Calling all Freemen!

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
August 2023

Kate Chapman discovers the history and heritage of the City of Lincoln Freemen’s Gild as it prepares to host its prestigious AGM in the city this autumn.

For generations Freemen formed the governing bodies of the nation’s boroughs and cities, and although their role is now more ceremonial, anyone with the hereditary right to membership of the City of Lincoln Freemen’s Gild is being urged to come forward and show their support as it hosts a prestigious event.

Members of the Lincoln Gild are busy planning and organising for the Freemen of England and Wales AGM, which takes place in the city in September, and they would love to see as many Freemen of Lincoln as possible attend.

years ago Freemen were responsible for running the city and were the only people with the right to vote for MPs, but now their function is more ceremonial – working alongside the city’s Mayor, enhancing the reputation of Lincoln, promoting it and raising money for good causes.

“We’re trying to get as many Freemen as possible to come and join us in September,” she added.

“We’ve taken over the baton from Grimsby, which hosted the event last year via Zoom to keep it going.

This year is the 56th AGM and now we’re post-pandemic, it will be nice to be able to see people in person again, we’re just not sure how many are going to come out and join us – so this really is a call out to the families of Lincoln to get involved.”

Long history
Lincoln has previously hosted the AGM twice before – in 1973 and 2006. As well as the meeting itself, this year’s event includes a banquet on 23rd September at the Lincoln Hotel, and a special church service the following day featuring the Freemen’s Prayer and hymn.

The Gild has a long and complicated history and is not to be confused with the Freemasons, which is a different organisation. Angela explains that prior to 1835 the only people who could vote in MP elections were a city’s Freemen.

“Back in those days, there were three ways of obtaining the title of Freeman and they were being an apprentice to a master of a particular craft, or by purchasing it, and by gift of the city, or borough as they were known back then.

“The majority of Freemen became so after completing a seven-year apprenticeship, in various trades such as stonemason, carpenter, the cloth trade, which they normally did between the ages of 14 and 21. From there they went on to join a craft guild.”

Hereditary line
From 1835, following the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, members of the city council could be elected from a wider body of citizens, instead of the old way, when only Freeman were chosen to sit on the common council.

“Guilds were responsible for trade, security and other things that would fall under the remit of a city council. They became too powerful, the men who were running them were too powerful – things were not as fair as they could be,” adds Angela. “Women didn’t get the vote until the 1900s, so it was very male dominated too.”

Instead, men were encouraged to complete their apprenticeship, become a Freeman and then pass that title to their sons, to carry on the name through the hereditary line. Notables such as Joseph Ruston and groups such as RAF Waddington have also been granted the freedom of  the city and there is a separate Honorary Freemen’s Roll but this title cannot be passed down.

“It was after 1835 that it became a ceremonial role. Around the interwar period, the number of people taking up apprenticeships began to dwindle, not just in Lincoln, but everywhere, the guilds were disappearing and now most cities outside of London no longer have more than one guild,” adds Angela.

Declining numbers
Harry Ward, a Freeman of York realised the numbers of guilds was declining nationally and along with support from the Freemen, he set up a new organisation to bring all the guilds in the country together, to support each other and encourage the continuation of the historic honour. The Freemen of England was established in 1966 and went on to become the Freemen of England and Wales, of which the Lincoln Gild is a member.

Angela adds: “The City of Lincoln Freemen’s Gild reformed in 1972 and went through a tough time in the 1980s and 1990s. As the 1980s passed there was more legislation surrounding equality between the sexes and in the 1990s guilds began to allow female members.

“Lincoln realised [that] if it didn’t do something it would soon run out of families and would run out of hereditary Freemen if it only continued to allow the male line. Even at this time, people were not staying in one place, they were moving around between cities, making it more difficult to encourage new Freemen. So, in 1999 Lincoln became one of the first cities to allow women to take up the opportunity and between 1999 and 2000 more than 100 ladies took up the role of hereditary Freemen. The Gild went from strength to strength until the pandemic.”

Welcoming new members
Today the organisation is a ceremonial one and works to promote and support the Mayor of Lincoln. Freemen don green and gold gowns and attend events such as the Remembrance Day Service at Lincoln Cathedral, RAF Waddington Freedom Parade and the Mayor’s Civic Service.

Angela says their role entails promoting the city and raising money for the Mayor’s charity through events including fairs, Christmas markets and even Santa runs. In the last few years they have raised money for various wards at Lincoln County Hospital, Macmillan Cancer Support, St Barnabas Hospice and for the Tritton Road Tank Memorial.

“Our average age is slightly higher than we would like, so we’d really love to welcome some younger members and are giving a call out to the families of Lincoln to come forward if they think they have a hereditary right to become a Freeman.”

All the historic family names are registered in the Freemen’s Roll. Some members can trace their ancestors back several generations, while others may have links through the female lines in their family tree.

“We can check if someone thinks their relative’s name is on there and see if they were a Freeman, sometimes it can come down the female line,” adds Angela. “There are lots of Bristows, Codds, Roses, Priestleys, Storrs, Froggatts and Otters listed – so if someone thinks they have a hereditary right we can check it out to confirm it. We really would love to have more members come forward, especially to help support the AGM later this year.”

To find out more about the Gild and the AGM, or if you’d like to investigate whether you have a hereditary claim email:

Photographs: City of Lincoln Freemen’s Gild

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