History of Norwich Freemen
5. Revival of the Freemen
The freemen regain respectability
The revival of the freemen dates from the creation of the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity in 1892. At a stroke, it removed them from public controversy and the taint of feudal privilege. It helped to restore their prestige which had been badly damaged by involvement in the corrupt politics of the 18th century and the dispute surrounding their ownership of the Town Close Estate in the 1880s. Eligible men could take up the freedom, safe in the knowledge that they were being admitted to a body which enjoyed the esteem and respect of their fellow citizens. The revival of the Honorary Freedom in 1885, which had been abolished in 1835, also enhanced the status of the freemen.
Besides improving the freemen’s image, the formation of the charity led to the creation of the Freemen’s Committee. For the first time, the freemen acquired an independent organisation where matters concerning the institution of the freedom could be discussed and decided with the relevant authorities at City Hall who still control the laws surrounding the freedom of the city. A central concern, particularly after the Second World War was the very survival of the freemen body increasingly reliant on admission by patrimony, from father to son. Since 1965 the rules of admission have been steadily relaxed, but it was only with the admission of women to the freedom in 2010 that the matter was resolved.
Rules for admission to the freedom
In 1966, the length of apprenticeship was reduced from seven to four years, and sons of freemen, born before their fathers were admitted to the freedom, were made eligible. In 1970, the age of admission was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen years in line with the reduction in the legal age of majority. Since 2010 when women were admitted for the first time, numbers have doubled. But raising admission by apprenticeship remains intractable despite determined efforts from the current chairman, Nigel Back.
The Annual Outing
Freemen life was not all work and no play. A key item on the agenda is the venue for the annual outing, which helps to foster a sense of purpose and community among the freemen body. Visits are often made to properties, such as the Cathedral, the Castle Museum, St. John’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Dragon Hall and the Town Close School, which have all received substantial grants from the charity. The event now attracts hundreds, including some from overseas.
Quality of leadership
The freemen have always been fortunate in the quality of leadership they have enjoyed since the committee was formed in 1907. Well-known and public spirited Norwich solicitors and accountants have served as chairman, including Frederic Ray Eaton from 1921-60; Phillip Solomon, 1960-90; Michael Quinton 1990-2011, followed by the present incumbent, Nigel Back. They have also served their time as chairman of the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity.
Managing the charity
The primary purpose of the Freemen’s Committee is to assist in the management of the charity. Every five years, it holds a Common Hall of freemen every five years to elect representative trustees to serve on the board of the charity. At first, the six freemen trustees were outnumbered by the sixteen from the Norwich Municipal Charities, but then the freemen started to assert themselves. In 1910, they resisted amalgamation with the newly formed Norwich Consolidated Charities, gained two more trustees and established the tradition that a freeman always served as chairman, with the NCC providing the vice-chairman. In 1978 they won equal representation, when the NCC trustees were reduced to eight.
The trustees’ role is to implement the management schemes laid down by the charity commissioners. The first scheme of 1892 was not popular with the freemen as it restricted benefits to pensions for the elderly and support for children’s education, all tightly controlled by rules and regulations. Gradually, the remit of the benefits was relaxed, notably to include fees for private education in 1923 and those living within a twenty five miles radius of the Guildhall. At the same time, the income of the charity increased as the building leases granted in the 1840s and 1852 matured, permitting a rise in pension levels.
10, Ipswich Road (above), was one of the first crop of houses built on the Town Close Estate in the 1840s. The estate has been managed by Francis Hornor and Son, estate agents, since the 19th century. Now known as Brown & Co, the firm’s representative, Nick Saffel has served as steward of the estate since 1991. The clerk of the charity, responsible for the day to day administration and legal business, was traditionally drawn from the solicitor’s firm, Cozens Hardy and Jewson. However, in 2004, the trustees appointed a clerk with a background in health care and charity management, reflecting the increased growth and complexity of the charity.
The Freemen’s Committee, meeting twice a year, kept a watching brief over the charity’s activities. However, as income from rents continued to rise they became much more involved in the decision making process.
Giving away the surplus, 1977-2017
The rise in income and how to manage it was not the only issue facing the charity. After the Second World War, with the introduction of the welfare state and the Education Act, 1944, the charity had to work within new statutory requirements. For example, pensions to freemen had to be limited so as not to affect the payment of social security benefits. So the demand for benefits actually declined. At the same time, the number of freemen was falling as the workforce became more mobile and could not meet the residential qualifications. To address these issues, the government passed the Charities Act, 1960. The purpose was to loosen the legal framework which governed charities, encourage them to co-operate with the relevant government departments and complement the state provision of social welfare and educational facilities.
So how did the freemen respond to these new directives? With the approval of the charity commissioners, the trustees started by making occasional grants to outside bodies, notably £2026 for the new university of East Anglia in 1963, followed by £1000 for the Maddermarket Theatre Trust Appeal, £300 for the Norfolk Record Society and £1500 each for the Norwich High School, the Norwich School and the Town Close House Preparatory School (see picture below) between 1972 and 1974. As we have seen, the Freemen also started to relax their rules of admission.
Although income was rising, managing the Town Close Estate became increasingly problematic with the advent of rent controls, the passing of the Leasehold Reform Act, 1967, which allowed tenants to purchase the freehold, and the compulsory purchase by the City Council of Town Close lands for social housing in 1977. This was the catalyst for the decision by the Freemen’s Committee to sanction the gradual sale of the houses on the estate as tenants passed away and leases expired. The sales started in 1980, and had a huge impact on charitable income once it was reinvested in more profitable ventures.
With this development the freemen sought permission from the Charity Commissioners to extend their remit and make grants to other charitable bodies in Norwich. This was achieved in 1977 and widened in 1983 to include communities within a twenty mile radius of the Norwich Guildhall. Since then, a substantial proportion of the charity’s income has been spent on non-freeman activities and charities. The freemen themselves decided that the grants should primarily benefit educational projects and cultural heritage. Over the last forty years, the charity has focused on that task and made a huge difference, not only to the fabric and life of Norwich, but to a significant part of Norfolk as well.
Breakdown of charitable activity, 1980-2017
The accounts show that since 1984 much of the charity’s income has been ‘gifted to other bodies’. The amount has varied from year to year, but the five-yearly averages are remarkably consistent, with the highest being 61.4 per cent, of disposable funds, in the early 2000s, and the lowest 53.2 per cent in the later 2000s, reflecting the periods before and after the financial crisis of 2007-8. The remaining five-yearly averages range between 56 per cent and 58.8 per cent. The jump to over 70 per cent in 2014 and 2015 reflects the adoption of the total return approach widely used by large charities with substantial fixed assets, which allows a portion of capital to be used in spending on the current account. In each of those two years, the amount given to other bodies has risen to over £500, 000. So, who are the lucky recipients and how are the selections made?
The charity scheme of 1983 did not confine the freemen to promoting education. The decision was made by the trustees on the basis that grants for individual welfare were normally satisfied by the other charities which form part of the Norwich Charitable Trusts, namely the Norwich Consolidated Charities and the Thomas Anguish Educational Foundation. The scheme also specified that the decision making should rest with the trustees alone, but the Freemen’s Committee, of twenty five members, won the right to be consulted and thereby created a more open and lively process.
The process starts with applications for grants being made to the clerk of the charity who sifts through them with the chairman of the trustees before submitting a list to the Freemen’s Committee for its recommendations. These are then passed on to the trustees for the final decisions, but they certainly take note of the Freemen’s comments. For example, in 1985, a grant of £25,000 for St. Saviour’s Church was rejected in favour of a £5000 grant to the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, while a larger grant was made to the Norwich Lads Club.
Similarly, in the late 1980s, efforts were made to direct large grants to state schools and projects to help the less privileged. Thus, in 1987, £25,000 went to the Back the Track Appeal for athletics facilities at the Hewett School, with another tranche of £25,000 in 1989. In 1988, £50,000 went to Wymondham College for a new science block, followed by £12,000 for the Blyth Jex in 1989. In that year, £70,000 was also granted to the Norwich High School and Norwich School, for a similar purpose, but it was matched by £70,000 for the Wymondham College Trust. In support of this theme, the charity sponsored the Norwich Science Olympiad for schools run by the UEA. For social projects, substantial grants went to St Martin-at-Palace Probation Day Centre, the newly established How Hill Trust, the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme and the Royal Norfolk Military Heritage Appeal. In addition, a steady flow of smaller grants, of less than £5000, filtered into schools for libraries, minibuses, musical instruments and computer equipment. Other grants went to groups with a broadly educational purpose, such as the Puppet Theatre, the YMCA, the Norfolk Museums Service and the Citizens Advice Bureau. So, a new pattern of giving was established. Despite comments about bottomless pits, churches, and especially the Cathedral, have continued to attract substantial support from the charity.
The Freemen world turns full circle
Dragon Hall, Norwich
For freemen, perhaps the most symbolic grants are those that have helped to save ‘Dragon Hall’, King Street for posterity. The charity contributed to the Norwich Survey of the site in the 1980s and subsequent projects to find a permanent role for the Grade 1 listed building. Built by Robert Toppes in about 1430, it is thought to be the only surviving trading hall in Northern Europe owned by a single man. Toppes, a rich merchant, purchased the freedom in 1421. He served as Mayor in 1435, 1440, 1452 and 1458, and represented Norwich in parliament four times. He was the archetypal successful freeman!
The name ‘Dragon Hall’ adopted in 1986, relates to the carving of a dragon contained in the roof timbers on the left side, third bay down in the photo of the interior, between the main beam and supporting brace. Dragon Hall, wonderfully restored, settled down as the Writers’ Centre in 2015
As the work of the Freemen’s charity became well known in the city, it raised their profile and may have contributed to the growing interest in becoming a freemen, not only among men but from the daughters of freemen long denied the privilege. How they achieved their goal is the subject of Women and the Freedom.
- E. Griffiths and A. Hassell Smith, Buxom to the Mayor, A History of the Norwich Freemen and the Town Close Estate (1987). and Update 1987-2017 (forthcoming).