Online Archive  
Issue 5 - May 1972
Durham Freemen
The identity of the Freemen and the nature of the body to which they belong is obscure to most Durham citizens. Lists of members and records of their activities, if they exist, are not apparently available to the general public and the few known members when approached know, or affect to know, nothing or are unwilling to comment.

The Freemen are a survival from Medieval times and have certain anachronistic rights. Among other things they have the right of herbage on the Sands, may erect a stall in the market place and are not required to appear in court for minor offences, but may send a representative instead.

Research in local libraries has produced the intelligence that the medieval Freemen were members of craftsmen's guilds who passed the right on to their eldest sons. In the case of the Cordwainers' and Drapers' companies all sons were entitled to the freedom of the city. Furthermore this privilege could be earned by any man who served a seven year apprenticeship to an existing Freeman.

Presumably the latter condition has lapsed, but eight of Durham's medieval guilds remain whose members enjoy rights pertaining to the freedom of the city and who pass these rights on to their children.

The Present
It is more difficult to find out about the recent activities of the Durham Freemen. Inevitably many people entitled to the freedom of the city no longer live in the area. A number of local people have been installed as Freemen with full ceremony but have taken no further interest. Some, however, as is seen in the case of the youth centre, exert a large amount of influence on local politics.

The only public record of recent activities of the Freemen is to be found in the occasional flattering little articles in the 'Durham Advertiser'. Usually these articles are devoted to the fatuous ceremonial involved when new members are inaugurated. Only one article (Durham Advertiser 4 April 1971) is of any interest - not because it casts any light on the purpose of this body but because it reflects their interesting attitude towards development in Durham City.

This piece describes the inauguration of Alderman McIntyre, who was for many years chairman of Durham City Council planning committee, as an honorary Freeman of the city. In praising Alderman McIntyre's efforts the article says: "In the last quarter century ... the amount of development exceeded anything that had taken place since the Cathedral and castle were built". Later the article quotes a Councillor Ferens as saying: "Perhaps the most exciting and frustrating task has been the development of the Milburngate site." No sooner had he with infinite tact, patience and persuasion propelled the delicate negotiations to the very peak of achievement than they went rolling down the other side and he had to start painfully and laboriously from the bottom again.

What we know about the Milburngate site is that recent pressure has persuaded the Council to give lip service, at least, to the idea of including youth and cultural facilities; but the projected shopping centre will have precedence. Whatever happens at Milburngate the fact remains that in spite of all the recent building projects, the young people have got nothing more than a vague promise. The Freemen seem to find the planning committee's achievements laudable and so does the Durham Advertiser. It appears that a few months ago when Mr Anderson, the Chairman of the Freemen, was in hospital, their affairs were placed in the hands of Mr Fred Hurrell, who is the Advertiser's editor. It may be of further interest to add that anyone wishing to contact Mr Hurrell on Freemen's business at that time had just to apply in writing to Mrs Anderson who would forward the letter to Mr Hurrell who would then bring the request up before the next meeting of the Freemen and later inform the petitioner of its decision.

The elusive nature of this public body is strange. From the information we have so far we can only conclude that the Freemen are an anachronism and that they are capable of exerting a baneful influence over local affairs and that they are complacent.