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
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.
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
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.