History of Norwich Freemen

NFRO Introduction

Dan Talbot, Andrew Whittle and Diana Spelman working on the Old Free Book.

Norwich Freemen Records Online (NFRO) has been created to provide a fully-searchable and freely-accessible online database of all those men, and eventually women, admitted to the freedom of Norwich over the last 700 years.

The idea originated when the Freemen wanted to update their history to take into account the expanding role of the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity and the admission of women to the freedom in 2010. The charity, established in 1892 from the profits of the freemen’s lands, once existed simply for the benefit of freemen and their families, providing pensions for the aged and educational support for children. In 1977 the charity was permitted to widen its remit to include other charitable bodies in Norwich; this was extended to communities within a 20-mile radius of the city in 1983. The freemen specified that their grant giving should focus on educational projects and activities.

Early research for the new project, by Dr Elizabeth Griffiths, showed that the freemen’s admissions, listed in the Old Free Book, date from 1317 and subsequent registers continue to the present day. The Freemen’s Committee, led by Nigel Back, decided to commission Dr Mark Merry at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, to create an online database of these registers that cover 700 years. Dr Merry is the author of www.rollco.org.uk  the database of the London Livery Companies. At the same time, the freemen organised a series of events to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the Norwich Freemen Registers, and set up this website www.norwichfreemen.org.uk  which hosts the online database.

An enthusiastic team of inputters, all with links to the University of East Anglia, is entering 35,000 admissions from the full set of Freemen Registers.  In addition, a Latin transcription and a partial English translation of the Old Free Book, 1317-1548 has been undertaken and will be available with a digitized version of the original Old Free Book. It has been decided to make use of existing work on the Enrolled Deeds, which date from 1285 and contain details of property transactions in the city between ‘citizens’ as freemen were also known.

The database, linked to the website by Dave Lincoln www.horatiocreative.com, will be launched in two phases. The first, on 6 September 2017, will include the registers from 1714 to 2017 with 20,000 entries; these will be followed by the registers from 1317 to 1713 and the information from the Enrolled Deeds in due course.


Historical Context

Alongside the database, an updated history has been written by Dr Elizabeth Griffiths, one of the original authors of Buxom to the Mayor: A History of the Norwich Freemen and the Town Close Estate, (1987), www.norwichfreemen.org.uk/about/tracingourhistory. This provides an historical context for the database and is organized under six themes:

Who were the Freemen? covers the origins of the freemen, a description of the medieval documentation, the rules regulating the freedom and how the system worked.

Freemen in Control, 1317-1700 provides an explanation of city government in Norwich, the role played by freemen, and the ascendancy they enjoyed until the early 18th century. It forms the backdrop to the Old Free Book and the second register, 1548-1713.

Freemen in Decline, 1700-1835 is set against the industrial revolution, the growth of political parties, the corruption of politics and finally, the abolition of freemen rights and privileges in 1835. This is the background to the third register, 1714-1752 and the early part of the modern register from 1752-1981.

Freemen’s Lands in Norwich existed from the earliest times, but were not confirmed by the Crown until 1524. Freemen enjoyed the income unopposed until 1887 and survived a challenge from the City Corporation. Although they kept possession of the estate, they lost control to the Charity Commissioners.

Revival of the Freemen, 1907-2017  In 1907 the freemen, reconciled to their loss of control, agreed to participate in the management of their charity, the Norwich Town Close Estate Charity, which they have done ever since with great effect and benefit to the city. Freemen admissions for this period are contained in the modern register, 1752-1981, while the latest entries from 1982-2017, still held at City Hall, were also made available. The tradition of a hand-written register is being continued and can be viewed at City Hall.

Women and the Freedom. The campaign to allow women to be admitted to the freedom started in 1980 and succeeded in 2010. Today they form nearly half of the freemen body and are listed in the latest entries held at City Hall, as above.


The Documents

The Norwich Freemen’s Registers form part of the vast collection of Norwich City Records deposited at the Norfolk Record Office.  They are listed under NCR, Case 17c/1-6 and each includes a description of the document.

The ‘Old Free Book’ 1317-1548

This is the first surviving freemen’s roll of admissions. However, it is not quite what it seems. The paper for the volume was purchased in 1344 by Richard Spynk, a leading freeman, for the entry of city memoranda, though exactly when it was constituted in volume form is unknown.  The first 29 folios include copies of documents relating to Richard Spynk, the fortification of the City walls, with lists of the Bailiffs and the Twenty-Four Citizens, copies of deeds and other items of interest.

It is not until folio 30, that freemen admissions appear.  Folios 30-54 contain lists of admissions of freemen, arranged chronologically for the years 1317-1451, giving name, occupation, sometimes the name of the father or master (depending on method of admission)  and occasionally the parish of origin.  Folios 55-139 contain lists of admissions of Freemen arranged according to trades and crafts for the years 1400-1549, following an order made in 1452.

The Old Free Book, folio 30, showing the first entries in 1317.


Old Free Book, folio 55, showing the first page of the mercers

The early freemen admissions were clearly summarized and copied from other documents. One of these original Freemen’s rolls survives among the manuscripts of Sir Thomas Phillips (1792-1872) and is now preserved at the Norfolk Record office. This document (Phi 510, 578X2) lists the freemen admitted between October 1318 and September 1319 and the fines paid. All these names were later copied into the Old Free Book, but as to when they were copied remains a mystery.

However, there are some clues.  On folio 30, the Revd William Hudson (compiler of the Catalogue of the Records of the City of Norwich) noted that ‘The word ‘Worthstede’ occurs at the top of the page until fol. 37 A.D. 1384. This must refer to William de Worthstede, who was Common Clerk from 1381-1387, at about which date these [freemen] lists must have been written up. W.H.’

Another problem is that not all the years were listed. The first editor John L’Estrange identified gaps for 1318/19, 1320-21, 1328-38, 1342-43, 1350/55, a single entry for 1355-56, and then a further gap until 1365 from which date ‘the entries appear to be perfect’. He did not think the admissions were entered year by year until 1399. To make it more complicated for the reader, the language is a mix of Latin, French and English.

Despite these curiosities and limitations, the Old Free Book has preserved the names, trades and occupations of thousands of medieval freemen of Norwich, which with the information from the Enrolled Deeds will provide an invaluable resource for historians and researchers of all kind.

Editing the document

The Old Free Book has long been available to researchers in printed form. The Calendar of the Freemen of Norwich from 1317 to 1603 edited by John L’Estrange was completed and published by the great antiquarian Walter Rye (1888) and is the earliest of its kind.  By his own admission, Rye did not check the earlier work and errors abound. For us to check Rye’s version against the original document was a hopelessly complicated task, so in 2015 the freemen commissioned a new transcription and partial translation of the document.  The translation was made necessary by the different languages, layout and content after 1452 and the significant overlap of entries between the two parts of the Old Free Book. This painstaking task was undertaken with meticulous care by Diana Spelman. Daniel Talbot and Andrew Whittle, with equal care, are inputting the information on to the database.


Freemen’s roll of admissions, 1548-1713           

The second register is a paper volume of 302 folios with 10,461 entries compared to about 6,250 for the Old Free Book. It is a much more ordered book, designed precisely for the purpose intended. Entries include the names of those being admitted to the freedom, the date of their swearing in and admission, how they were admitted (by patrimony, apprenticeship or purchase) and the name of either their father or master (for apprentices), though early entries often do not include the latter information.

Entries are arranged by crafts and trades, starting with mercers and with other crafts beginning with the letter M, followed by grocers (and with other crafts beginning with G), worsted weavers, rafemen (chandlers) and tailors. After these initial headings, the titles are arranged alphabetically. The majority of the headings appear to have been created early in the life of the volume, each being allotted a number of folios to accommodate the admissions of craftsmen under that heading, leaving several folios blank. The language is Latin and English.

Editing the document

The second register – and the third register – were fortunate in being edited by Percy Millican in 1934 and 1952 respectively. The results, easily checked against the originals, were found to be accurate, so no transcription was required. The inputters, Alberta Parsons, James Barnaby and Andrew Whittle worked straight from the edited text.

Millican’s first volume, The Register of The Freemen of Norwich 1548-1713 (1934) includes ‘A Transcript with an introduction, an appendix to those freemen whose apprenticeship indentures are enrolled in the city records, and indexes of names and places’.

In his lengthy introduction, Millican provides a history of the Norwich Freemen with the rules governing the freedom of Norwich and the structure of occupations and trades in the city.  In his rules, he introduces a fourth method of admission to the freedom, by Order of the Assembly, whereby the assembly had the power to gift the freedom to any person by virtue of his rank, learning or technical skill which would benefit the community. This was the origin of what came to be known as the Honorary Freedom. In the search engine, we have described the method as ‘honorary’ and it follows patrimony, apprenticeship and purchase. Millican ends his introduction with an analysis of the trades and the numbers of freemen attached to each of them; worsted weavers made up a third of the total.

In his transcription of the text, Millican follows the listing of crafts and trades adopted in the original document, but every occupation is listed individually and alphabetically. He then cross references every entry to the original folios, and to the apprentice indenture where appropriate. After the trades, he provides a list of ‘freemen to whom no trade is assigned in the register’. These comprise those granted the freedom by Order of Assembly, a few honorary freemen, but mostly those recruited for professional posts, such as Recorder or Steward of the City. Millican also includes honorary freemen that are only recorded in the Assembly Rolls, and do not appear in the freemen registers. For completeness, these have been entered into the database with their origin clearly identified. At the end of the transcription, Millican supplies a full index of names and places, making this a most accessible and useful volume.


Freemen’s roll of admissions, 1714-1752           

The third register is a paper volume with just 150 completed folios. The abrupt end in 1752 reflects the change to the new Gregorian calendar rather than any decline in freemen numbers. In fact, the 4100 entries for 38 years, show a far greater number of admissions per year than the second register, with a greater proportion of worsted weavers, 44% up from 28%. The increase of working class admissions may be explained by the growing value of the freeman vote, worth £10 at election times in a climate of growing bribery and corruption.

Entries are still arranged by craft and trade. As before, they include the names of those admitted, the date of their swearing in, how they were admitted (by patrimony, apprenticeship and purchase) and the names of either their fathers or masters. For the first time, an index of the crafts and trades appears at the front with continuation pages identified and dated.

The entries show other new developments. The first page, listing attorneys and apothecaries, under A, also includes armigers, or esquires, admitted to the freedom by Order of the Assembly.   Under B, Sir John Hobart is listed as a baronet and similarly honoured by the Assembly, as were several gentlemen, under G. It appears that the clerks were trying to accommodate important social groups among the trades and crafts so that these admissions could be recorded in the register and passed from father to son.

Folio seven of the Freemen Register 1714 to 1752. It shows gentlemen listed alongside grocers and glaziers.

Editing the Document

Millican’s printed edition, ‘The Freemen of Norwich, 1714-1752: a Transcript to the Third Register’, Norfolk Record Society, 1952, is a ‘perfect sequence’ to his work on the second register. After a brief introduction, he follows the same procedure of listing trades and crafts, separately. He also includes further evidence from the Assembly Rolls and information on Clerks of Holy Orders and other professionals illustrating the growing diversity of the city’s population. He draws attention to those fined and disenfranchised for not taking up the freedom. Only one inn-holder is recorded in a city that boasted an inn for every day of the year! Clearly, the freedom was being overtaken by events – economic, social and political.

Millican’s list of ‘No Trades’ reinforces the picture of social change.   The armigers, esquires and gentlemen do not merit their own category, instead they appear under ‘no trades’.  However, the reference to the folios, leads straight to the trades listed under A, B, E (for esquires) and G.   Both esquires and gentlemen continue to be admitted after 1752, as the freedom, once it had been gifted by the Assembly, passed from father to son. The honorary freedom itself was abolished in 1835.  Revived in 1885, it is no longer recorded in the Freemen’s Register and remains in the gift of the City Corporation.


Freemen’s roll of admissions, 1752-1981                

The modern register, available at the Norfolk Record Office on microfiche, consists of 378 pages; the original document is held at City Hall, Norwich.  At the front is a list of the contents leading to names, rather than crafts and trades. As before, entries give dates of swearing in, names, trades, and names of the father or master. The entries covering the period 1752 to c. 1835 are all written up in one hand, obviously copied into a neat version from other documents, NCR Case 17c/4: 1750-1818 and NCR Case 17c/5: 1818-1837.  Later entries are in a variety of hands and were entered periodically.  A list of honorary freemen, 1752-1977 is included at the end of the volume.  However, with the entries in date order, it is difficult to trace names, trades and occupation. This new database will transform the research process.

Editing the document

Genealogists, historians, researchers and inputters are most fortunate in the printed edition Norwich City Freemen, 1752 – 1981 produced by Shirley and Keith Howell in 1999. They list alphabetically, the names of 13,737 freemen admissions with a full analysis of trades at the end. It shows that Freemen admissions remained buoyant until the late nineteenth century, long after their right to vote was lost in 1835. Possibly, the annual dole for freemen payable from the Freemen’s Lands still proved an attraction.

The entries for the modern registers include those from 1982 to 2017 and women freemen admitted since 2010, see Women and the Freedom.  Suitably, these entries were inputted by Julie Houghton, Sophie Foulger, Kate Humby and Kattie Miles from electronic data provided by City Hall, Norwich.  Following ancient tradition, this information is being copied into a hand-written volume. Julie and Katie are both freemen.

From Documents to Database

The structure of the database followed the design created for the Records of London’s Livery Companies Online, (ROLLCO), but with modifications relevant to the Norwich Freemen Records. At this initial stage, entries are confined to the admissions to the freedom of the city. The intention is that other records, notably the enrolled deeds from 1285, and the apprentice indentures from 1510-1749 will be included in due course.

The overall policy is that the information in the database should reflect the original registers as closely as possible. Additional evidence, included in the edited and printed texts, but of interest to the reader, has been placed in the ‘Notes’ section. An exception has been made for those granted the freedom by Order of the Assembly and not listed in the registers.

No attempt has been made to modernize or reconcile entries in the old calendar with those in the new calendar from 1752.

The types of information recorded in the database include:

  • Volume – period covered and archival references
  • Event – admission to the freedom, including folio/page reference, dates and specific information on the method of entry to the freedom
  • Person – including names, gender, occupation, location if different from Norwich, the role that the individual played in a particular freedom, and their social and economic status.
  • Location – some entries provide the parish of the freeman. When in Norwich this has been given simply as the parish name, for example, St Peter Mancroft rather than St Peter Mancroft, Norwich

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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Can women be freemen?

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Celebrating 700 Years

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