Durham City Freemen's Records

Scope and Content

The collection principally contains the records created by the Clerk and Receiver to the Trustees of the Freemen of Durham City: it also includes some freemen admission records dating from before the trustees and their clerk were appointed by the1801 Act inclosing the moors on the north edge of Durham City. These records concern the administration of the Freemen's property and the regular distribution of profits issuing therefrom to the Freemen, the defence of their rights, and the regularappointment of new trustees. The Freemen's property included Union Hall Farm on Brasside Moor, and a common right to the herbage on The Sands on the east side of the River Wear in Durham City, but also extending to lands on the west side of the Wearat Framwellgate Waterside. Prior to the creation of the Trustees in the 1801 Act, occasional records of Durham City freemen acting in a coordinated manner, if not yet strictly as a legally defined body, will not be found in this collection, butrather in the Durham City Guild Records collection, and of course in the records of the city Corporation (see below).

Administrative / Biographical History

The Freemen of Durham City have always been closely linked with the freemen of the city's guilds or trade companies, the records of which guilds are also held in our Special Collections. Freemen of the guilds have always been freemen of DurhamCity, and indeed it is usually essential for a man (and now woman) to be admitted as a freeman of a guild before the freedom of the city can be conferred, although honorary freemen of the city have been created from time to time without goingthrough this process; the latter do not enjoy the same privileges as ordinary freemen. Qualification for admission as a freeman of a trade company was generally achieved either by patrimony or by servitude, i.e. by being the son, formerly in most ofthe guilds the eldest son, of a freeman, or by serving an apprenticeship, originally of seven years, then (after the passing of the Durham Corporation Act 1932, but in practice from the early 1940s) five years, to a freeman master working at thetrade of his guild within the city. In recent years these criteria have been somewhat relaxed to admit a wider selection of persons by patrimony and apprenticeship. Durham City Freemen are currently admitted under the provisions of the City ofDurham Act 1985 and through the medium of recent equality legislation which makes provision for the admission of women. Candidates over the age of eighteen can apply having completed a Durham full-time apprenticeship of not less than three years, orby patrimony being the son or daughter of a Freeman. Prior to the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, s.202 of which prohibits admissions by gift or purchase, companies sometimes also used to admit, by gift or redemption, non-trading gentlemen freemenand traders whose apprenticeships had been served elsewhere, though the latter is a rare occurrence. This means of admission by the particular decision of the wardens was re-activated by the 1985 Act: these now are gentlemen and lady freemen whoserights thenceforward through patrimony are the same as with those regularly entitled. Freemen swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown and to the bishop of Durham upon their admission.

Freemen have formerly had the following rights: to put up a stall in the open market place on market day without payment; (those residing in the city and suburbs), to receive a share of the income from property belonging to the Freemen, i.e.Union Hall Farm on Brasside Common; to the herbage on The Sands (the freehold of which belongs to the County Council), and from which common right accrues rents of fairs and encroachments which are also distributed among the resident freemen; tohold meetings in the guildhall (the freehold of which is also the County Council's).

From 1602 onwards, under a charter granted to the city by Bishop Matthew of Durham, the Freemen of the city were the only electors and the only candidates for election to the city council, an exclusive right which they retained until the passingof the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. Except for a brief time during the Commonwealth period, when a member (a mercer) was returned in 1654 and 1656, the city did not secure parliamentary representation until 1678, from which date until 1832the Freemen formed the exclusive franchise for the city's two seats, so greatly enhancing their status. Records of the Freemen's involvement in elections throughout this period can be traced in this and the Durham City Guild Records collections, andin the related collections listed below. An increasingly lax city freedom admissions regime weakened the guildsmen's commercial control in the city and provoked a corporation by-law in 1728. This attempted to curb the fraudulent creation of freemen,a popular political tactic, and reassert the guilds' monopoly on the city's trades by stipulating that applications for admission to the freedom, or freelage, of the trade companies and the city could only be accepted if called and approved at threedifferent guilds. These were quarterly assemblies of the mayor and aldermen of the City of Durham and borough of Framwellgate together with the wardens and stewards of the city guilds, the records of which meetingsare held at the County Record Office (DCRO Du 5): the modern procedure followed at such meetings is described in Morris (1984). This system of admission through guilds still prevails, although a freeman's admittance into a particular guild has longsince ceased to indicate any involvement in such a trade.

The Freemen held rights of common on the moors bordering the north of the city, and upon their inclosure in the early 19th century they were allotted land on Brasside Moor, later called Freemen's Farm or Union Hall Farm. Trustees of the Freemenwere appointed in the Inclosure Act for the management of this land and the distribution of its rental income through the wardens of the city's guilds, accounts of which appear in many of the guilds' subsequent records. The Union Hall Farm waspurchased from the Freemen by the War Office in February 1940, which at the same time acquired the underlying clay from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The Freemen also possess and still exercise a right to the herbage on The Sands in Durham City,the freehold of which is the property of the Corporation of Durham, now Durham County Council. With the exception of Freemen's Farm and its income, all such rights and incomes of the Freemen are and have been managed by the Wardens (selected fromeach guild) and their chairman: this body operates independently of the Freemen's Trustees and their Clerk, but the Clerk also acts as Receiver and in which capacity is also responsible for rents derived from Sands leases. Rents from propertiesencroaching on The Sands were divided by a 1850 Agreement, two thirds to the Freemen and one third to the Corporation. This formula was latterly also applied to other income generated from activities on The Sands: events, most often fairs andcircuses, occupying The Sands compensate the Freemen for occupying the herbage; wayleaves have also been granted on the same principle. Payments to the Freemen's Trustees for fishing rights at Union Hall Farm are also found in the accounts.

The Freemen's Trustees meet regularly with the Wardens of the guilds, formerly four times a year, to identify those resident freemen entitled to a share in the bi-annual distribution of the Freemen's income, and to make such distributions;latterly these distributions have occurred annually, and the Trustees have therefore met twice a year. The Wardens of the eight surviving guilds of freemen hold separate monthly meetings under their chairman. From 23 October 1953 and until itswinding up in September 1997 the Freemen's Trustees have also been the Trustees of the John Kirby Charity, a fund originally established in 1681 to support widows and impoverished members of the Mercers' Company. The current activities of the DurhamCity Freemen may be followed on their website


  • DCF 1: Minutes and accounts, 1830-1988
  • DCF 2: Admission and membership records, 1754-2016
  • DCF 3: Correspondence, 1865-2009
  • DCF 4: Vouchers and other financial records, 1875-1991
  • DCF 5: Deeds and plans, 1810-1970
  • DCF 6: Freemen of England, 1968-1972
  • DCF 7: Poll book; printed historical guides; and other papers, 1761-1984
  • DCF 8: Objects, 20th century

Conditions Governing Access

For readers wishing to consult records created within the preceding fifty years, permission of the Clerk to the Freemen's Trustees will be required. Please contact the library some time in advance of your visit. All other records are open forconsultation.

Acquisition Information

Durham City Freemen records have been deposited with the Department of Palaeography and Diplomatic (since 1990 part of the Special Collections department of Durham University Library) and Durham University Library by the Clerk to the Freemen'sTrustees in several accessions since 1951 or 1969. Further deposits are expected. Other Freemen material deposited and donated to the library over the years by trustees, wardens or individual freemen was formerly listed in the Small Gifts andDeposits collection, and is now incorporated here. One volume was transferred from the Durham City Guild Records collection: many others of the guilds' volumes contain copies of Freemen's Trustees records, usually as pertains to a particular companyand its share in the division of Union Hall Farm rents, or as relate to joint legal actions and costs thereof.

Other Finding Aids


An index of Durham City freemen is available, compiled from membership records in both the Durham City Guild (DCG) and Freemen (DCF) RecordsCollections: in addition an index of apprentices for each Durham guild has been compiled from these same collections, and is available online via the Durham City Guild Records collection catalogue, orin the search room at Palace Green Library.

Admission registers and indexes, 1754-1815, are found at DCF 2/1-6, some of which indexes refer to admission records, 1742-1919, held at Durham County Record Office, Durham City Records collection, Du 5/1/12-184. The County Record Office holds anindex of freemen (no.716; compiled from DCRO Du 5/1/12-17), 1742-1802. The minutes of Guild meetings, 1728-1949, are also held by the County Record Office (Du 5/1/1-11), to which meetings persons applying to be admitted as freemen were called inorder that their qualifications for admission might be verified: a microfilm of indices to volumes Du 5/1/1-7 (1728-1908) is held in Durham University Library (5TC 160).

Separated Material

Records relating to the Durham City Freemen are in several collections held by the Durham County Record Office. For a detailed listing see the full catalogue.

Glamis Castle Archives: volume H - poll books and return etc. for the 27 March 1678, and 20 February 1679 elections.

Durham Cathedral Library: RAI 5/81: poll book for the 10 September 1679 election. JJH 31/10: transcripts of 13 January 1701 and 14 May 1705 poll books.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of material from the collection must be sought in advance from the Sub-Librarian, Special Collections (e-mail PG.Library@durham.ac.uk) and, where appropriate, from the copyright owner. The Library will assistwhere possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Related Material

Durham City Guild Records (DCG): all freemen of the Durham City guilds are also Freemen of the city. Before the (much protracted) 1801 enclosure of Framwellgate Moor, discussion of which began c. 1690s, recordedinstances in the guild records of the freemen of the different companies combining toward a particular aim are rare and tend to relate to the defence of their privileges - against the bishop (over tolls in 1758, for example), the city Corporation(over voting irregularities in 1761 or 1802, for example), or mercantile interlopers (frequently). Other more proactive, but again poorly documented, cases of such coordinated activity include the foundation of Durham College in the 1650s, RiverWear navigation in the 1750s and a canal in the Team Valley in 1796, obtaining a new Charter of Incorporation for the city in the 1770s, and a petition against the Shop Tax in 1786. After the passing of an Act to inclose the moors to the north ofthe city, by which the Freemen were allotted Union Hall Farm on Brasside Moor and trustees were appointed to manage the estate, extracts of the minutes and accounts of the Freemen's Trustees are quite often found, particularly as they relate to thebi-annual division of the profits of the Freemen's property which were distributed by the wardens of the companies among those of their freemen resident in the city. In some cases lists of resident freemen and (particular companies') annual accountsof such distributions only survive in the records of particular guilds, and which are noted as appropriate below. The Guilds collection also contains an election agent's canvas book for the 19 June 1818 election, the provenance of which is not yetfully understood.

Printed Collections: a large number of items, and much parliamentary election material, is listed in the library catalogue, including several poll books for Durham City elections and by-elections, 1761-1832.

Baker Baker Papers (BAK): the Baker and (allied by marriage) Conyers families were politically active in the city in the early 18th century, and the papers include many records relating to city elections, includingcanvas books, election accounts and ephemera.


Colgrave, B., Durham freemen and the gilds, (1946). Dodds, M. H., The Bishops' boroughs, Archaeologia Aeliana, 3rd series, 12 (1915), 81-185. Gibby, C. W., Admission of freemen of the city of Durham, [1968]. Gibby, C. W., Durham freemen and the guilds, (1971). Hutchinson, W., The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, (1785-1794). Morris, R. J. B., The City of Durham. Its town hall, guildhall and civic traditions, (1984). Newby, Forms of oath administered to the freemen of Durham, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 3rd series, vol. III (January 1097-December 1908). Pegge, J. T., Municipal history and works of a small city [Durham], Journal of the Institution of Municipal Engineers, vol. 1, no. 3 (September 1909), 79-98. Spearman, J., An enquiry into the ancient and present state of the county palatine of Durham, (1729). Surtees, R., The history and antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, vol. 4 (1840). Todd, Mary, Civic government of Durham 1780-1835 (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Liverpool, 1924). A copy is held in Durham University Library. Todd, Mary, The civic government of Durham [1780-1835], being a collection of five articles published in the Durham University Journal, 1931-1932. Whiting, C. E., The Durham trade gilds, parts I and II, Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, 9 part 2 (1941), 143-262, and9 part 3 (1943), 265-416.