History of Norwich Freemen
3. Freemen in Decline
Freemen overtaken by events, 1700-1835
Just as Norwich was acclaimed by the traveller Celia Fiennes in 1697 as ‘a rich, thriving and industrious place’, the position of the freemen started to decline. The reasons can be attributed to various economic, political and social developments from about 1660 which combined to devalue the freedom and the freeman electorate. Eventually, the freedom was swept away in the great reforms of the 1830s. As an afterthought, the institution of the freedom was allowed to remain as ‘a link with the past’, but all political power and economic privileges were lost.
So why did this happen? In a sense, Norwich was the victim of its own success as a fashionable regional capital offering a range of consumer facilities and professional services second only to London. With the growing diversity and expansion of the city, entry to the freedom no longer provided clear commercial advantages. Marketing practices had changed. Buying and selling increasingly took place in private places, such as inns, rather than the open market place, and by the 18th century it appears that the city had ceased to levy tolls on non-freemen. So why bother to pay an admission fee for the freedom?
The Map of the Market Place c. 1789 (above) shows the development of coaching inns with their yards along Gentleman’s Walk. From the late 17th century, inns assumed a new importance in the commercial and social life of city providing not only hostelries, but business premises, sale rooms, warehouses, club-rooms and auction rooms for hire. At the end of the yards were the hay and fodder lofts, and lodging for countless grooms and ostlers. By this time, Norwich had developed a vigorous and open economy which was extremely difficult to control
Changes in textile production
At the same time the nature of cloth manufacturing was changing. As ever, producers needed to be imaginative and quick to respond to fashion and the market, but the freedom, which stood for regulation and quality control, started to hinder enterprise and innovation. Industrial organisation also militated against freeman enrolments, while mechanisation and the capitalisation of industry reduced the numbers of self-employed craftsmen and potential freemen.
Alongside these developments, the city government failed to play its part in upholding the freedom, turning a blind eye to wholesale evasion of the rules concerning admissions to the freedom and the organisation of crafts and guilds. In the late 17th century, Norwich tried to secure legislation to ‘bring in the freemen’ but by the early 1700s, the 12 companies of trades and crafts set up in 1622 had ceased to exercise control over their members. Between 1680 and 1830, the number of freemen fell from 40 per cent to 20 per cent of the adult male population.
An 18th century drawloom. These were used for complex weaves
Freemen fall victim to corruption
The period after 1660 also witnessed profound political changes as the restored Stuart monarchy tried to rebuild support in the country. The development of political parties, Whigs (Country Party) and Tories (Court Party), representing those who opposed or supported the monarchy made this a fractious time. The parties sought to manipulate elections and win power. By the mid-1670s, as it became clear that Charles II would not father a legitimate heir, the country party was extremely exercised by the prospect of his Catholic brother James II inheriting the throne. To make matters worse, after the death of his Protestant wife, James remarried a young Catholic princess Mary of Modena. The issue led to the Exclusion Crisis, 1679-81 when Lord Shaftesbury introduced three bills in parliament to exclude James from the throne, but to no avail. From 1681, Charles II, having won his case, ruled without parliament. In 1683 he issued new borough charters which enabled him to remove mayors and aldermen at will, and to influence the choice of their successors without recourse to local elections.
Into this explosive mix, the freemen electorate in Norwich became directly involved. As we saw in the medieval article, unlike other cities, Norwich emerged from the middle ages with a peculiarly open, if not democratic political structure.
Freemen elected members of parliament alongside Norwich freeholders who qualified in respect of the city’s county status. However, the freemen voted exclusively for the Common Council, aldermen, mayor and sheriff. This became increasingly difficult to justify as the percentage of freemen declined, but in the meantime, they took advantage of the situation. It was not their finest hour.
Bribery and corruption
Matters in Norwich came to a head in 1677, when Sir Robert Paston, Viscount Yarmouth, the newly appointed Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk and strong supporter of Charles II interfered in a parliamentary by-election. He prevailed upon the mayor to admit over 362 men to the freedom of the city, plying them with beer and entertainment to ensure they voted for his son, Hon. William Paston and the ex-Mayor of Norwich, Augustine Briggs. His behaviour was successfully challenged in 1679, but as the Earl of Yarmouth, he continued to manipulate elections on an unprecedented scale until his death in 1683, securing Tory control of Norwich through the bribing the freeman electorate.
However, Tory success proved short lived. In 1685, James came to the throne and continued on the collision course instigated by his brother. This culminated in the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when he was overthrown by the Whigs, who installed his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange as joint monarchs.
With party government firmly established, bribery and corruption became embedded in Norwich politics. In 1704 the mayor admitted 200 freemen for political purposes, and by 1729 malpractice had reached such a pitch that parliament passed an act ‘for the better regulation of elections in the city of Norwich’. Henceforth, freemen had to be registered for a year before they could vote in an election.
By the early 18th century, the freedom ceased to be a licence to pursue a trade or to participate in city government. Rather, it had become a piece of property like a share in a limited liability company by which a dividend – in the form of a bribe – could be expected at a local or parliamentary election. As such, by the late 18th century, it proved very popular with the city’s impoverished weavers. Most property owners in Norwich already qualified to vote in parliamentary elections by virtue of being forty shilling freeholders. For the freeman weavers the occasional sale of their vote for £10 was a welcome supplement to an income which had fallen to five shillings a week. However, by 1831 their rights were under threat of reform.
Tory Poster for the election of 1831 calling on the freemen to ‘Hold out to the Last’! They lost. The result was the Reform Act, 1832. Orange and Purple = Tory colours. Blue and White = Whigs.
Freemen and Reform, 1832 and 1835
Celebrated cartoon of Whigs chopping down ‘Rotten Borough System’ propped up the Lords.
The main purpose of the Electoral Reform Act, 1832 was to regularize methods of voting and the size of parliamentary seats. This was the first time the system had been reformed. Hitherto, every county and borough in Great Britain returned two members to parliament irrespective of changes in their population. Over the centuries, scores of boroughs had withered away, including Castle Rising, but were still sending two members to parliament. 56 of these so called ‘rotten boroughs’ were abolished, 30 lost one MP, while 41 new boroughs were given representation for the first time.
The boroughs were also riddled with different franchises which, like the freemen vote in Norwich, had become unrepresentative and corrupt. All these were swept away and replaced by a standard qualification for adult males owning or occupying property worth £10 a year. The pre-1832 franchise holders were allowed to keep their rights for their lifetime. However, the sad result for Norwich was that the working-class electorate actually declined as a result of this reform.
In 1833, the Whig government turned to the reform of municipal corporations. These were towns and cities that had been granted a Royal Charter to form a council or corporation. About two thirds were closed boroughs where only the members of the corporation had the vote. They fixed the rate and the bye-laws, but it was impossible for rate payers to vote them out. Negligence and corruption was the order of the day. In Norwich, voting in local elections was restricted to the freemen, who by that time were a fraction of the population paying a tiny portion of the rates. The report of the Royal Commission on Municipal Reform described them as a ‘pauperized and degraded multitude’. Of the city’s rateable income of £25,541 no less the £18,224 was paid by non-freemen; 50 per cent of freemen were too poor to be assessed for local taxation and only 20 owned property worth £10 a year, the new qualification introduced by the Electoral Reform Act, 1832.
The unrepresentative nature of freemen electorates was combined with all sorts of malpractice, including not only bribery, but the practice of ‘blocking’ the admission of freemen from opposing parties. Such abuses prompted the commissioners to call for freemen’s rights and privileges to be abolished along with the whole paraphernalia of the corrupt corporations. The bill passed the House of Commons without much difficulty, but the House of Lords resisted. To stop them throwing out the whole Bill and creating another constitutional crisis, the Lords were permitted to make amendments, which included retaining the institution of the freedom ‘as a link with the past’. This decision had long term and far reaching consequences for Norwich and its freemen.
Freemen retained as a link with the past
Although the freemen lost all their political rights in the reforms of the 1830s, the House of Lords, anxious to preserve ancient institutions, saved the freedom from abolition, and secured numerous concessions for the freemen of England and Wales.
Apprentices and sons of freemen would continue to be admitted, but freedom by purchase or as a gift of the corporation was abolished. Freemen appointed before 1835 kept their right to vote for life, but the privilege could not be inherited by their sons. Finally, and most importantly for the Norwich Freemen, the Municipal Corporations Act stipulated that freemen should continue to enjoy ‘ the same share and benefits of the lands, tenements, common lands and stock of any borough lands … as if this Act had not been passed’, providing they could prove their ‘undisputed use and undisturbed possession’.
Under this clause, the Norwich Freemen retained control of the Town Close Estate. Challenged in the courts by the City Corporation in the 1880s the freemen retained their rights to the estate but lost control to the Charity Commissioners. In 1892, the freemen became sole beneficiaries of the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity, receiving pensions for themselves and educational grants for their children.
The Town Close Estate continued to be administered by the City Corporation on behalf of the freemen until 1907, albeit in conjunction with the Charity Commissioners from 1892. In 1907, the commissioners persuaded the freemen to set up the Freemen’s Committee and elect representative trustees to sit on the charity board alongside representatives from the Norwich Consolidated Charities. This has remained the structure ever since.