just the other day to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. I looked at the invitation and the only people allowed were U.K. citizens or members of [European Union]. I had to check and see if I was allowed," he said, adding that the organizers relented. When asked if he is enjoying his time as Master (it's only a one-year term), Prof. Carley smiled widely and replied: "It's a hoot. I see places I would never see … I go to all these halls and events. I can walk you just around here and I'd show you these buildings that are just treasures."

He paused and recalled meeting Prince Philip at an event hosted by The Worshipful Company of Shipwrights. "I said 'I'm Canadian you know.' And he said 'Nothing to be ashamed of in that.'"