A Short History of Durham City Freemen
The Freemen of Durham today has eight trade guilds or companies. There were sixteen but eight have ceased to survive. The remaining guilds are the Barbers, Butchers, Cordwainers, Curriers, Drapers, Joiners, Masons and Plumbers. The oldest recorded, now defunct, was the Weavers Guild whose records go back to 1450 but it is believed that some guilds could have been a hundred years older.
The Guilds had significant power as they controlled much of the commercial and economic life in the city. They were responsible for the training of apprentices and monitoring the standards of workmanship.
The Guild members at that time were also responsible for electing the city’s mayor. (First mayor of the city was elected in 1602). Their influence was enhanced further when Durham had its first MP elected by the Freemen in 1672.
The charters which gave the guilds their authority were overseen by various Bishops of Durham who could impose fines if they failed to fulfil their duties according to rules and regulations.
Over the years liberal legislation has weakened the political and trading privileges of the guilds but they are still active in the welfare of the city.
Today, the freemen retain privileges which include the right of Herbage on an area of Durham called the Sands, the right to hold meetings in the Guildhall and the right to have a stall in the market free of charge.
2012 has seen the introduction of Women Freemen and subsequently our membership has risen to a new high.