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The Modern Honour

The title of Honorary Freeman is the highest honour the Council can bestow. In previous years it has been given to William Booth, Jessie Boot and Albert Ball, among others. More recent honours include Doug Scott, Torvill and Dean, Brian Clough and Paul Smith. It was last awarded in October 2014 to Carl Froch.

The Honorary Freemen of the Boroughs Act 1885 authorised the granting of the title "Honorary Freeman" to persons "of distinction" who had "rendered eminent service" to the town or borough.

Nottingham Council hesitated long and hard before making use of this honour. Finally, in October 1895, it enrolled the first Honorary Freeman for the town, Colonel Charles Seely, in recognition of the many endowments he had bequeathed to the area. It has been used on rare occasions since (see below).

Current arrangements for electing Honorary Freemen

The Council has the power, by section 249(5) of the Local Government Act 1972, to admit "persons of distinction and persons who have in the opinion of the Council, rendered eminent services to the City, Borough or Royal Borough" as Honorary Freeman.

Consideration will be given to the following:

  1. The recipient must be a person of distinction or who has, in the opinion of the Council, rendered eminent service to the City

  2. By implication, it will be expected that the decision to honour the person will be widely supported by the Council and the City

Place of birth or current abode need not prevent anyone being given the honour.

The granting of "Honorary Freedom" to an individual should not be confused with the granting of "Freedom of the City" to a military organisation such as the Mercian Regiment. In the latter case there is a right to march through the city. The two types of honour are completely different.

A resolution has to be passed by a two thirds majority at a special meeting of Council.

The Admission Ceremony

  • There will be speeches of nomination
  • A resolution of full Council (if not previously transacted) is made
  • The recipient swears the oath and signs a roll of honour which is kept for this purpose by the city
  • They are then given a certificate of Admission which is kept in a specially made Freedom Casket
  • The recipient is then able to make a speech of thanks

By custom the Council will try to make the whole day special for the recipient, who may be given the opportunity to visit parts of the city which are special to them or to which they have attributed their work or their success. Part of the day will usually be given over to a celebration event to which guests will be invited. A programme will be worked out in advance by the civic office.

Finally the person's name is added to the honours board hanging in the Council House foyer.

Honorary Freedom of the City, in the modern day, carries no specific rights and privileges, but invitations are sometimes extended to attend special civic events

Origins of and qualifications

The original concept of "Freeman" is very ancient; it has its origins in the historic Saxon, Danish, and Norman Feudal systems of government and society. Freemen were the Burgesses of the town. Originally perhaps they were considered to be "freemen" as opposed to "slaves". However, they may have got their title because they were town dwellers and, unlike villeins and serfs, they were not tied to landed plots in the feudal system.  They were thus "free" from obligation to any feudal lord, other than the King. The Royal Charter of 1199 seems to support this theory when it states that if anyone "abides" in the borough "for a year and a day, without being claimed by his lord, no one shall afterwards have legal claim on him, except the King himself."

At the time of Edward the Confessor there were 173 Burgesses in the town. From the earliest years many of the Burgesses became the traders and merchants of Nottingham and, by King John's time, their society formed the Guild of Merchants. As the feudal system broke down, qualification to be a Burgess Freeman became more exclusive as they sought to protect their commercial advantages. The first sons of Freemen would automatically qualify upon reaching their 21st birthday. Other persons could apply to be a Freeman after the completion of an apprenticeship of seven years. The Freeman qualification could also be purchased from the Corporation in certain circumstances. In other cases it could be given as an honour. On being admitted, the Freeman took an oath and his name was inscribed on a roll. However, as a consequence of these strict rules of entry, it followed that an ever growing part of the town population were not Burgesses. Large sections of the population had little or no chance to set up business or competition and had no real say in the town government.

The purchase of Freeman status had long ceased by 1882, but the Nottingham Corporation Act ended the creation of freemen by apprenticeship and limited the creation of freemen by birth to children alive when the Act came into force.

The Act also provided for annuities to be paid to the existing freemen and their widows under certain conditions. As there are now no surviving annuitants a Freemen's Committee is no longer appointed.

The Honorary Freedom of Borough Act 1885 authorised the granting of status of Honorary Freeman to persons of distinction and persons who have rendered eminent service to the borough. Similar powers were preserved by the Local Government Acts of 1933 and 1972.

Freemen's Rights

Over the years Burgess Freemen accumulated rights which were guaranteed by a succession of Royal Charters. These rights, evolving over centuries, included:

  • the right to participate in the government of the town corporation and especially the right to elect the Common Council
  • the right to be exempt from borough tolls and tithes. This may be the basis behind the often repeated assertion that Freemen "have the right to drive sheep over Trent Bridge" since tolls were normally charged for crossing the bridge
  • trading rights and monopolies within the local area
  • the right to be able to graze cattle on the "common lands", which were mainly situated to the north, on either side of Mansfield Road and to the south, in the Meadows area
  • (for senior Freemen) the right of access to grow crops on specific "Burgess Parts" - small allotments of land available at minimal rent

The Freemen's hold on town affairs was most clearly confirmed by the Charter of 1449 which granted to the Mayor and Burgesses (and their successors) all their previous rights and declaring that Nottingham would "be a County of itself".

It might be said that, for the next four centuries, the Burgesses/Freemen of Nottingham ran the town through the Corporation, jealously guarding their rights, levying tolls and restricting the activity of "strangers" who would not be able to set up in competition. However, a much smaller oligarchy emerged from their number - members of the "Livery" or "Clothing". The Clothing asserted exclusive entitlement or control over senior positions in the town government and there were sometimes tensions between this ruling group and the body of Burgesses at large.

Decline and Extinction

By the 1820s, the Freemen's common land privilege had ceased to be a force for prosperity. It was preventing any expansion of the town boundaries and was the cause of incredible misery for the poor crammed into Nottingham's back-to-back housing.

By this time the town had the worst slums in Europe. The Freemen's vested interest blocked several attempts to try to change this. Eventually the 1835 Municipal Reform Act abolished all the "close" charter corporations, thus ending the Freemen's monopoly of influence over town government.

From then on a further series of Parliamentary Acts (supported by the newly formed town council) began to further erode the position of the Freemen. The 1845 In closure Act at last gave authority for Nottingham to begin the process of expansion onto the remaining 1070 acres of common land. The process was long and financially complicated. Freemen were compensated for being forced to give up their grazing rights and their property interests were incorporated into a landed estate controlled by a committee elected by themselves (the Freemen's Estate).

The remaining rights and status of the Freemen were effectively removed by the 1882 Nottingham Corporation Act. The Freemen's Estate, in its old form, was dissolved and the property rights transferred to the Borough of Nottingham. The admission of Freemen by birth was limited to those children alive when the Act came into force and there were to be no further admissions by means of apprenticeship. This virtually ensured that the body of Freemen would die out within a hundred years.

The reconstituted Freemen's Estate, under a reformed joint committee of councillors and Freemen, continued to earn income from rents and investments.

As compensation, provision was made for surviving senior Freemen, and their widows, to continue to receive annuity payments of up to £20 each from the Estate. To qualify, a Freeman had to have served 28 years on the Freemen's roll. At the time of the Act there were 559 Freemen who qualified as annuitants. There were probably as many again who did not qualify.

The Freemen's Estate and the Freemen's committee continued until very recent times. Originally, any shortfall in income was made up from the Borough Rates. In later years the Estate provided a net profit to the corporation.

As the ancient office began a road to extinction, its successor, The Honorary Freemen of the Boroughs Act 1885, was born.