Freemen of Dover
Page from the Register (Rolls) of Freeman 1826 to date
A Freeman of Dover received special privileges and was a powerful and influential man. Only Freemen had jurisdiction over municipal affairs including the right to elect Mayors and, from 1623, Members of Parliament. Freemen also held the responsibility of levying taxes, administrating justice and the right to conduct business or trade within the town walls and port. They received a 66% discount on market and other tolls. Non-Freemen trading in the town could be fined 6s 3d a day until they applied to purchase their Freedom. They then paid £20 and were given their rights a year and a day later.
The Corporation, or town council, consisted of a Mayor and 12 Jurats. A Common Council of 37 Freemen were elected and from these a Mayor was chosen for a term of one year. The Mayor chose his own Jurats from the Freemen.
Dover has one of the oldest established privileges of Freedom dating to before the Norman Conquest, and although the right of conducting business was slightly reduced by neglect over the centuries, the other privileges were maintained until 1835, though exemption from market tolls was removed in 1827
The Reform Act of 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 ended most of the rights and privileges of Freemanship, although many ancient freemen families continued to claim admission to the Rolls as a tradition. From 1832 freemanship could only be retained by those who lived within 7 miles of the Parliamentary Borough and any new freemen had to own property with a rateable value of £10 p.a. (£50 if leasehold). The 1867 Reform Act changed this criteria to any male resident over 21 who owned or leased premises with a value over £10 p.a.
By the 1880s the tradition had all but died out and, apart from a handful of hereditary admissions, the Rolls fell inactive. An Honorary Freedom Act of 1885 allowed local corporations who applied to bestow lifetime honorary Freemanship on those that they felt deserved it. Dover Borough Council applied for the right but it was rarely used, being confined almost entirely to Dover Men who fought in the Boer Wars, MPs and Lord Wardens, Second World War Commanders (Embry, Churchill, Montgomery, etc) and a handful of civic officers and mayors.
Dover District Council maintains the tradition of admission to the Ancient Freeman Rolls, but only by birthright, to either sons of, or husbands of daughters of, Ancient Freemen. The last admission was in 1993. Honorary Freedom lapsed with the end of Dover Borough in 1974; the last entry is for James Johnson, Town Clerk, in 1968.
Further information on claiming freedom may be obtained from the Democratic Services Manager , Dover District Council, White Cliffs Business Park, Dover, Kent, CT16 3PJ (Tel: 01304 872352, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Entry in the Honorary Freeman Rolls for Petty Officer Thomas Gould V.C. of the submarineThrasher, the only Dovorian to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War
The Freeman Rolls for Dover still exist from 1601 onwards, as do the apprentice indentures apart from a gap between 1676 and 1790. They are kept at the East Kent Archive, in Whitfield near Dover or are available on microfiche at Dover library.
Dover Museum retain the following records, which are still active:
- Index of Freemen 1664 - to date
- Register (Rolls) of Freeman 1826 - to date
- Register of Honorary Freemen 1886 - 1974
The Index of Freemen is a bound alphabetical list of all Freemen admitted since 1664. Each letter has its own folio and names beginning with that letter are entered in the folio in date order rather than true alphabetical order. Each entry consists of name, trade (usually), method of admission and date of entry.
The Register of Freemen lists all Freemen admitted since 1826 in the order of their admission. It is more detailed than the index, usually names the officials involved and often, especially after 1836, gives the address of the Freeman.
The hereditary Freeman Rolls for Dover are still active today but you can only claim freedom if you are the son of a Dover Freeman or married to the daughter of a Dover Freeman. This excludes sons and daughters born before their father claimed his freedom. (No privileges of Freedom remain today, not even the right to drive your sheep through the town without toll)
Page from the Index of Freemen 1664 to date
Notes on Entries
Occasionally, especially in the earlier years, no trade is given and sometimes, in admissions by birthright, the trade of the father is given as well, or even instead of.. 'Esquire' or 'Gent' indicates a man of independent means.
Method of Admission
Freedom was acquired by birth, marriage, apprenticeship, freehold, by purchase or by gift
1. By purchase
Usually this indicates a non-local who has come into the town and set up business. Freedom had to be purchased by him to exercise a trade. Sons of Freeman who were born prior to their father receiving his freedom had no right to claim freemanship - they too would have to purchase, though often it was gifted by the Corporation. The fee was originally set at £5 or greater, but in 1750 it was set at £20. It is known from other sources that it could be a number of years, even decades, between a 'foreigners' arrival and his being granted freedom, and after 1735 the Council would not grant admission in these cases until the person had resided in the town for a year and a day.
2. By birth
Every son of a Freeman had the right to Freedom from age 21, but only if born in Dover after his father had become Free. In most cases sons were admitted at the age of 21, usually close to their birthday. In some instances, especially after 1835, admission by birthright is taken up at a later age, sometimes much later. The entry will be 'by birth' and the father's name will follow. There are known instances where Freemen's sons have been admitted by the right of marriage, by gift or by purchase rather than by birth.
(Method 2 is still a valid right of admission to the Rolls)
3. By marriage
Any man marrying the daughter of a Freeman was entitled to Freedom, again, if she was born after her father was made free. The entry will give the daughter's Christian name and her father's full name. Again, on occasion, Freemen's sons have been admitted by virtue of marriage rather than birth. The husband's freedom was supposed to terminate upon the death of his wife. How strictly this was adhered to is not known. His sons however had the right to claim freedom regardless.
(Method 3 is still a valid right of admission to the Rolls)
4. By apprenticeship or servitude
Boys could be bound in servitude to a Freeman resident in Dover at the age of 14. After a 7-year apprenticeship they would be given Freedom at 21. As in the case of birthright nearly all these entries will indicate a 21 year old. In many entries the name and trade of the Freeman to whom the apprentice was bound will be given. In some trades the length of apprenticeship could be 5 years or 9 years, but admission to Freemanship could not take place if the apprentice was under 21.
5. By Freehold
Any person who owned land and buildings within the town with a worth greater than 40 shillings could claim Freedom as long as helived there and retained ownership. A later amendment stipulated that he must also spend 40 shillings within the town in each year. In 1631 the right again became dependent on the value of holdings only, now raised to £5. This sum was raised over the years to£7.10s. If he ceased residence the Freedom was frozen until he resumed residence.
From 1765 all persons claiming Freedom by any right other than birthright or marriage had to have resided in the town for a year and a day before admittance (between 1735 and 1765 this limitation applied to all rights of admission including birth and marriage). People who left town for a long period would have to reclaim freedom and so can have two entries in the rolls.
6. By Gift or Order of the Common Council
Freedom was given as a compliment to persons of rank or those that had done a great service to the town. It was also given to all Dover's MPs. It was also regularly given to those who didn’t quite qualify under the methods above, such as children who had been born prior to their father claiming his Freedom.
Freeman Rolls held by East Kent Archives
- Register of Freemen 1601 - 1721
- Register of Freemen 1721 - 1789
- Register of Freemen 1790 - 1826
- Freeman's Book 1601 - 1647 (partial transcript of No.1)
- Enrolment of Apprentices Indentures 1601 – 1676, 1790 –1892
- Apprentice registers 1674 - 1892
- Freemen's Roll 1835
Kent CT16 1PB
Telephone: 01304 201066
Fax 01304 241186
Dover Discovery Centre
Dover CT16 1PB
Tel: 01304 204241
Fax: 01304 225914
Centre For Kentish Studies (CRO)
Kent ME14 1QX
Telephone: 01622 694363
East Kent Archives Centre
Telephone: 01304 829306
Fax 01304 820783