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The Freedom of Stafford - What is it all about?

 

The Freemen of Stafford

They have an ancient history and are the inheritors of the roles of the Burgesses of the County Town of Staffordshire, and the seat of the Barons and Earls of Stafford. In days gone by, their role was much more significant, being largely responsible for running the town and later selecting its Members of Parliament. The terms ‘Freeman’ and ‘Burgess’ are nowadays synonymous. Stafford may have had burgesses as far back as 900.

Burgesses are sworn-in by the Mayor of Stafford at a Court, held under auspices of the Borough Council. Candidates must meet the requirements of membership by ‘Birth’ or ‘Servitude’; pay the "Shilling" to the Burgess’s Sergeant and swear an Oath of loyalty to the Mayor and the Queen.

They get no material benefit from the status, nor do they get any income from the public purse. It is mainly a matter of maintaining traditions and safeguarding the assets of Stafford freemen for future generations.

The Burgesses Roll

This is the definitive list of Stafford Burgesses. The Roll goes back to 1122 and contains the names of many of the personages, who have helped to create the character of this ancient borough over the centuries. There are over 7,000 names listed.

A very valuable book about the Freemen of Stafford from 1100 to 1997 has been researched and published by Councillor Jack Kemp. It documents most of the freemen’s names and contains a lot of information about their activities.

 

The Current Burgesses

These are the people, who are still alive, whose names are on the above Roll. We believe that there are over 200 people in this category, but we only have contact information for about half of them, as there is no mechanism for updating the information entered on the roll.

These Burgesses have the right to appoint the Trustees of the Burgess’s Lands, they have the right to request membership of the Freemen’s Guild and, if they wish, to priority for an allotment on Coton Fields. They also have responsibility for monitoring the activities of the Trustees and participating in any changes to the rules of admission.

 

The Trustees

These are twelve Freemen, appointed to oversee and manage the Trust, which looks after the Coton Fields lands on behalf of the burgesses. This land is currently set out as some 150 allotment lots of various sizes. In recent years the site has been improved significantly, with the addition of ornamental and fruit trees plus a community building in association with Staffordshire County Council. The roles of the trustees are defined by the various Staffordshire Acts that confirm ownership and define the responsibilities of the Borough Council with respect to the site.

The Trustees appoint a chairman at their own AGM following their appointment. The Trust meets monthly to administer the site and ensure that the land does not become derelict, which would make it vulnerable to annexation by the local authority, (as happened in the 1960s). As more people are now interested in allotment gardening there is a waiting list, but burgesses automatically go to the top of that list.

 

The Annual Meeting of Burgesses

All burgesses are invited to attend this meeting, is normally chaired by the Mayor of Stafford and takes place in January. It hears reports from the officers of the Trust and verifies the appointment of the Trustees. This meeting resulted from the activities of uncontrolled trustees, who proposed to sell the land for personal gain. All burgesses are encouraged to attend this meeting as it is one of their primary responsibilities.

 

The Stafford Freemen’s Guild

The Stafford Guild is the public face of the Freemen. It provides a forum for interested Burgesses of the Borough to meet and discuss matters of mutual interest. It also provides a means of social interaction with visits, lectures, lunches, quiz evenings and an annual dinner forming part of their programme.

 

The Guild is also interested in maintaining local traditions and has a roll in voicing the opinions of citizens to ensure that this ancient borough is kept in tune with its history. Involvement with the naming of buildings, attending the licensing committee to ensure that the environment of St Chad’s Church, was not compromised and recent support for Stafford Hospital, are examples of this.

Guild Members represent the burgesses on civic occasions such as Mayor Making, Remembrance and the Battle of Britain commemoration.

Following the royal assent in 2010 of the “Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009”; under Chapter 5, the Burgesses have exercised their right to initiate changes in the rules for admission of burgesses. These included correcting long standing sex discriminations under the heredity qualification and revision of the definitions for admission under Servitude. This, together with relaxing the rule about being “born to a Freeman”, should permit more burgesses to be created. We have always had female burgesses admitted by Servitude.

With the introduction of ties, blazer and lapel badges, robes and other regalia we are becoming a more recognisable body in the borough, as befits what is probably Stafford’s oldest secular body.

 

The Guild Council

This is elected at the Guild AGM in October, together with the officers of the Guild: The Master, Deputy Master, Secretary and Treasurer. They meet monthly to manage the affairs of the Guild under the chairmanship of the Master. Master and Deputy Master are normally appointed for two years.

 

The Freemen of England and Wales, (F.E.W.)

This is the National Association of Guilds and like organisations, from around the country. It provides a structure for the disparate Freemen’s groups to have a national voice and offers support and legal advice to member guilds. Stafford Guild has been a member for some years and a number of members have chosen to obtain Individual membership. This permits the use of F.E.W regalia, and allows attendance at the Courts and the AGM held during the year. The AGM is part of a social weekend which enables attendees to experience various prestigious locations around England and Wales. It was hosted by Stafford Guild in 2014.

Member guilds include those with thousands of members and vast wealth to those with six members and zero assets, Stafford Guild with its 50, or so, members and an interest in 22 acres of land are in the middle of this spectrum.

 

F.E.W. Wardens

look after designated areas around the country, where the local Guilds are coordinated by a Warden. Stafford is in the North Midlands Area which also includes Derby, Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth and Newcastle-under-Lyme. It is hoped that in due course that more integration between local guilds can be promoted.

 

Honorary Freedoms

The “Freedom of Stafford”, granted to individuals or organisations by order of the Borough Council, is in fact an “Honorary Freedom”. Other administrative bodies may also award such freedoms. These in no way relate to the “Burgesses” or “Freemen” described here. They confer no rights of heredity and holders have no responsibility for Freemen’s Lands or other assets.

 

John Edwards, Master of Stafford Guild and Warden for F.E.W. North Midlands

July 2014

 
 

 

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