History of Norwich Freemen

6. Women and the Freedom

Sue Howes and Connie Adams, leading campaigners, holding their certificates outside St. Andrew’s Hall. Fittingly, Connie Adams, was first to be admitted to the freedom on the day, by virtue of being first in the alphabet.

On 20 March 2010, as the local paper the EDP reported at the time, ‘More than 200 women proudly overturned centuries of discrimination as they were finally admitted as Norwich freemen, ending what had been an exclusively male honour for 800 years.’ The paper reported the momentous events at St. Andrew’s Hall where two ceremonies were required to enter 212 women and an unusually large number of men to the freedom of Norwich. Women had been barred from joining the ranks of their fathers and brothers, but a recent change in the law allowed women, descended from Norwich freemen, to join the group.

In this way, a campaign which had started in 1980, with a call to arms from the Lady Mayoress, Valerie Guttsman came to a dramatic and successful conclusion. Today, women form a third of all the freemen and the total number has doubled from 600 to 1200.

Medieval origins

However, this was not quite the revolution everyone thought. From recent research and the work undertaken for the new database on the Old Free Book, we have found at least four women who were admitted to the freedom of Norwich in the 14th and 15th centuries:  Anselna, daughter of Phillip of Bauburgh, 1338, OFB f. 31v; Johanna Colwan de Herleston and Petronella de Bokenham 1366/7 (OFB, F. 34v);  Isabella de Weston, 1367/8 (OFB f. 34v) and Elizabeth Baret, singlewoman, worsted weaver,1446/7, (OFB  f. 52) See Who were the Freemen?

Interestingly, Anselna and Johanna both appear in the printed version of the Old Free Book as males: Anselm and John.   These have been checked against the Latin originals, and while there is some doubt about Johanna, Anselna, certainly appears to be the daughter of Phillip of Bawburgh. We thought with a new Latin transcription we might find more women, on the basis that the editor was probably only looking for male names and may have misinterpreted the Latin.  However, this does not seem to be the case, leaving us to wonder why there are only four female names in the register.

The city of London has always admitted women to the freedom, and so has York on the basis of evidence found in their Freemen Registers.  So what happened in Norwich? Why were there so few and why did they disappear?  The rules of admission applying in London casts some light on this issue:

‘In London, both men and women always have been able to be Free, although married women have only been admissible since 1923.  Before then, a Free spinster or widow subsequently married lost her Freedom during her marriage.  A non-free widow of a City Freemen obtained the Freedom herself, by courtesy on her husband’s death, so that she could continue his business.  However, such widows were not formally admitted to the Freedom, and so there are no records of them.  Women who were Free of the City used to be known as ‘Free sisters’, a term now only maintained by some of the City Livery Companies for their own female freemen’.

This extract makes clear the link between the freedom and the pursuit of a business. It also shows that widows inheriting their husband’s business were not formally admitted to the freedom.  This would explain the lack of evidence of women in freemen registers.  In Norwich, we know that women were involved in business from the fines they paid for flouting regulations.  Their role, particularly in trades like brewing, was fully acknowledged by the authorities and when they appeared in court they had to be treated as ‘citizens’.

This scarcity of women in the Norwich registers may have another explanation. Women, like most men except freemen, had no political rights. In Norwich the freemen vote remained vitally important in the life of the city until the institution was abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835. See Freemen in Decline It may be that the Norwich registers in the early days doubled up as an electoral roll, and women simply didn’t need to be recorded as they had no vote.

So, perhaps the events at St Andrews should be considered a celebration of the revival of lady freemen!

A call to arms

The first rallying cry for freedom came from the Lord Mayor, Valerie Guttsman (picture below) in her speech to the Common Hall of Freemen in 1980 when she urged them to consider admitting women.

‘In Queen Elizabeth I’s reign women were not admitted as freemen, and now there was a second Elizabeth on the throne,  a woman Prime Minister, and a woman chairing both Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council – and still women could not be freemen. In view of the fact that more professions and crafts were open to women is it too much to hope that one day you might embrace them in your midst?’

This set the cat among the pigeons. Queries flooded into the secretary, who sought to reassure the freemen, ‘the chances of other towns admitting women as York had done were very low and the case for admission by ancient custom had to be proved’. Little did he know they had the proof.  His only doubt was whether the wording of the local rules which referred to the admission of ‘any person of full age’ by apprenticeship, permitted women to be admitted in this way. Tom Eaton suggested that the City Council should be asked to obtain counsel’s opinion on this point, but the meeting decided that they ‘should not take the initiative by raising the matter’. It was ‘unanimously agreed that there should be no alteration in the rules to permit the admission of women’.  We need to remind ourselves that this meeting took place five years after the Sex Discrimination Act, 1975 and the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1976.

Nevertheless, the tactic seemed to work. The issue did not resurface in the press until 1991 when the Labour councillor Brenda Ferris raised it at the City Council. ‘I am Norwich born and bred and I would like the opportunity to be a freewoman, ’ she told the council. The meeting agreed to look into the matter, and the council notified the freemen of their intention to admit women to the freedom. Following a representation from the freemen, the officers at City Hall agreed to defer the decision until after a meeting of the Freemen’s Committee. The minutes give a blow by blow description of the reaction, with some members quoting other towns who had taken the step, ‘everybody wanted freewomen’, while others ‘were emphatic that they did not want freewomen, and the last thing they wanted was freepersons’. The clerk warned of the impact on the charity, ‘with additional beneficiaries the effects could be devastating’. The meeting ended with a call to arms, ‘members were advised to ignore the press and not discuss the matter outside’. But the tides of change could not be resisted for ever.

The pressure for change also came from the wider freemen body. Several boroughs were campaigning actively for women to be admitted to the freedom, and a few achieved it in the 1990s and 2000s, including Chester, Oxford and Lincoln with Durham, Newcastle and Beverley in the frame.  So, why didn’t the Norwich Freemen join this doughty group and fight for their daughters’ rights? It is not entirely clear, various reasons have been given: the matter rested with the City Council, it would require an Act of Parliament which would be very expensive and the benefits received by freemen would be affected.  But then Connie Adams appeared on the scene…

Freedom secured, 2010

The first woman freeman Connie Adams (above) was a high profile fencer with good contacts with the local press. She proved a formidable campaigner, being likened to Dorothy Jewson the famous Norwich suffragette. Fencing analogies fuelled the headlines ‘Connie crossing swords with the City’, ‘champ fights for women’. When the matter arose at the Freemen’s Committee in 2002, the chairman reiterated their position, that to change it ‘would take an Act of Parliament and the Council could not afford the cost’ and that would remain the situation, ‘unless we could show that women were admitted in the past’. In the same year, Medieval Norwich a book sponsored by the freemen, appeared with the reference to a free woman!

In 2005, before the meeting of the Common Hall, the committee was warned of ‘the usual protest outside the City Hall, especially as the Lord Mayor this year was a women and is bound to make some sort of reference to Women in the Freedom’.

In 2008, the Lord Mayor in question, Joyce Divers raised the issue at a City Council meeting in support of Norman Lamb, Liberal MP for North Norfolk. He had intervened on behalf of his constituent, Sue Howes from North Walsham who claimed the right to succeed her father as a freeman. The Liberal Democrats believed that the City Council was in breach of European legislation and had a moral duty to act. This approach took the argument to a different level. Divers also argued that the City Council through the Local Government Act, 1972 had the power to promote a local bill to enact change. It materialized that the council had failed to take up these powers. So, perhaps the long delay was simply the result of an error rather than a conspiracy.

In the event, the admission of women passed without rancour as an amendment to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act, 2009 in a chapter dealing with ‘Local Freedoms and Honorary Titles’. Newcastle, with its freemen working alongside the city council and local MPs, had campaigned for over a decade for this outcome and received the credit for applying the required pressure in the right quarters at the right time. In Norwich, the freemen quietly accepted their fate and moved on to consider the etiquette and logistics, how would they address the new ‘lady freemen’ and how would it affect the annual outing? On 19 March 2010, in what the secretary described as ‘the most memorable day in the history of the Norwich Freemen’ two hundred and twelve women were admitted to the freedom alongside fifty four men. To accommodate them all with their families, two ceremonies had to be held at St. Andrews Hall, morning and afternoon. They were led by Connie Adams and addressed by Baroness Hollis, a vigorous campaigner for women’s rights.

Ladies, freemen and the aftermath

So, what has been the impact of the freemen? The most obvious effect has been on numbers.  At a stroke, the freemen solved the problem of declining admissions. The ceremonies of 2010 increased the numbers from six hundred to eight hundred and sixty-six, with women forming over 30 per cent of the total, see table below. In 2011 and 2012, three courts of mayoralty were held.  Each court, held at City Hall, rather than the cramped Guildhall, admitted about thirty five at a time. By 2016, women formed 34.6 per cent of the total, and the numbers have doubled since 2010.  With the freedom passing down the female line, the numbers will now increase exponentially.  The figures show that more men have come forward and whole families have been admitted to the freedom.

Admission of Women to the Freedom, 2010-2017

Men Admissions to freedom Women Admissions to freedom Total numbers of women
Pre 2010 600 600
2010 654 54 212 212 866 24.6
2011 678 24 286 74 964 29.6
2012 718 40 348 62 1066 32.6
2013 733 15 360 12 1093 33
2014 744 11 386 26 1130 34.1
2015 761 17 393 7 1154 34
2016 775 14 411 18 1186 34.6

 

 

Not surprisingly, the huge demand for admissions caused some alarm among the Freemen’s Committee.  The charity scheme and the eligibility criteria for benefits had to be adjusted to manage the increase in applications.  To meet these concerns, transitional arrangements were put in place, so that beneficiaries would not suddenly lose out if their income was higher than the new scale; members were also reassured that their interests would remain a priority over the grants made to other bodies.  At the same time, the new chairman of the Freemen’s Committee, Nigel Back, took action to ensure that the women were fully represented on the committee, and could look forward to the prospect of becoming trustees.  To this end, procedures were modernized and made more transparent.

So what does the future hold for the Norwich Freemen?  The admission of women to the freedom has clearly been a catalyst for change, but against a background when change was already in the air. As we have seen much had already been achieved in modernizing the management of the charity, the procedures of the Freemen’s Committee and in the formulation of a new apprenticeship scheme, which allows broader access to the freemen body and offers wider benefits to the city of Norwich. The easy acceptance of women is also an indication of the progress made and the freemen’s desire to grasp the future.  The freemen are proud of what they have achieved and wanted to record and celebrate their progress.  That is the context of the 700th anniversary celebrations and the creation of Norwich Freemen Records Online.

 

History of Norwich Freemen

NFRO Introduction

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History of Norwich Freemen

1. Who were the Freemen?

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History of Norwich Freemen

2. Freemen in Control

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History of Norwich Freemen

3. Freemen in Decline

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History of Norwich Freemen

4. Freemen’s Lands

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History of Norwich Freemen

5. Revival of the Freemen

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History of Norwich Freemen

6. Women and the Freedom

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FAQ’s

Are they the same as the Freemasons?

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700

Celebrating 700 Years

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