The Freemen of Great Grimsby
The origins of the Freemen (or free Burgesses as they were originally known) of the Borough of Great Grimsby is lost in antiquity but probably goes back to the 11th century. The rights and privileges of the freemen were gradually acquired during the successive centuries that followed.
Trevelyan's History of England dealing with the period around 1070AD reveals that the Normans were sweeping up the country to subdue the northerners and I will read out an interesting paragraph which has a strong bearing on the origins of the freemen.
"Not only the lands north of the Humber but Lincolnshire and East Anglia received the new civilisation but at a heavy price in human freedom. The freemen of the Danelaw had hitherto kept at arms length even the Anglo-Saxon form of feudalism. Many of them could 'go with their land' to what lord they would and some villages had no lord at all.
The proportion of freemen was much greater in the Danish districts than elsewhere in England, but the Normans put an end to these old-fashioned liberties and imposed the French system of strictly territorial feudalism on the Scandinavian north and east of England. The Danish freemen, in most cases, sank into villeins of the manor, yet in prosperous Lincolnshire some of the villeins remained well-to-do and in certain legal aspects, freemen.
We may, therefore, safely draw the inference that the freemen held their rights through the legal system introduced by the Danes.
Again, when Professor Trevelyan described the Manorial System he divided the inhabitants of the Manor into:-
(a) Lord of the Manor
(b) Yeoman Freeholder or freeman
(c) Villeins or serfs
The difference between freemen and serfs was not so much in their possession of land - for all held this of the Lord - as in the duties that accompanied that possession. Both freemen and serfs held their own plots but the villein was tied to the Manor, whereas the freeman, having left the Manor for a year and a day, could not be reclaimed by the Lord of the Manor. (In Grimsby the Corporation takes the place of the Ancient Lord of the Manor and anyone claiming freedom must first reside in the town for a year and a day before his other qualifications of Birth, Marriage or Servitude (to which I will refer again later) can gain him admittance to the Freemen's Roll).
As I am sure you are all aware, the first Royal Charter was granted to Grimsby by King John in1201 and in that Charter it stated specifically "This we have also granted to them that all Burgesses, meaning freemen, shall be quit of all toll and lastage throughout al England and Wales and havens of the sea except the City of London". Lastage was a toll payable to the owners of markets or fairs for permission to sell goods.
In order to establish his claim it was necessary for a merchant to obtain a Certificate of Exemption under the seal of the Mayor and to carry it with him on his travels.
Other rights granted by the Charter enabled the freemen to elect a chief magistrate from one of their number and to set up a court comprised of Mayor and Free Burgesses.
This Charter together with the Royal Charter granted by Edward II in 1319 conferred great benefits to the freemen because of this freedom from tolls.
If we examine a list of some of the tolls payable by a non-freeman or a foreigner we shall have some idea of the extent to which freemen benefited from their exemption.
The tolls included the following:-
Stallage on erecting a stall in the market
Terrage for the use of the ground on which the stall was erected
Lastage on all goods sold from the stall
Minage on all corn sold by measure
Hausage on fastening a cable to his ship when mooring
Anchorage on dropping anchor
Keyage on loading or unloading ship
Passage on being conveyed anywhere by ferry
Pavage towards the cost of repairs of the streets
Ponage for the repairs of bridges
Quite a formidable list of charges to face non-freemen and quite a considerable benefit to those privileged freemen.
It is also interesting to note that in 1390 the Mayor, Bailiffs and Burgesses of Grimsby also claimed to be exempt from anchorage tolls at Calais, which had been in English possession since 1347.
The 1201 Charter also included a retaliation clause:- "And if anyone anywhere in England shall take toll or custom of the men of Grimsby (except as above in the City of London) after he shall have failed in right the Reeve of Grimsby shall take distraint at Grimsby". Presumably from the tradesmen of that town, subsequently coming to trade in Grimsby.
It was not always possible to enforce either the exemption of freedom from toll or the retaliation clause and disputes often arose between rival boroughs as, for example, between Grimsby and the Mayor of Lincoln in 1196, and when tolls were unjustly taken at Torksey, Nottingham and Gainsborough in the same century. There were also disputes between the Mayor of Grimsby and the Abbot of Wellow who often repudiated the right of the burgesses to take toll from those who lived in Wellow.
An Act of Parliament of 1796, incorporating the Grimsby Haven Company, passed to enable the company to construct the 'New' dock almost on the site of the original Old Haven, abolished all the dues and tolls at the port except those on the wharves which were reserved to the freemen.
As late as 1890, when the Council sold the West Marsh Lane Wharf to the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company for £500, the freemen established their rights and received £200 as this was one of the wharves at which they had been free from toll.
How much this 'freedom from toll' meant to the freemen of Grimsby is difficult to assess. To the wealthy merchants of the town it must have been quite a considerable financial advantage and to the small traders, shopkeepers and artisans there would be some financial benefit but to the majority of the freemen who worked for an employer there was no benefit whatsoever.
Perhaps the most valuable privilege enjoyed by the freemen of Grimsby (certainly in the form of financial advantage) was the right to vote at both Parliamentary and Municipal Elections. Of the two it was the Parliamentary vote which was the most valuable.
Parliaments (at which representatives from cities and Chartered Boroughs attended) were not entirely new when the Borough of Grimsby was first directed in 1283 by King Edward I to send two burgesses to a Parliament held at Shrewsbury. They had then been in existence for nineteen years and were held at various cities by decree of the king, who presided over them.
Unfortunately, the names of the two burgesses are not recorded, but, twelve years later, in 1295, Gilbert de Reyner and William de Dovedale attended the 'model' Parliament at Westminster which was to set the pattern for future assemblies. His was the first fully representative Parliament at which to knights from every Shire, two citizens from every city and two burgesses from every chartered town sat with the Bishops, earls and barons. It was not a consultative assembly, but merely met to be advised by the king of his 'financial requirements'. In 1298 it is recorded that John Elmed and Gilbert Wyem attended a Parliament and two year later two others attended at Lincoln.
With very few exceptions Grimsby continued to send two members to successive Parliaments until the Reform Act of 1832 reduced the number of representative to one. It was also in 1832 that the freemen of Grimsby lost their monopoly of the right to vote at Parliamentary Elections.
This Act brought to an end the absolute right of the freemen to manage the affairs of the borough, a right that had existed from 1298 to 1831, a period of 533 years.
The exclusive rights of the freemen to vote at Municipal and Parliamentary Elections forms an interesting part of the history of the Grimsby freemen and from which, at time, the freemen do not emerge with great credit.
The election of the Mayor took place at an Annual Mayor's Court held on the first Tuesday after the Festival of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, that is to say the 21st September. The actual poll was taken in the Parish Church and many severe contests took place. The rival candidates had open public houses, consequently sobriety on such occasions was not the predominating characteristic of the burgesses. Anderson Bates recalls many lively scenes in the church itself during the poll and the churchyard became a battleground of drunken freemen. On one occasion two freemen's wives stood up and settled their differences by a battle over the graves of their ancestors.
Each freeman received five shillings out of the Corporate Fund for voting at such elections. The candidates supplied beer at their own expense. Before the repeal of the Corporation Test Act the Mayor, accompanied by members of the Corporation, attended church on the Sunday following the election - no doubt sobered up by then - and took the sacrament. That the sacrament had been given was certified by the officiating minister and churchwardens and witnessed by two freemen - this was an essential qualification for the office of Mayor.
You will appreciate that when the right to vote is held by a comparatively small number of the inhabitants of a borough then those privileged few become particularly important at the time of an election. In the days before 1831 when two candidates were returned for the borough there were usually at least four persons putting up for Parliament, people who were prepared to give bribes to the freemen in exchange for their votes.
In fairness it must be said that bribery was not confined to Grimsby, it was fairly common throughout the country, particularly where there was competition between rival landowners for the privilege of being able to nominate candidates for Parliament. In 1667, for example, it was recorded in the diary of Samuel Pepys that he had been talking to Sir Fretchville Holles, son of Gervasse Holles MP and historian, who is reported as saying that "the election would cost him as much as his predecessor (Sir Adrian Scope) £350 for ale and £52 for buttered ale". This was probably an exaggeration since only 49 freemen voted.
Again, in the beginning of the 19th century Charles Tennyson sent a Christmas gift of coal to voters and this was matched by John Fazackerley and John Grant who sent them flour and beef.
It was usual for freemen to expect to be paid to exercise their privilege of voting. Perhaps the worst example of bribery and corruption was during the election of 1790 - known as the Pole and Wood election. The Hon William Wesley Pole and Robert Wood were the unsuccessful Tory candidates. The Tory colour at that time was red - the Whigs being blue. They petitioned successfully against the result which was declared void, but Wesley Pole, who was a Naval Officer and a Member of the Irish Parliament, was found guilty of bribery. The petition which was heard by the Select Committee of the House of Lords was presented on the grounds that many of the people who had voted were ineligible as they were not properly admitted freemen. An illustration of this point, given at the hearing, concerned a person living in Wellowgate at a house outside which was one of the Blue Stones which marked the boundaries of the Borough. The question was whether or not this person was born in Grimsby, or born on the other side of the Blue Stone, or in that part of the house which was the other side of the Blue Stone, the other side being in the Rural District of Caistor. It was revealed at the hearing that the bed of the person's mother, just prior to his birth, was moved from that part of the bedroom which was in Caistor Rural District Council into the part of the room which was within the Borough of Grimsby. This submission was accepted and this vote was admitted.
If the votes were so important that these details had to be gone into you will appreciate that Election Campaigns were very exciting indeed. For instance, we are informed that the campaign leading up to the Poe and Wood election lasted for nine months and during that time certain public houses in the town, sponsored by candidates, were open all day with free food and beer for the supporters of the candidates. The cost of the election was enormous particularly as the town in those days had only 900 inhabitants and the number of freemen with the vote was only 275. evidence brought before the House of Lords showed that the price paid to a freeman for his vote in the 1790 election was never less than £20 and the highest price paid was £250, no doubt extracted by a freeman who would not declare his colours until the eve of the Poll. The freemen were notorious in their support one month for one candidate and the next month for the other.
A further difficulty arose through the fact that a non-freeman could marry the daughter or widow of a freeman and immediately take up the vote and there was recounted at the Enquiry into the Pole and Wood Election that a marriage was prevented by the Agent of the opposing candidates locking up the lady intended to be married until after the election, the intended bridegroom having refused a bribe of £30 to postpone the happy day.
Throughout the centuries, as you well know, most boroughs had certain common lands around them and in Grimsby the freemen had special privileges over three of the common lands. These commons were the East marsh - the east part of the town which is now known as the Freeman Street area, the Littlefield and the Haycroft. Each freemen had he privilege to pasture one horse and ten sheep on the East Marsh Pasture and one horse, ten sheep and two beasts on each of the other two pastures, the Common Councillor had the right of half as much again and an Alderman the right to double the amount.
The pastures, or common lands were on the boundaries of the town and the limits of these pastures were marked by Blue Stones similar to the one I referred to earlier.
It was always thought desirable that the freemen and their sons should be shown exactly where the boundaries of the borough were and so, four time a year the Town Crier would go round in the early hours of the morning to the house of each freeman and call out under his window "Bread and ale at 4 o'clock which meant that the freemen and their sons should gather at the Town Hall at 4 o'clock in the morning, have their bread and ale and then move off around the pastures of the Town to ensure that the Blue Stones were in proper position and that there had been no encroachment on their rights.
When the Enclosure Act of 1827 was passed bringing the Common Lands of the Town into the Corporate Property the Rights of Pasturage by the freemen were recognised and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 when resting the Corporate Property in the new Aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough did so subject to the existing rights of freemen, ruling at the same time that freedom could no longer be purchased.
In 1840, 5 years after the Municipal Corporations Act, the Railway Company, in order to continue their lines as far as Grimsby and to construct a dock obtained statutory authority to acquire the necessary land and purchased from the Corporation for £17,000 land over which the freemen held rights of pasturage.
Thereupon, the freemen seeing their rights of pasturage disappearing, raised the point as to whether their rights extended to the purchase money of £17,000 and they engaged the Town Clerk of Scarborough to negotiate with Mr George Babb, the town Clerk of Grimsby. The outcome of this was that a Bill was presented to Parliament - the Pastures Act of 1849 - which not only dealt with the £17,000 but also with the organisation of the freemen and with the future development of the Pastures.
There was no doubt that many of the freemen thought that the proceeds of the sale of this land to the Railway Company would provide them with an immediate gift of cash, but they were speedily disillusioned by George Babb, himself a freeman, who explained that the freemen's estate was granted by Royal Charter for future generations of freemen and could not be dissipated by a payment from the proceeds of the sale of their estate.
During the two years preceding the passing of the Pastures Act negotiations took place between the freemen, the town Clerk and the Railway Company, all of which had different ideas of the value of the land - some thirty-six and a half acres. Whilst accepting that the value of the land would be fixed by arbitration, the freemen requested that a Bond of £50,000 should be deposited by the Railway Company as security to enable them to take immediate possession. This they refused, firstly on the grounds that the figure was exorbitant and secondly that it would prejudice the jury appointed to adjudicate on the valuation. Eventually, on 8th July 1848 a Jury, held at the Town Hall, decided that an amount of £17,000 was considered to be reasonable compensation for the land, just over one third of the amount originally suggested by the freemen.
During the negotiations a Freemen's Rights Committee was meeting regularly and, with the advice of George Babb and William Grange, put together the outline of what was to become the Pastures Act. In July 1848, a full Court of Freemen was held in the Town Hall under the chairmanship of Charles Bennington, shoemaker, when the various proposals were explained by the Town Clerk, acting as Legal Adviser, and discussed in full and despite the obvious disappointment of many who had been hoping for an immediate payout from the £17,000, the proposals were approved unanimously.
The Pastures Act 1849, which governed the affairs of the Grimsby Freemen for the next hundred years made the following provisions:-
(1) The Mayor would take the chair
(2) The Town Clerk and Borough Treasurer would be Clerk and Treasurer respectively to the Freemen
(3) Fourteen Freemen would form the Pastures Committee
(4) All property of the Freemen became vested in the Corporation
(5) Nett income from the compensation of the £17,000, and other land, to be divided as to 1/20th to the Corporation and 19/20ths to the Freemen
(6) The 19/20ths to be divided among all Freemen on the Pastures Roll
(7) Power was granted for leases of land to be granted for building purposes for 99 years by auction
As a result of this Act during the period 1858/1860 building plots on the East Marsh Estate were leased for 99 years chiefly to provide dwellings for the workers on the New Docks, thereby doing a considerable service to the Port. Freeman Street at that time was not recognised as a shopping area.
The act also set out quite clearly how a man could become a freeman:-
(1) Birth: By being the son of a freeman being within the Township of Grimsby who, having attained the age of 21 years and whose father was a fully admitted freeman and resident in the township when the son was born. The son was also obliged to pay rates - what was then called 'Scot and Lot'
(2) Apprenticeship: Upon attaining the age of 21 and having served 7 years with an admitted freeman, provided that the articles were lodged with the Town Clerk within three calendar months of the date thereon, a provision dating back to 1712. An entry on the Court Roll dated 18th June 1790 recorded that William Hobbins was admitted a freeman having been apprenticed to Philip Huntsfield, a joiner. This admission was objected to on the grounds that he had worked for a few months preceding the expiration of his articles under a person who was not a freeman and who lived out of the Borough but the entry states "…it appearing that his Master received the benefit of his time and that he came home to him regularly every weekend and was washed by him" the objection was over-ruled. This also arose out of the Pole and Wood election petition of 1790 and the committee of the House of Commons decided that the vote by William Hobbins to be good. You may wonder at the reference to the week-end wash by the Master what the apprentice did for washing during the rest of the week
(3) Marriage: (a) Marriage to the daughter of a freeman. The oldest record which recognises this custom is an order of Richard II in 1390 whereby it was ordered that all men who had married the daughters of burgesses and who had lived with their wives for a year and within the liberty of the town should pay 20 shillings each (one pound sterling) for holding their burgage and not more according to this ancient custom of the Borough. The story related to Elizabeth I and the ugly girls of Grimsby being in desperate need of a spouse is simply not true. It is interesting to point out that the daughter of a freeman can confer the freedom on all husbands she may marry even though any previous did not apply to be, and was not admitted to the freedom.
(b) Marriage to the widow of a freeman. Those entitled are persons of the age of 21 years who have married the widow of a freeman who were at the time of their death resident admitted Burgesses on the Burgess List and such widows communicate the privilege to any successive husbands they marry.
During the last war, much property on the Freemen's estate had been subject to bombing, some had developed into slums and the Corporation was faced with the problem of slum clearance and redevelopment and needed the powers of compulsory purchase to enable them to carry out their programme.
The freemen, believing that they were about to lose their rights and lands held a number of meetings - many of them quite stormy. At one in particular the Mayor became quite frightened but the Town Clerk, who still held the position of Clerk to the freemen more or less told him to sit tight and keep his mouth shut and, after about five minutes the Town Clerk got up and quickly marched out of the meeting with the Mayor in tow after refusing to answer any of the questions put to him by the angry freemen.
Eventually, the Grimsby Corporations Act 1949 was passed, by which the Corporation was released from their trusteeship of the freemen's lands - a position which had hampered their redevelopment programme - and allowed the freemen to appoint their own Clerk and Treasurer who with the fourteen freemen elected annually on the first Monday in June to serve on the Pastures Committee, look after the Freemen's Estates which, although depleted by compulsory purchases still covers a considerable and important area in Grimsby. They also manage the Freeman Street Market - a covered-in market stretching over an acre of land on which stalls are let out to market traders.
Another privilege claimed by the freemen of Grimsby, at least from the 18th century, was free education for their children at the Corporation Grammar School.
It was King Edward VI's Charter in 1547 which recites "….that the youth of tender years there may be instructed and endued as well in good manners as in a sincere faith towards God to the glory of God and the advantage of our kingdom….to the intent that a free Grammar School may there be instituted for boys and young men to be instructed in grammatical knowledge" i.e. in the Latin tongue, both to speak and write it.
The two schools, since the education was later extended to the daughters as well as the sons of freemen, one on either side of the Town Hall were requisitioned during World War II and the 1944 Education Act set standards with which the old school could not comply and it closed in 1949.
"In spite of the decay of the freemen all over the country and the corruption and inefficiency of Municipal life in the 18th and early 19th centuries and despite some quarrels Grimsby had with neighbouring Lords and communities, we have to remember that it was freemen who governed the town with energy and considerable good sense at the height of its prosperity in the Middle Ages"
Those words are taken from the book 'Grimsby's Freemen' by Lillian Greenfield, a book which is held as a model by freemen throughout the country which, although now out of print, is available form the local library.
Talk delivered by Stephen White, Chairman, to the Annual General Meeting of the Freemen of England and Wales hosted in Grimsby, September 2001.
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