Guild of Freemen Of Berwick-upon-Tweed



Various Charters from the time of Alexander 11 of Scotland had confirmed the rights of Berwick Freemen in the commons and pastures of the town. This was the Fue Ferme in which they had hereditary rights of usage, although under the feudal system the ownership of the land was vested in the monarch.

In 1603 the Guild resolved to petition for a new Charter. This was granted in 1604, returning the government of the town to the Guild. The Guild had also petitioned for the land right of the Royal Manor to go with their right of usage. This was granted for about two thirds of the Borough lands, the remaining one third being granted to Sir George Home, later Lord Dunbar. It was not until 1720 that the old garrison and stallingers finally ceased to hold meadows and exercise rights of common. In 1657 the Guild purchased the Manor of Tweedmouth and Spittal for £570.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the majority of the land had been enclosed and some was let as farms. It was divided into three portions. The first portion, known as the "Treasurer's Farms ", consisted of a number of farms which had been enclosed in 1685 and were let. The income was used to pay the salaries of the Officers and other corporate expenses. The second portion was divided into meadows. This was made up of 333 unequal parcels of land which were distributed at an annual meeting between Freemen on the basis of seniority and held for their own benefit. The third portion was open fields up to 1761, upon which each Burgess was entitled to certain rights of pasture. In time they were enclosed and let as farms. The rent from each farm was divided by 11 or 22 and at the annual Stint Meeting a portion was allocated to each Burgess or Burgess' widow. From 1754 it was a requirement that any Freeman obtaining a share of the Meadows and Stints had to reside in the town for at least six months and to pay Scot and Lot.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 placed all property under the control of the new elected Council while maintaining the rights of Freemen to the benefits from those portions which had never been used for the general expenses of the town. There was some controversy over the interpretation of this Act to Berwick and legal opinion was sought. As a result, in 1843 the Berwick-upon-Tweed Corporation (Freemen) Act was passed to settle and establish the rights of Resident Freemen in the property vested in the Borough.

This Act defined the land in four Schedules, with two additional schedules covering bonds and the ancient charities. The First Schedule defined the Meadows held for their own benefit by Resident Freemen on a basis of seniority. The Second Schedule defined land leased out, the rent for which was split up as "Stints in lieu of Meadows" for the Resident Freemen for whom there were no meadows available. The Third Schedule lands or "Outfields" were leased out and the rents were first used to cover any payments due from the Treasurer's Farms which could not be covered in any year from the income from the fourth Schedule. The residue from the Third Schedule was split up between those Freemen participating in the First and Second Schedules. The First, Second and Third Schedules lands were those  known before the Act as the Meadows and Stints, i.e. the first and second portions of the Estate to which the Freemen had undoubted title. The Fourth Schedule comprised the Treasurer's Farms as before the Act. The 1843 Act confirmed that although Tweedmouth and Spittal, south of the River Tweed, had been incorporated into Berwick, the residence requirement for Freemen was in the original Borough north of the River Tweed.

Municipal expenditure had exceeded income, even though in 1827 the Freemen had agreed to pay a special rate of 10% of their meadow  and stint moneys, at a time when non-Freemen were paying no General rate. This special rate was replaced by the provisions of the 1843 Act.

Inevitably after 1835 the sharing of income between the Corporation and the Freemen gave rise to problems. For example, when the Borough was enlarged in 1835, differences arose as to whether the additional expense incurred should be charged against the Freemen's estate. The Corporation also appropriated all Schedule III income although the nominal expenses of administrating the Borough were more than covered. The 1843 Act provided a partial solution, but the increasing responsibilities cast upon the Council by Parliament, particularly after the 1914-18 war, made the previous arrangements unworkable.

Furthermore, in the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century there was continual political opposition to freemen's rights and envious eyes were cast on their property. As elsewhere, the Corporation from time to time contemplated promotion of a Private Act under which the Freemen's Estate would have been expropriated and the Freemen then alive, but not their successors, compensated by an annuity.

The 1843 Act gave no powers for the sale of land in Schedules I, II or III, nor did it allow for leasing of the Meadows, except by or on behalf of Freemen of their allocated meadows. This effectively prevented development of Berwick to the north. The Freemen were not satisfied with the way the Estate was being administered by the Council and wanted a say in the administration. After protracted negotiations a new Act was passed in 1926 which vested the estate in the Berwick-upon-Tweed Corporation (Freemen) Trustees. The Trustees are five Freemen elected by the Freemen and five non-Freemen appointed by the Council.

The incomes from Schedule I and II lands are distributed to Resident Freemen, according to seniority, free of all charges. The income from Schedule 1V covered all lawful expenses for all Schedules of the Estate, payments to certain Charities, including the Corporation Academy, the interests on all debts, Borough or District rates, all income tax, the salaries of certain municipal officers as paid before 1835, the cost of the prison and certain other payments. Any surplus was to be paid to the Borough in accordance with the 1843 Act. The Third Schedule income was used to cover any deficit on Schedule IV with the surplus paid to the Freemen's Committee, who were empowered to retain or use these funds.

There was some ambiguity as to the payments due from Schedule IV with the Borough and Freemen having different interpretations. These were eventually resolved by Arbitration in 1933, which settled a number of other matters. Rents payable for lease of market rights, reservoir and water rights were included in Schedule IV. It was confirmed that the expenses from all four Schedules, the expenses of the Trustees and the Freemen's Committee were all charges on Schedule IV. Included in lawful expenses were a payment of £65 for the use of the Municipal offices and the free use of the Town Hall by both Freemen and Council. When the income from Schedule IV was not sufficient to cover these payments the additional amount was to be paid from Schedule III. Any surplus income from Schedule III was to be distributed to the Freemen's Committee and the Borough on a stated distribution. The inclusion of the Borough in the distribution of Schedule III money was to compensate for the removal of certain payments claimed by the Borough under the 1843 and 1926 Acts.

By the time of the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, 1835, the Estate had incurred considerable debts, which were later substantially increased by the costs of the 1926 Act and the 1933 Arbitration. This debt was eventually cleared by the 1970s out of the proceeds of sale of Schedule IV lands.

The Local Government Act of 1972 saw the dissolution of the old Borough and its replacement by a new District Council which absorbed Berwick Borough and the adjacent Rural District Councils. The new Council was granted Borough status in 1974 by Royal Charter.

The new Borough Council attempted to increase their share of the Freemen's Estate. It offered to buy out the Freemen's interest in the Schedule 111 lands, financial demands were made for administering the Estate and an attempt made to limit the Freemen's Committee expenses. Legal fees in protecting their rights in the Estate had always been a legitimate expense by the Freemen's Committee chargeable on the Estate.

After proposals to promote a Private Act of Parliament were dropped following the failure of a similar Bill promoted by York Council, and after the threat of recourse to the Courts by the Freemen's Committee, wiser counsels prevailed and matters were resolved by negotiation. A realistic basis for determining the expense incurred by the Council for the administration of the Estate was agreed. The Freemen's right to reclaim from the Estate any expenditure in protecting the Freemen's rights was accepted.

This accord resulted in greater co-operation between the Council and the Guild, to the advantage of both the Town and Freemen. The Freemen will continue to protect the Estate. Had they failed in their duty at any of the various threats in the past, the Estate would have been lost and Berwick would have been poorer for the loss. The Town Hall is funded from the Estate and is provided without cost for the use of the Borough and the Freemen. There is substantial income to the Borough from the Estate. Both these items result in a substantial saving to the Council Tax payer. There must be doubt as to whether the Estate would have survived to provide these advantages without the dedicated work of many Freemen through the ages.