The Freemen of England and Wales
As early as 1928 Guilds from Berwick, Newcastle and Durham met to discuss the possibility of an association of Freemen Guilds. It was recognized at that time that this could take some time as it was not certain which towns and cities had active guilds. Berwick voted £10 10s to help organize meetings. Various meetings were held before the Second World War.
In 1948 the City of Newcastle attempted to take over the freemen’s rights to the Town Moor. Newcastle freemen sought and received the support of the Berwick and Durham Guilds and the proposal was dropped.
This sparked a renewed interest in an Association of Freemen. In June, 1951, there was a celebration Service for the Festival of Britain held by the Merchant Adventurers Guild. Discussions following this service agreed to attempt to form an association. Meetings followed in Richmond and South Shields, between Lorne Robson, the Chairman of the Stewards Committee of Newcastle and Thomas Evans, the Chairman of Berwick Guild. Contact was made with Coventry and Alnwick.
York freemen constituted themselves into a Guild and also joined. This brought Harry Ward into contact with the other Guilds and he was to provide the driving force in the organization of the new Association.
By this time reorganization of local government was being muted with a number of towns with Guilds threatened with losing their status.
In October, 1966, the first AGM of the new Association, the Freemen of England, was constituted in York. This was to have been chaired by the Chairman of Berwick Guild, Thomas Evans. Unfortunately he died in September and the meeting was Chaired by Arthur Cairns Chairman of the Berwick Guild. It was agreed that the new Association would have a Court meeting in March and AGM in September. The Court meeting would be one representative from each guild and would be the Executive Committee of the Association. Harry Ward was elected President and Mr.Marr from Alnwick, chairman. After the Freemen from Wales joined the name was changed to the Freemen of England and Wales.
The first task was to deal with the Act reorganizing local government. In the original form this would have abolished freemen and guilds. FEW employed Parliamentary Agents and a Queen’s Council to monitor the bill through Parliament and protect the interests of Freemen. Several clauses were altered to achieve this and an additional clause added stating that and property and other rights pertaining to freemen would be preserved irrespective of any other article in the Act.
However in 1986 the City of York proposed a bill through Parliament to take over the York Strays. The York Pasture Masters had little money to oppose this bill, but FEW provided financial support and advice. The Berwick Guild contributed £1000 each to York Pasture Masters and the FEW fighting fund. The bill was lost at a cost of £100,000 to York Council, who also had to start their local government Bill from start without reference to the York Strays.
Thus within it’s first twenty years the Association had faced up to and succeeded in protecting freemen’s rights on two major occasions and justified the reasons for it’s formation. This furtherance of Freemen’s rights remains the major purpose of FEW.
Thus when local government was again reorganized in 2009, FEW was able to ensure the rights and privileges of Freemen were once again protected.
An important aim of FEW is to research information regarding the freedom in various cities and towns in England and Wales and enable this information to be made available to a wide variety of organizations and individuals. All Freemen Guilds are different and FEW enabled an awareness of the traditions and purpose of other Guilds. Our first President, Harry Ward, recognized this and produced his book, ‘the Freemen of England’. The difficulty of this will be recognized as 20 years have been spent in trying to update this information. Your new President was archivist for many years and collected and shared many important documents which have been passed to FEW from individual Guilds.
The AGM of the Freemen of England and Wales has been held in Berwick on two past occasions in 1980 and 1994. We are pleased to welcome you and