Freemen – Dover’s Bygone Rulers

Honorary Freemen - Jack Woolford, John Turnpenny & Bob Tant

Honorary Freemen – Jack Woolford, John Turnpenny & Bob Tant

On 18 November 2010, three Dover stalwarts were created Honorary Freemen, Bob Tant, John Turnpenny, and Jack Woolford. This was the first time that Dover had been allowed to present the honour since the town lost its Borough Status in 1974.

The privilege of being a ‘Freemen’ of Dover had its origins in the days of the Saxons. Then the ruler was the king of Kent and the king’s favourites, or Barons as they were known, were given land on which they paid rent in return for aiding the king’s defences when needed. Those who did not heed the call to arms were severely punished. As towns developed the inhabitants, who had acquired personal property, shared in paying the town’s rent to the king. They also were obliged to undertake the call to arms. In return, they were classed as Free Men that soon became corrupted into ‘Freemen’.

The original Freemen of Dover owned their own boats and earned the living from the sea. As Dover is the nearest seaport to France, the town had more mariners who worked this passage between the two countries than any other port. Thus the Fellowship of the Passage, as it was called, was comprised entirely of Dover Freemen who when required by the king of Kent provided ship service.

Cinque Ports Flag showing the Coat of Arms. Stonehall the Maison Dieu LS 2009

Cinque Ports Flag showing the Coat of Arms. Stonehall the Maison Dieu LS 2009

One of the major problems facing all the Channel seacoast towns were piratical raids. To combat these, over the course of time, the Dover Freemen amalgamated with those from Sandwich, Hythe, Romney and Hastings to form the Confederation of the Cinque Ports. They were soon after joined by the Freemen of Rye and Winchelsea and the main purpose of the Confederation, at that time, was to protect their coast.

The seamanship and the ships of the Confederation were the best in the country and recognised as such by Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). In return for providing him with, effectively, a Royal Navy, he gave the Confederation Rights written down in a Charter. These included:

  • Barony, answerable only to the king and could be referred to as Barons. This eventually was only accorded to the town’s Mayor and Members of Parliament.
  • Personal liberty
  • Freedom of movement
  • Purchase the Freehold of property
  • Run a business and take apprentices
  • First choice of goods in the town’s market.

By the time of the Conquest, when William I (1066-1087) took over the throne of a united England, just under half the adult males in Dover were Freemen, a ratio that would not change for over 600 years. Up until the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, Freemen ruled Dover while non-freemen were described as foreigners and had few rights. The Mayor was the top Freeman and had enormous powers. He was supported by 12 Jurats or senior councilmen, who were drawn from the Common Council all of whom were  Freemen. The only ones allowed the vote were … Freemen!

The right of becoming a Freeman was jealously guarded and could only be obtained by:

– Birth. This right still stands, but can only be claimed if the person is born in Dover after his father has claimed his Freedom.

– Marriage. Again, this right still stands whereby the husband can claim the right through his wife if her father had claimed his Freedom.

– Apprenticeship. A parent has the right to pay a standard sum to enter their son into an apprenticeship lasting seven years under a Freeman. This right still exists but it has not been taken up for about a century.

– Purchasing a Freehold. By purchasing the Freehold of a property, it was possible to buy a Freemanship. This gave the person the right to trade in Dover but following the  Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 this ceased to be a necessity although the Right was not officially abolished until 1933.

– Redemption. What was meant by redemption is unclear; but it would appear that if a man made substantial gift to the town they were rewarded with the right to trade by virtue of being a Freeman by Redemption. Again, this was dying out following the 1835 Act but was not abolished until 1933.

– Decree. This was meant for orphans or poor children of Freemen whom the Town had paid for them to served their apprenticeship training under a Freeman. As time passed this was extended to friends of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, who had given an acceptable sum of money to the town. This was abolished in 1933.

Lord Warden Admiral Lord Michael Boyce who managed to have the legislation amended in 2010 allowing Dover to re-introduce the accolade of Honorary Freemanship - Thanks to 2 (SE) Brigade Media Ops

Lord Warden Admiral Lord Michael Boyce who managed to have the legislation amended in 2010 allowing Dover to re-introduce the accolade of Honorary Freemanship – Thanks to 2 (SE) Brigade Media Ops

– Honorary. Given because of services to the town and was introduced under the Honorary Freeman’s Act of 1885. Under the Local Government Act of 1972 only Boroughs could make this grant. However, Michael Boyce, Baron Boyce, the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, took this up in the House of Lords and legislation was amended in 2010 with the re-introduction of this right. Under the new legislation the maximum number of Honorary Freemen, at any one time, is restricted to twelve and nominations are subject to a vote whereby two-thirds of the Town Councillors must support the nomination.

There was a strong religious element in Freemanship and as St Martin of Tours (circa 316-397) was, and still is, the Patron Saint of Dover, he was adopted by the town’s Freemen as their patron Saint. Martinmas – 11 November – is St Martin’s feast day and up until the mid-nineteenth century, this was celebrated with festivities in Dover that included a procession of Freemen headed by the Mayor.

Freeman Certificate given to the late Joe Harman in 1989

Freeman Certificate given to the late Joe Harman in 1989

In the early days admission to the  Freemanship was given when a boy reached the age of 12. The ceremony was held in the church when he would make an oath on the Bible that enshrined all the responsibilities that underpinned the laws of the town. If a Freeman committed a crime fines were imposed but if the crime were serious then the whole family would be published. This  could include denying them the right of Freedom. Punishments along with the description of Dover’s civic and judiciary system and laws were detailed in the Dover Customal of 1356. Although the author, Roger Mortimer – the Earl of March and Lord Warden at the time, was removed from office for not quite getting the Customal right, the fabric of the contents give us an insight into what life was like at that time.

Simon de Montfort (c1208– 4 August 1265) summoned Parliament in January 1265, insisting that all representatives were elected. The vote was given to those who owned the freehold of land to an annual rent of 40 shillings -Forty-shilling Freeholders – and in Dover this franchise was given to all Freemen. Probably in order to win the Cinque Ports sympathy, he allowed each port to send four Burgesses (Freemen) to represent them in Parliament.

The number of representatives sent to Parliament was reduced to two around 1366 and this remained so until the Re-Distribution Act of 1885, when the representation was reduced to one. In the early days, the writs were sent to the Lord Warden and one of the two MPs was nominated by him, the other by the town’s Freemen. However, in 1579, the Freemen of Dover asserted their right to elect both Members of Parliament and although they won the case, it was almost a century and much conflict before the Lord Warden finally relinquished what he perceived to be his right.

Part of the Lord Warden’s argument wrested on the way the hierarchy of the town was evolving. Once a Freeman had been elected a Jurat, he retained that right for life. It had become the custom for the Jurats to select four of their number to stand as Mayor and for the Freemen to elect one of them. In consequence a self-perpetuating clique was ruling the town. After much wrangling, in 1668, both the nomination and the election of Mayor were thrown open to the whole body of the Freemen.

By 1770, the Freemen of Dover were electing both Members of Parliament and that year, following a ballot. It was resolved that Freemen not living in Dover had the right to vote in Dover parliamentary elections. At that time, there were 470 non-resident and 1,000 resident Freemen but it was not until 1835 that non-Freemen resident in the town were allowed the vote.

Local Historian, Joe Harman, claimed the right of Freedom through marriage in 1989.

Local Historian, Joe Harman, claimed the right of Freedom through marriage in 1989.

Although women were not allowed to become Freemen, marriage to the daughter of a Freeman did secure entry into the prestigious upper echelons of Dover’s society. How often such relationships were founded in love is open to speculation. Albeit, the reverse, that of a Freeman marrying the daughter of a non-Freeman was deemed a punishable offence. In the reign of Mary I (1553-1558) Thomas Wood, a brewer, was ordered to pay a fine of £3.10s (£3.50p) for marrying for love rather than marrying a Freeman’s daughter!

Margery, the wife of wealthy gentleman Edward Wivell, died on 23 October 1695. She was the daughter of a Freeman through whom Edward Wivell had claimed the right of Freemanship and had held the position of  Jurat for nearly thirty years.  Wivell was at eventually elected Mayor in 1698 but this was immediately challenged as technically he was no longer a Freeman due to Margery’s death. A major debate in council ensued and the outcome set a precedence that still holds today, ‘The death of his wife, Margery, did not make void his being a Jurat, Justice of the Peace and Mayor. In other words, the Freedom of Dover, gained through marriage, carries on after the wife’s death.

Local Historian, and this author’s mentor, Joe Harman, claimed the right of Freedom through marriage in 1989.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Freemen, who were not part of the elite but who were running successful trades set up Guilds within the town and joined up with others further a field and especially in London. This, however, had the effect of weakening Dover’s age-old power base of Freemen and the situation came to a-head with Hackney Carriers Guild. Although they were Freemen of Dover, they started to carry goods and mail over land, which was cheaper, than by sea. The council reacted by fixing the price that the Hackney carriers belonging to the Guild were to charge. For instance, from Dover to Canterbury was 16d (6.5p) and to Sandwich at 8d (3p), which was prohibitively expensive at that time.

Even if people did pay the price, the Hackney Carriers Guild members were obliged to give the council the difference between the actual price and the asking price set by the council! The Hackney carriers who were not members of the Guild were allowed to charge the actual fares thereby undercutting the Guild members as all charges had to be displayed. Further, none-Guild members were allowed to charge less than Guild members to carry the king’s business (official post), the council paid the none-Guild members the difference. Finally, the council imposed a penalty of 5s(25p) and ten days imprisonment if  Guild carriers did not abide by the rules.

Albeit, the Guild carriers and other trade guilds found ways of getting round such rules so in 1556, the Corporation made it unlawful for trade guilds to operate in Dover. Over the next few decades the economic climate in Dover suffered a severe downturn and in 1636, when the fledgling Guild of Leathermakers’ Master, James Cullen, (1588-1640), wanted to rent a room in Biggin Gate for their use, the council acquiesced, the council acquiesced. A lease was agreed for 21 years, at 21s (£1.05p) a year and the room was to be used by shoemakers, glovers, saddlers, collar makers and cobblers belonging to the Guild. In 1653, during the Civil Wars and the Interregnum (1642–1660), although the town continued its slide into poverty the Guild was removed by order of the Puritan Mayor, Edward Prescott.

Even though it was the Act of 1836 that irreversibly took away the power of the Freemen in Dover over a century before there is ample evidence that their power was on the wane. During the heyday of the Freeman, the punishments of their own kind had lessened as long as they abided by the laws of fraternity. They were usually fined but occasionally sent to prison for misdemeanours against other Freemen.

Sketch of Butchery Gate with Steadfast Tower, Townwall Street

Sketch of Butchery Gate with Steadfast Tower, Townwall Street

The Freeman’s prison was in Butchery Gate, facing the sea and was relatively comfortable. Although the inmates paid for food, heating, lighting, bedding etc. the gaolers, who tendered for the post, were open to bribes and looked the other way when luxuries were brought in. In 1722, when more prison space was needed, the town decided to do away with the Freeman’s prison and institute fines instead.

Dover Hereditary Freemen at 21.10.2005 were:

Joe Harman – was the last man gaining the right of Hereditary Freeman and that was in 1989.

E King, Dover

M G Bingham, Devon

Ian D Pascall, Whitfield

In 2013 Robin Atherden successfully claimed his Freedom of Dover

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 09 February 2006

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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