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.
The 16th Century
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.
The 17th Century
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.
The 18th Century
There are more political examples of Honorary Freemen during the 18th century. These include Sir Hervey 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.
The 19th Century
In the period 1805 to 1831 six more awards were made.
On October 14th, 1805, an extract from the Borough of Sudbury Minutes of Courts of Orders and Decrees notes that “By the unanimous Consent of all and every the members of this Corporation, the Honorary Freedom of this Borough is on the Motion of Wm. Strutt Esq. the present Mayor of this Borough, ordered to be presented to Sir John Coxe Hippisley Bart. the Recorder and the said Sir John Coxe Hippisley being present herein Court took the oath of a Freeman of the said Borough.”
Sir John Coxe Hippisley, (a barrister, diplomat and politician) was appointed Recorder of Sudbury in 1789. He represented the Borough as a member of parliament in five Parliaments – 1790, 1802, 1806, 1807 and 1812 – until he retired in 1819. He was always generous to the inhabitants of Sudbury and, in October 1805, presented the Corporation with a donation of £50 towards the rebuilding of Ballingdon Bridge.
A view of Ballingdon Bridge from 1870. (Sudbury Photo Archive)
A second Honorary Freeman of Sudbury was appointed on October 14th, 1805. As reported in the Ipswich Journal on October 19th, (page 2 of 4), “Monday last, Sir James Pulteney, Bart. General of the Eastern District, arrived at Sudbury, and inspected the Volunteers of that town, under the command of Lieut. Col. Maclean, who were drawn up on the Market Hill to receive him. The General expressed himself highly satisfied with their military appearance and discipline. He was afterwards conducted to the Town Hall, where, in a full assembly of the Corporation, the freedom of the borough was unanimously voted to him, and presented with an appropriate address, by Sir J. Coxe Hippisley, Bart, the Recorder. The General afterwards dined with the Mayor and the Corporation.”
Sir James Pulteney
In 1825, the Honorary Freedom was presented to Alexander Duff the silk manufacturer 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 Cayley 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., Alexander Duff, Esq., and Rev. H. W. Wilkinson – none of whom voted as Honorary Freemen: the two latter had voted as 10 pound 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 20th Century
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.
Entries in the Roll Book dating from 1957 to 1970 include notable Sudburians such as Norman Green (1957), Lawrence William McQuhae (1964), Percy Walter Filbee Alston (1967), and Harry Talbot, (1970).
Percy Walter Filbee Alston
The 21st Century
Since 1970, the Honorary Freedom of Sudbury has been conferred on three more people in recognition of their contribution to the welfare of the Town over many years.
On March 31st, 2016, Adrian Walters was admitted as an Honorary Freeman in appreciation of his long service as Ranger and Clerk to the Trustees of the Sudbury Common Lands Charity. More than thirty years work as Ranger led to important wildlife habitat restoration which resulted in the Sudbury Common Lands being given Local Nature Reserve status in 1990 and recognised as a County Wildlife Site in 2007. Adrian was also involved with expanding the work of the SCLC when the Charity took on the management of Cornard Country Park, Cornard Riverside, Shawlands, the Wardman Meadows and the Valley Trail. Since retiring as Ranger in 2020, he has continued to care for and protect the Sudbury Common Lands through his work as Clerk to the Trustees of the SCLC.
On November 11th, 2022, Lord Andrew Phillips and John Coleman were also honoured in appreciation of their work in Sudbury. Lord Phillips was a senior partner of Bates Wells and Braithwaite until he stepped down when he joined the House of Lords in 1998. He has remained heavily involved in the Town, including roles as President of the Sudbury Society and Vice President of Gainsborough’s House.
As a top wholesale butcher and retailer, John Coleman is passionate about knowing exactly where his produce comes from. He owns a herd of over 400 cattle, some of whom regularly graze on the Sudbury Common Lands. John runs a successful shop and market stall in Sudbury and supplies a long list of wholesale customers.