The Admission of Sudbury’s Freemen

The Admission of Sudbury’s Freemen

(Information taken from ‘Suffolk County Town: A Sudbury Miscellany’ by Allan W. Berry; ‘A Short History of the Borough of Sudbury’ compiled from materials collected by W.W. Hodson, by C.F.D. Sperling; ‘History of Sudbury Suffolk’ by C.G. Grimwood and S.A. Kay; Sudbury ‘Cocket Books’ transcribed by Allan W. Berry

The Freedom of Sudbury is a concept of rights and obligations derived from custom and tradition. A Freeman of Sudbury, (the title applies to both men and women), is any person who enjoys those rights and obligations.

  • The history of Sudbury’s Freemen dates back over one thousand years, before the Norman Conquest.  Allan Berry, historian of the Sudbury Freemen, speculated that the Angles and Saxons brought the custom with them from the continent and it developed as their settlements grew into manors and towns.  It is likely that admission to the Freedom was purchased from the Lord of the Manor. (SCT AWB page 180)
  • In the early years of the sixteenth century there was a transition from the authority of the Lord of the Manor to the authority of the Borough. Documentary evidence from1515 indicates that admission to the Freemen was under the control of the burgesses.  Anyone in Sudbury who had a business was forced to become a Freeman, (if they were not already Free of the town) and pay for the privilege. (SCT AWB page 190)
  • During the sixteenth century the rights of the Borough and the Freemen became more clearly defined. A Charter of 1554 confirmed to the Borough the full privileges of a corporate town, governed by “one mayor, six aldermen, four and twenty burgesses, one bailiff, two constables and other common officers”.  The Corporation levied fines on any newcomers to the town if they tried to run a business without first purchasing the Freedom.  (HOSS CGG SAK page 14)
  • The sons of Freemen were admitted to the Freedom when they reached the age of twenty-one.  It was also possible to gain the Freedom through apprenticeship to a Freeman.  Besides gaining the right to run a business in the town, Freemen had other privileges such as exemption from tolls and hunting, hawking and fishing rights on the Freemen’s pastures.  There were also rights to depasture cattle. In 1559 all Freemen, (who were not receiving alms), acquired the right to vote in parliamentary elections. (SCT AWB page 190 – 191)
  • On seeking admittance to the Freedom, each candidate had first to be approved by the “Court of Orders and Decrees” and his name entered into the Cocket, (Register), Book. All newly admitted Freemen had to take an oath which originally included the right to depasture particular animals on the Commons.  Until the middle of the seventeenth century admissions were recorded in the proceedings of the Borough Court – usually only when more important people were admitted. The series of Cocket Books began in 1657 which, with a number of gaps, continues up to the present day.  (SCT AWB page 193)
  • “A Borough Court Order of 17 May 1669, indicates that each Freeman was given evidence of his own admission: ‘To prevent irregularities which have arisen, no person is to have the Freedom of the common unless he shows the Mayor the cocket of his admission to the Freedom of the town’.  This illustrates the separation of the Freedom of the Commons from the Freedom of the Borough.”  (SCT AWB page 194)
  • For much of the eighteenth century there were many sons of Freemen and apprentices of Freemen who were entitled to vote as Freemen without being formally admitted due to a ruling by the Committee of Privileges of the House of Commons in 1703. Enrolments of Freemen by purchase continued for all newcomers to Sudbury. 
  • (SCT AWB page 198)
  • From 1772 all admissions, (by purchase, by birth and by servitude), were recorded in the next Cocket Book, particularly just before elections as the right to vote could be a valuable asset to rich and poor Freemen alike. A small fee was paid by those entitled to the Freedom by birth or through apprenticeship.
  • The 1832 Reform Act preserved the rights of the Freemen but extended the franchise to £10 householders. Non-resident Sudbury Freemen lost their vote unless they lived within seven miles of the town.
  • The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 led to the abolition of the corrupt old Corporation and replaced it with a new one.  It banned the purchase of the Freedom and abolished the exemption from tolls for anyone admitted thereafter but preserved the Freemen’s other traditional rights.  (SCT AWB page 210) After the MCA of 1835 came into force the records do not differentiate between Freedom of the Borough and Freedom of the Commons.
  • Sudbury lost its representation in Parliament after the fateful election of 1841 and the Freemen and the ‘£10 voters’ of the Reform Act were disfranchised in 1844. In the five years after 1844 there was only one admission as the vote had been taken away from the Freemen and there was less incentive to take up the Freedom.  (‘Admissions of Freemen 1838 – 1860’ extracted from the Minutes of the Borough Council by AWB and MB, Introduction)

With the end of their political influence, those claiming their Freedom were mainly artisans and labourers.  (SCT AWB page 221)

All candidates for admission had to be the son of a Freeman and must be born within the boundaries of the Borough.  (HOSS CGG SAK page 19)

  • An Act of Parliament in the late 19th century allowed mayors and corporations of boroughs to pay tribute to the national or local work of particular people by granting them the Honorary Freedom of the town.  (HOSS CGG SAK page 18)

This was already a tradition in Sudbury and had occurred much earlier in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Thomas Fonnereau, of Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich, for example, was made an Honorary Freeman of Sudbury in 1774 and Henry Watts Wilkinson, Vicar of St. Gregory’s, in 1825. 

In 1893 the famous Cambridge surgeon, Sir George Murray Humphry, (whose portrait hangs in the Mayor’s Parlour), received an Honorary Freedom. (He would have been entitled to take up the Freedom anyway as he was born in Sudbury, the son of a Freeman.)  Twelve members of the Sudbury Volunteers were given the same honour when they returned from the Boer War, in recognition of their patriotism and devotion to duty. (HOSS CGG SAK page 18)

Other recipients in the twentieth century include Colonel Barnardiston in 1908 and the American Ambassador, General Charles Dawes, Vice President of the USA from 1925-29.  (His ancestor was born in Sudbury in 1620.)

  • In 1953 the Freedom of Entry into the Borough of Sudbury was conferred upon the Suffolk Regiment. Norman Green was given an Honorary Freedom in 1957. This was followed in 1964 with a similar honour for Lawrence William McQuhae.  Percy Walter Filbee Alston was also honoured in 1967 and Harry Talbot in 1970. (Borough of Sudbury Roll of Honorary Freemen). 
  • The Local Government Act of 1972 brought changes to the Freedom.  Whilst it guaranteed the rights of the Freemen, it resulted in the loss of Sudbury’s status as a Borough. Admission ceremonies were conducted by the Chairman of Babergh District Council instead of the Mayor. As a matter of courtesy, the Chairman would invite the Mayor to be present at the admission ceremony.  There had to be modification of the Freeman’s oath and the docket of admission, but the traditional wording was retained as far as possible. (SCT AWB page 244 and ‘Admissions to the Freedom of Sudbury 1957 – 1999’ compiled by AWB, Introduction)
  • An interpretation of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 made it possible for sons of Freemen to be admitted whether or not they had been born within the ancient Borough boundaries.  (This was important at a time when maternity services at St. Leonard’s Hospital in Sudbury were soon to be cut with most births taking place at Bury St. Edmunds or other local hospitals.  It was also vital to keep up the numbers of new Freemen whose families had moved away from Sudbury.) The first such admissions were in 1975.
  • Acting on Counsel’s Opinion in 1975 given by Mr Charles Sparrow, QC, (the eminent legal authority on matters of the freedom, the first Chairman of Babergh District Council, David Wedgwood, clarified the requirements for admission, which are by descent or servitude. Admission was extended to grandsons and more remote descendants of Freemen. The first two Freemen admitted by the Chairman of the Babergh DC, in 1975, were admitted as grandsons of Freemen – the first to be so admitted since 1902.    (SCT AWB page 244) This was the so-called ‘grandfather rule’ which allowed grandsons to claim admission by descent. This was particularly important for the grandsons of Sudbury Freemen whose fathers had died for any reason, (such as War service), before they could be admitted to the Freedom. 
  • The age of admission was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen and the first eighteen-year-old Freeman was admitted in 1985, on the same day as the first admission by apprenticeship in the 20th century.
  • The greatest change in the centuries-long history of the Freedom of Sudbury came about in the 1990’s with the admission of women.  In 1991 Counsel’s Opinion was obtained from Charles Sparrow, Q.C., that under the Charter of Charles II, Babergh District Council, as successor to the Borough, was empowered to decide to admit daughters of Freemen.  (SCT AWB page 247)   The District Council so decided in August 1992, and the first women were admitted in October of that year.  At the same time, it was decided that admission by descent should be from Freemen no further back than a grandfather. (‘Admissions to the Freedom of Sudbury 1957 – 1999’ compiled by AWB, Introduction)
  • The administration of Admission to the Freedom of Sudbury was then transferred to Sudbury Town Council in 2014.  The Local Government Act of 1972 made Babergh District Council responsible for maintaining the Register of Sudbury Freemen; both Councils later decided to devolve the task fully to Sudbury Town Council.
  • After taking legal advice, Sudbury Town Council rationalised the criteria for Admission to the Freedom by descent to that of children and grandchildren of Freemen removing any possible distinction between descent through the male or female line from Freemen grandparents.  (Most other Town Guilds now have similar admission criteria.)

Compiled by Fiona Wheeler, Sudbury, September 2020

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