Roll of the Honorary Freemen of the Borough of Sudbury in the County of Suffolk
In November 2019, the Honorary Freemen Roll Book was returned to Sudbury after it had been rescued from the cellar at Corks Lane Hadleigh.
Although entries in the Book date from June 16th, 1893, the history of granting the Honorary Freedom of the Borough in Sudbury goes back over four hundred years to the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1559, all Freemen in the town acquired the right to vote in parliamentary elections unless they were receiving poor relief. Two Members of Parliament represented Sudbury. They were largely drawn from important local families and their service towards the town was sometimes rewarded with their election as free burgesses.
Research by Allan W. Berry, (the historian of the Sudbury Freemen’s Society), shows that William and Dudley Fortescue were elected free burgesses in 1594. Conferring the Honorary Freedom on Sudbury’s politicians continued into the 17th century when, in 1604, Sir Thomas Beckingham and Thomas Eden junior were granted the privilege as were later Members such as Brampton Gurdon and Edward Osborne in 1621, and Richard Pepys in 1639.
There are more political examples of Honorary Freemen during the 18th century, and these include Sir Harvey Elwes and Philip Skippon in 1706 and Thomas Fonnereau of Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich who was made an Honorary Freeman in 1774 for supporting a bill to regulate disputed parliamentary elections.
In the period 1825 to 1831 four more awards were made but only two of the new Honorary Freemen were politicians. It was presented to Alexander Duff the silk manufacturer in 1825 and the Rev. Henry Watts Wilkinson, perpetual curate of St. Gregory and St. Peter for the past 18 years, was similarly honoured.
In 1831, Sir John Walsh and Digby Wrangham, who were opposed to parliamentary reform, were elected as Sudbury’s representatives. In October of that year, they were granted the Honorary Freedom of the Borough in recognition of their efforts to preserve Sudbury’s two parliamentary seats.
Up to and during this period it was always recognised that whilst it was the highest honour that could be bestowed by the Borough it did not confer the same rights that Sudbury Freemen enjoyed, who had gained their freedom by birth, servitude or purchase and had special privileges such as exemption from tolls, the right to graze animals or hunt, shoot, hawk and fish on the Commons.
As the Essex Standard noted on March 29th,1834: ‘Honorary Freemen were never made for election purposes; the only modern instances were the late members, Sir John Walsh, D.C. Wrangham Esq., Alex. Duff, Esq., and Rev. H.W. Wilkinson – none of whom voted as Honorary Freemen: the two latter had voted as 10l. householders under the Reform Act.’
Sudbury was to award no more Honorary Freedoms for another 62 years as the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 forbade the admission of new Freemen by Gift or Purchase so it could only be inherited by birth or through apprenticeship to a Freeman.
The Honorary Freedom of Boroughs Act, 1885, allowed mayors and councils of municipal boroughs to pay tribute to the national or local work of certain people by granting them the Honorary Freedom of the town. It also confirmed that they did not have the right to vote in parliamentary or other elections for their borough or to enjoy any of the rights and interests of existing Freemen.
The 1885 Act gave Sudbury an opportunity to grant the rare Honour to a wider range of people and the first recipient was a distinguished surgeon who would have been entitled to be admitted as a Freeman at the age of twenty one years as he had been born in the Borough and was the son of an old Sudbury family of burgesses whose claim to the Freedom dated back to the 17th century. George Murray Humphry’s signature is faint and easy to miss in the Roll Book of Honorary Freemen as it was written in pencil with the date he received his award – June 16th, 1893.
He was apprenticed at the age of sixteen to J.G. Crosse, Surgeon at Norwich, where he studied at the hospital, and later, at St. Bartholomew’s. He took his M.D. degree at Cambridge in 1856. Ten years later he was appointed Professor of Anatomy there, and in 1883, Professor of Surgery. He held many University appointments, was Fellow of King’s, and of Downing, Colleges, and Senior Surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He wrote many medical books and articles. He was Fellow of the Royal Society and knighted in 1891. To the end of his life, he took a great interest in the town of his birth. Sudburians were proud of the high honour and distinction he had gained in the country. His portrait may be seen today in the Mayor’s Parlour at Sudbury Town Hall.
The second person to sign his name in the Roll Book was Frederick Benjamin Wheeler. He had already sworn the Freemen’s Oath, which included a promise to help to maintain justice and the ancient privileges of the town, when he was admitted to the Freedom on June 18th, 1897. In recognition of his services in South Africa as a Sergeant in the Sudbury Company of Volunteers, he was awarded the title of Honorary Freeman on May 7th, 1901. Six other Sudbury men, referred to as ‘The Khaki-Boys from South Africa’ by the Suffolk Free Press were also honoured on the same day: Raymond Armes, Thomas Fayers, Lionel Foster, George Hook, James Lingley, and Walter Mizon. A second group of local Volunteers were granted the Honour on October 17th, 1902: Ephraim Hopewell Andrews, Charles William Brett, Arthur Robert East, William Crockson and Maurice Walter Hayward.
The next person chosen to receive the award was Colonel Nathaniel Barnardiston, D.L., J.P., of The Ryes in Great Henny. During a long career, he had been one of the busiest public men in Essex and Suffolk. He gave unfailing support to every philanthropic, intellectual, and social organisation connected with the Borough and was regarded with great respect. (The name ‘Barnardiston’ had been prominently connected with public service in Sudbury and Suffolk for hundreds of years.)
Colonel Barnardiston’s name is followed by that of Charles G. Dawes. Grimwood and Kay’s ‘History of Sudbury’, (pages 18-19), notes that “Brig-General Dawes had many accomplishments to his credit, especially becoming famous in the years following World War I. From 1925-29 he was Vice-President of the United States of America and gained a European reputation by originating the Dawes’ Plan of reparations. He was the United States’ Ambassador to Great Britain from 1929-32. It was during this period that he showed great interest in East Anglia, and became as proud to know that his ancestor, William Dawes, was born in Sudbury in 1620, as the Borough was to honour and fete him in 1929.”
The event proved to be not just of local importance but of national and world-wide interest as it attracted considerable publicity for Sudbury and was long remembered in the Borough.
Another notable occasion recorded in the Roll Book occurred in 1953 when the Suffolk Regiment was granted the Honorary Freedom with the right upon all ceremonial occasions to march through the Borough with drums beating, bands playing, Colours flying, and bayonets fixed. The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses explained that the Freedom of Entry was in recognition of the long and close association between the Borough and the Regiment and of the distinguished service of the Regiment to the country in the 1939/45 War and in the Malayan campaign. The 1st Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment received the Honour on April 26th, 1953, and it was estimated that about 15,000 people watched the celebrations.
The remaining entries in the Roll Book date from 1957 to 1970 and include notable Sudburians such as Norman Green (1957), Lawrence William McQuhae (1964), Percy Walter Filbee Alston (1967), and Harry Talbot (1970).