Drawn Swords, Silk Scarves and Sheep – Legends of London’s ‘Freemen’ Revealed
LONDON, November 29, 2011 /PRNewswire/ –
More than half a million records of the Capital’s freemen and sisters online today -
- Antiquated British trades revealed in newly digitised records, including 'scriveners', 'vintners', 'turners' and 'tallow-chandlers' - Collection features freeman from all over Britain, wanting to trade in London - Famous names include Rudyard Kipling, Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Peel
Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s favourite family history website,1 in partnership with London
Metropolitan Archives today launched online for the first time more than half a million
records detailing the people awarded the Freedom of the City of London.
The Freedom of the City Admission Papers 1681-1925 collection details some of the
county’s most revered famous names and is an invaluable resource for anyone looking to
uncover more about an ancestor who plied a skilled trade in London from the 17th century.
The records reveal more than 590,000 historic individuals from around the UK who had
the ‘freedom’ to trade in the City of London as part of a livery or guild, which also
accorded certain renowned privileges.
As well as being able to vote in parliamentary elections, exemption from certain tolls
and the granting of legal privileges, legend has it these ancient traditions allowed a
freeman or sister to drive sheep over London Bridge, be drunk and disorderly without fear
of arrest, wander the city with a drawn sword or if sentenced to death be hanged with a
Today, these colourful privileges are rumoured to have never existed and the ‘Freedom’
is widely regarded solely as an honour, granted to stars including Colin Firth, Alastair
Cook, Barbara Windsor, Terry Wogan and Dame Judi Dench. Yet before the mid-19th century it
was actually a practical necessity for Britons who wanted to ply their trade in the City,
on pain of prosecution.
Originally individuals wanting to work in certain trades had to apply for the Freedom
through livery companies and guilds, which controlled the majority of crafts in the City.
You couldn’t become a freeman of the city until you were a freeman of a company. Freedoms
could be obtained by servitude (completing an apprenticeship), inherited from a parent,
granted as an honour, or by simply buying the title.
Applicants included councilmen, aldermen, sheriffs, and liverymen (who all still have
to be freemen or sisters today), retail traders, licensed brokers, and others who wanted
to take advantage of the privileges it brought.
Included among these are a number of renowned individuals, such as:
- Rudyard Kipling - Author Rudyard Kipling, best known for penning 'The Jungle Book', was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907. He's listed in the records as receiving the Freedom of London on 3rd July 1925 as an 'author' in the company of 'Stationers'
- Benjamin Disraeli - Former Prime Minister and leading social and literary figure, Disraeli was awarded the Freedom of the City in July 1878. His record says the Freedom was awarded for the many years he 'exercised his abilities and talents for the welfare of his country'
- Robert Peel - Peel was Prime Minister twice during the 1800s, and while Home Secretary helped create the modern concept of the police force, leading to officers being known as 'bobbies'. His record, dated 1829, reveals his Freedom of the City was presented in a gold box worth one hundred guineas.
The records themselves contain a number of documents including applications,
certificates, apprenticeship records and declarations of loyalty to the king or queen,
revealing key details about each freeman and sister, including their profession and guild.
This information provides a valuable insight into the history of trades and guilds in
London from the 17th to the 20th century, revealing the lost trades that, while still in
existence, seem alien to us today.
For example, early records in the collection detail a number of tallow chandlers,
coopers, cord wainers, vintners, wheelwrights, turners, loriners and scriveners. Today
we’d recognise their equivalents as candlemakers, barrel/cask makers, shoemakers, wine
merchants, tyre repairers, wood sculptors, metalworkers and writers respectively.
Later records dating from the 20th century reveal the emergence of more familiar
professions today, including engineers, estate agents and people serving in the armed
This evolution of occupations has meant that today three more liveries (trade
associations) aim to be added to the 108 livery companies currently in existence in the
City of London. They are the Company of Educators, the Guild of Public Relations
Practitioners and Company of Art Scholars, Dealers and Collectors.
Ancestry.co.uk Global Content Director Dan Jones comments: ‘Whether they are a
vintner, turner or even a scrivener, these records provide a fascinating history of
British trades and a valuable account of the evolution of occupations over the past four
centuries. Anyone with an ancestor who had a trade from the 17th to the 20th century could
well find his or her ancestors within this new database.
Dr. Deborah Jenkins, Heritage Services Director in the City of London’s Department of
Culture, Heritage and Libraries, comments: “The Freedom records of the City of London are
a rich resource for those who are researching ancestors who worked or traded within the
Square Mile. They reveal the myriad of trades and occupations of the Citizens and
demonstrate how the face of the City has changed over the centuries. The records will be
an invaluable research tool for anyone who has an interest in the history of the City of
While most of these freemen and free sisters were from Middlesex, the records actually
contain information of people from all over the UK who came to London to ply their trade.
Surrey, Essex, Kent, Hertford, Gloustershire, York, Oxford and Northampton are listed
among the counties where most of the freemen hail from.
The Freedom of the City collection has been added to millions of London Metropolitan
Archive records now online, including London Poor Law records such as workhouse admission
and discharge registers.
Officially the UK’s favourite family history website, Ancestry.co.uk
[http://ancestry.co.uk ] hosts more than 895 million UK records, including the most
comprehensive online set of England, Wales and Scotland censuses from 1841 to 1901, the
fully searchable England and Wales Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes, the World War One
British Army Service and Pension records, UK parish records and the British Phone Books.
Ancestry.co.uk [http://ancestry.co.uk ] was launched in May 2002 and belongs to the
global network of Ancestry websites, which hosts seven billion historical records. To
date, more than 26 million family trees have been created and 2.6 billion profiles and 65
million photographs and stories uploaded. (July 29, 2011)
For further stories and family history updates, follow Ancestry.co.uk
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1. Source: .comScore, 2010, based on genealogy related websites selected from the
Family and Parenting sub-category under the Community category.