Durham University Library Archives & Special Collections Catalogue

Reference code:GB-0033-DCF
Title:Durham City Freemen's Records
Dates of creation:1754-2016
Extent:10 boxes (2 metres)
Held by:Durham University Library, Archives and Special CollectionsOrigination:Deposited with Durham University Library and the Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic (since 1990 part of the Special Collections department of Durham University Library) in a series of accessions since the 1950s by successive Clerks and Receivers to the Freemen's Trustees, and by other wardens and freemen. Records relating to the John Kirby Charity, formerly a Mercers' Company charity, are filed in this collection as, under a Scheme for the regulation of the charity, (sealed 23 October 1953), the Freemen's Trustees were appointed trustees of the Kirby Charity, and which charity was also administered by their clerk.

Durham City Freemen

The Freemen of Durham City have always been closely linked with the freemen of the city's guilds or trade companies, the records of which guilds are also held in our Special Collections. Freemen of the guilds have always been freemen of Durham City, and indeed it is usually essential for a man (and now woman) to be admitted as a freeman of a guild before the freedom of the city can be conferred, although honorary freemen of the city have been created from time to time without going through this process; the latter do not enjoy the same privileges as ordinary freemen. Qualification for admission as a freeman of a trade company was generally achieved either by patrimony or by servitude, i.e. by being the son, formerly in most of the guilds the eldest son, of a freeman, or by serving an apprenticeship, originally of seven years, then (after the passing of the Durham Corporation Act 1932, but in practice from the early 1940s) five years, to a freeman master working at the trade of his guild within the city. In recent years these criteria have been somewhat relaxed to admit a wider selection of persons by patrimony and apprenticeship. Durham City Freemen are currently admitted under the provisions of the City of Durham Act 1985 and through the medium of recent equality legislation which makes provision for the admission of women. Candidates over the age of eighteen can apply having completed a Durham full-time apprenticeship of not less than three years, or by patrimony being the son or daughter of a Freeman. Prior to the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, s.202 of which prohibits admissions by gift or purchase, companies sometimes also used to admit, by gift or redemption, non-trading gentlemen freemen and traders whose apprenticeships had been served elsewhere, though the latter is a rare occurrence. This means of admission by the particular decision of the wardens was re-activated by the 1985 Act: these now are gentlemen and lady freemen whose rights thenceforward through patrimony are the same as with those regularly entitled. Freemen swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown and to the bishop of Durham upon their admission.

Freemen have formerly had the following rights: to put up a stall in the open market place on market day without payment; (those residing in the city and suburbs), to receive a share of the income from property belonging to the Freemen, i.e. Union Hall Farm on Brasside Common; to the herbage on The Sands (the freehold of which belongs to the County Council), and from which common right accrues rents of fairs and encroachments which are also distributed among the resident freemen; to hold meetings in the guildhall (the freehold of which is also the County Council's).

From 1602 onwards, under a charter granted to the city by Bishop Matthew of Durham, the Freemen of the city were the only electors and the only candidates for election to the city council, an exclusive right which they retained until the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. Except for a brief time during the Commonwealth period, when a member (a mercer) was returned in 1654 and 1656, the city did not secure parliamentary representation until 1678, from which date until 1832 the Freemen formed the exclusive franchise for the city's two seats, so greatly enhancing their status. Records of the Freemen's involvement in elections throughout this period can be traced in this and the Durham City Guild Records collections, and in the related collections listed below. An increasingly lax city freedom admissions regime weakened the guildsmen's commercial control in the city and provoked a corporation by-law in 1728. This attempted to curb the fraudulent creation of freemen, a popular political tactic, and reassert the guilds' monopoly on the city's trades by stipulating that applications for admission to the freedom, or freelage, of the trade companies and the city could only be accepted if called and approved at three different “guilds”. These were quarterly assemblies of the mayor and aldermen of the City of Durham and borough of Framwellgate together with the wardens and stewards of the city guilds, the records of which meetings are held at the County Record Office (DCRO Du 5): the modern procedure followed at such meetings is described in Morris (1984). This system of admission through guilds still prevails, although a freeman's admittance into a particular guild has long since ceased to indicate any involvement in such a trade.

The Freemen held rights of common on the moors bordering the north of the city, and upon their inclosure in the early 19th century they were allotted land on Brasside Moor, later called Freemen's Farm or Union Hall Farm. Trustees of the Freemen were appointed in the Inclosure Act for the management of this land and the distribution of its rental income through the wardens of the city's guilds, accounts of which appear in many of the guilds' subsequent records. The Union Hall Farm was purchased from the Freemen by the War Office in February 1940, which at the same time acquired the underlying clay from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The Freemen also possess and still exercise a right to the herbage on The Sands in Durham City, the freehold of which is the property of the Corporation of Durham, now Durham County Council. With the exception of Freemen's Farm and its income, all such rights and incomes of the Freemen are and have been managed by the Wardens (selected from each guild) and their chairman: this body operates independently of the Freemen's Trustees and their Clerk, but the Clerk also acts as Receiver and in which capacity is also responsible for rents derived from Sands leases. Rents from properties encroaching on The Sands were divided by a 1850 Agreement, two thirds to the Freemen and one third to the Corporation. This formula was latterly also applied to other income generated from activities on The Sands: events, most often fairs and circuses, occupying The Sands compensate the Freemen for occupying the herbage; wayleaves have also been granted on the same principle. Payments to the Freemen's Trustees for fishing rights at Union Hall Farm are also found in the accounts.

The Freemen's Trustees meet regularly with the Wardens of the guilds, formerly four times a year, to identify those resident freemen entitled to a share in the bi-annual distribution of the Freemen's income, and to make such distributions; latterly these distributions have occurred annually, and the Trustees have therefore met twice a year. The Wardens of the eight surviving guilds of freemen hold separate monthly meetings under their chairman. From 23 October 1953 and until its winding up in September 1997 the Freemen's Trustees have also been the Trustees of the John Kirby Charity, a fund originally established in 1681 to support widows and impoverished members of the Mercers' Company. The current activities of the Durham City Freemen may be followed on their website.