Roger, then deputy librarian at Durham Cathedral, was invited to become a trustee in 1988 and took over chairmanship in 1995.
Numbers of admitted freemen, both men and women, now stand at a modern-day record of more than 230 and rising.
Roger remains modest about the part he has played, instead citing the energy and foresight of his good friend Tom Heron, late chairman of the wardens, the expertise of successive treasurers Mike McMinn and Stuart Atkin and the hard work of trustees and wardens. Their combined efforts have, especially in recent years, allowed them to make significant contributions to charitable projects within the city, reflecting their historic aspirations to craftsmanship.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of being chairman and being part of that special cornerstone of city life for so many years. I have been particularly fortunate in the support, friendship and fellowship I have received from the trustees, the wardens and the companies of freemen over the years but I have decided now is the time to go,” said Roger.
When he arrived in the city in 1966, to take up his new post at the cathedral, he concedes his detailed knowledge of the wider city’s history was limited. It was his appointment as honorary secretary of the City of Durham Trust the following year that provided an in-depth insight into the preservation and conservation projects of the period.
“There were a lot of things going on at the time, especially as regards planning, which provided a great introduction to Durham,” he added.
Three years after taking on the chairmanship of the trustees he was sworn into the Cordwainers’ Company as a Gentleman Freeman. This was especially appropriate given the craft was linked to early book binding in which Roger had a keen professional interest.
For the past 40 years he has been a member of the Durham Diocesan Committee for the Care of Churches and holds the vice-chairmanship, as well holding similar positions with the Durham Victoria County History Trust and the Northumbria Historic Churches Trust.
He has also been chairman of Durham Council of Churches and president of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.
Roger was born in 1941 in Hayes, Middlesex, the son of an RAF officer and in 1946 the family moved to Whyteleafe in Surrey where they leased a general dealer’s shop. They moved to Cambridge and Bromley where his father worked in the electronics industry before taking on a job in telecommunications, transistors and semiconductors in the Air Ministry.
Roger read ancient and modern literature at Trinity College, Dublin between 1959 and 1963. He worked as librarian of Kilburn Polytechnic in London and studied for a professional librarian’s qualification at Sheffield before taking up a post at Edinburgh University.
His appointment to Durham Cathedral in 1966 introduced him to one of the most important cathedral collections in the country, including some of the earliest Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and ancient artefacts, reflecting the literary and religious history of the Northumbrian Church and Durham Cathedral.
The first freemen’s guilds are believed to date back to 1327. In the mediaeval account rolls of the cathedral there are numerous mentions of the craftsmen, their materials and prices paid for work.
“The freemen have always pledged allegiance to the Bishop, the City Corporation and the Crown. The records from their swearing-in ceremonies, along with other freemen archives, have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries onwards and are deposited with the Durham County and University archives,” said Roger, who retired in 2002 after 36 years as a guardian of the cathedral’s priceless archive.
“Throughout my career I have greatly valued the generosity of scholars, able and keen to share of their careful work,” added Roger.
The former Town Clerk and Chief Executive of Durham City Council, Dr Roger Morris O.B.E, has paid a personal tribute to the retiring chairman.
Dr Morris, the city’s most senior officer for five years in the early 80s, was the architect of the Durham City Council Act of 1985. Among its powers the legislation provided, for the first time, that the sons-in-law of freemen could be considered for membership.
He said: “Thirty years on, I still recall a fascinating afternoon with my near namesake Roger Norris in the cathedral’s archives, and his evident scholarship and passion for them – the earliest well over a thousand years old. At that time I was leaving my post at the council and was visiting some of the city’s treasures and buildings not normally open to the public.
“The late Tom Heron, who as chairman of the wardens, realised my interest in the city’s rich heritage and had instructed me about the freemen which later led to the Act of 1985. Tom published, through the council, a booklet on ‘The Little Count’ Joseph Boruwlaski, helped on the editing and illustrations by both Rogers Morris and Norris!
“The latter came to the chair of the trustees uniquely placed to provide experience, insight and energy to an institution based in the distant past but with a continuing – though endangered – role for the future. “In his years as chairman Roger secured a growing membership, a broader participation and a sound financial base for the freemen – men and women now – all scarcely imaginable in the difficult days of the mid-1980s. To be a freeman, as I am myself proud to be, is to hold a privilege derived not from unearned advantage but from service in, and love for, this World Heritage City. Roger hands on the baton of an organisation much the richer for his commitment to it and the poorer for his retirement.”
Footnote:- Dr Morris was installed into the Joiners’ Company as a Gentleman Freeman in 1986 shortly before leaving for a new post in the Midlands. He has, perhaps uniquely, since become a Gentleman Freeman in Northampton and has been followed into the freedom in both cities by his son Edward.
The chairman of the wardens, John Heslop, acknowledged the “outstanding” contribution made by retiring trustees’ chairman Roger Norris.
He said: “When I became a freeman 28 years ago I knew little of the organisation. I did, however, hear one particular name mentioned a lot and with great respect and affection - Roger Norris. I became warden of the currier's company in 2001 and attended my first meeting of wardens and trustees. That was the first time I met Roger. I was grateful for his warm welcome and overawed by how much he knew and how much I didn't!
“In the five years that followed I never failed to be impressed by Roger's intellect, his compassion and his enthusiasm for the freemen. He was acutely aware our numbers were dwindling and that we needed to address our future to avoid becoming redundant. Despite this, however, Roger made sure all decisions made on behalf of the freemen were measured, prudent and implemented with care.
“During this period our profile began to rise, largely through the charitable giving initiated by our then treasurer, Mike McMinn, and carefully steered by Roger. Our numbers began to rise and we became a more active part of city life.
“In 2006 I became chairman of the wardens. As I worked more closely with him, I became even more aware of the skills Roger exercised in managing the trustees and the freemen's affairs. He deftly fostered a partnership with me, which has flourished to the advantage of the organisation and which resulted in us becoming a more vibrant and relevant influence in the local community.
“During the years I have worked with Roger I would like to think we have not only become partner chairmen but also friends. I see him above all as a friend whose courtesy and care I will miss greatly when he retires from the office he has held with dignity and pride for so many years. He is a Gentleman Freeman and never has the word ‘Gentleman’ been more accurately used. We owe Roger a huge debt of gratitude and wish him well for a long and happy future.”