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Great Yarmouth freemen

Records relating to Yarmouth freemen at NRO

  • Borough Court rolls (Y/C 4)
  • Freemen's admission rolls, 1706-1848 (Y/C 22/1-32)
  • Indexes of freemen admitted, 1680-1892 (Y/C 22/33-37, available on microfiche)
  • Index of applications for freedom rejected, 1760-1846 (Y/C 22/38, available on microfiche)
  • Freemen's admission papers, 1721-1831 (Y/C 22/39, 50-1)
  • Registers of apprenticeship indentures, 1666-94, 1698-1856; with register of payments for apprenticing poor children 1660-64 (Y/C 22/40-48, available on microfiche)
  • Index of apprentices, 1739-97 (Y/C 22/49)

A brief history of the freemen

Admissions of freemen (or free burgesses) of the Borough of Great Yarmouth have probably been made since the town received its first charter in 1207/8.

John Fraunceys of Caister is the first known freeman, admitted in 1312.

The names of new freemen were recorded in the chamberlains' accounts and assembly records from 1429. 

Since 1706 they have been recorded on separate parchment rolls and this practice continues today.

Names of freemen were printed in A Calendar of Great Yarmouth Freemen 1429-1800 (Norwich, 1910).

Unfortunately, this book contains many errors. The copies in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO) or Great Yarmouth Town Hall should be used if possible, as they contain a large number of corrections and additions made by Fred Johnson.

Indexes to freemen 1680-1856 are available on microfiche in the NRO. Very few freemen were admitted after this date.

There were two ways in which to gain the freedom of the Borough.

Sons of freemen (provided they were born after their fathers had become a freeman) and apprentices of freemen who had served their masters for seven years could claim the right to be admitted.

In earlier times, residence was insisted on and freedom was lost by absence from the borough for more than a year and a day.

On admission, freemen swore an oath of loyalty. This dates from about 1500 and its form is unique to Great Yarmouth. It runs:

“Thus hear ye bailiffs and all good men that I, A. B. shall bear faith and truth to the king and his heirs with my body and goods. The counterfeiting of the king's seal I shall not see nor know, the king's coin I shall not counterfeit nor impair. The franchises of Great Yarmouth, the good customs, usages and ordinances of the same with my body and goods I shall maintain obey and keep. I shall be at the commandment of the bailiffs and their ministers when I shall be summoned to enquire upon any inquest either for the king or between parties or for any other cause. I shall not conceal nor cover nor cloak any strangers' goods in prejudice of this franchise. If I know any traitor, spy, thief, or any evildoer I shall give warning and notice thereof to the bailiffs of this town for the time being or to their ministers. All this shall I hold and do for my part so God help me.”

Before the reform of municipal corporations in 1835, only freemen could take part in the government of the town. It was just part of their privileged position within the community.

They were exempt from the town’s customs duties and only they could act as traders or craftsmen in the town or vote in parliamentary elections.

It was this right to vote that turned out to be the undoing of the borough’s freemen.

Following a bribery scandal, they were disenfranchised for gross corruption by a special Act of Parliament passed in 1848.

Their other privileges had already dwindled away and the last of the old admissions by birth or apprenticeship was in 1892.

The town has always conferred the freedom as a mark of special distinction.

Those honoured in this way include the prime minister William Pitt in 1757, Admiral Lord Duncan after the Battle of Camperdown in 1798 and Vice Admiral Lord Nelson in 1800.

The power of admitting honorary freemen was confirmed by the Honorary Freedom of Boroughs Act of 1885 and the Local Government Act of 1933.

In some boroughs, it was possible for women to become 'freemen', usually when they took over the trade or business of a deceased husband.

The registers of Norwich freemen, for example, contain the names of several women.

However, none are known in the Great Yarmouth lists. Cora Batley was almost certainly the first woman to be so honoured in Yarmouth when she was granted the freedom of the borough in 1997.