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A Freeman of the City of London

Was your Ancestor a Freeman of the City of London? If he worked in the City before 1835, had a trade, and then he most likely was a member of a City of London Livery Company. Being first a Freeman of His Livery Company and in turn becoming A Freeman of the City of London (sometimes termed a Citizen).


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The Livery companies started off in mediaeval times as "Trade Guilds," not just in the City of London, but in other major towns. To explain in modern day terms, they were formed to keep standards high for the trade procured, a sort of quality control of workmanship/craftsmanship. From these guilds, Livery Companies were formed, and in all around 100 .

There was an actual pecking order within the Livery Companies. The top twelve or "Great Twelve," as they were known are: merchants, grocers, drapers, fishmongers, goldsmiths, merchant tailors, skinners, haberdashers, salters, ironmongers, vintners, clothworkers.

So why join a livery company? Well actually there wasn't a choice, because to work within the walls of the City of London, you had to be a "freeman," and before 1835 you had to join a livery company to become a freeman.

The Livery companies initially had members who plied the named trade. Hence, for instance, the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers had members who were in the trade of ironmongery.

However, the " sting in the tail " here for genealogists is the fact that as time progressed you did not have to join the livery company for the trade you did. So by the early 1800s the occupation you did and the Livery Company you joined weren't necessarily the same. Hence you could have an Ironmonger belonging to the Cloth workers Livery Company. This can be very confusing for the researcher, and rather a "red herring " leading the genealogist to think his ancestor was a grocer when he could be a spectacle maker! As if genealogy doesn't have enough pitfalls!!

A forbearer's will, for instance, might say:

" I Richard Smyhte, Citizen and Saddler of London . . . . " The term Citizen means he is a Freeman of London; the Saddler means he is a member of the Saddlers Livery Company, but does not necessarily mean his makes saddleshe could have a totally different trade.

The question asked now is "Why did this anomaly occur? Why not join the company that pertains to the trade? The answer is simply that some were easier to join than others. Remember the " pecking order" and the "Great twelve" mentioned earlier. Some were cheaper to join. Strangely enough it has come full circle, as today's surviving Livery Companies do have memberships that pertain to the actual trade and are flagships for quality in workmanship.

So how did this all work and what were the procedures?

Firstly, in order to be a freeman you had to attain the age of 21. It was mainly men although women were never actually banned, it was just the way it was. If a husband died, though, the wife could carry on the husbands business, still trading in the City, and she was said to be " Free by Courtesy," as his widow.

In order to become a freeman there were only four avenues to go down.

1. By Servitude.

This was serving an apprenticeship (normally seven years but some were longer). The apprenticeship was served under a Master of the trade, he himself being a city freeman. This apprenticeship was a binding contract, which had standard wording.

"This Indenture Witnesseth that John Smythe, son of John Smythe of Hertford in the county of Hertfordshire, Farmer, doth put himself to Thomas Glover Citizen and Farrier of London to learn his art and with him."

These indentures are of great value to the genealogist because they give the apprentices name, the pay, the apprentice's father's name and occupation, and where the father lived, giving an insight into the father as well. Very handy if you have hit that brick wall and not knowing where to look next, as quite often the apprentices came from outside London. So that will then aid you to go back another generation and another place. Plus, it will have your ancestor's signature. But the thing to remember here from the above is that Thomas Glover is a member of the Farriers livery but not necessarily a Farrier.

2. By Patrimony

Rather than serve an apprenticeship to become a freeman, an easier route was if your father himself was a freeman. This was called Patrimony.

At the age of 21 and above a son could claim freedom of the city provided he was the legal son of city freemen. It couldn't be a stepson, and also if a son was born before his father had himself became a freeman, then this son could not claim freedom by patrimony. He had to be born when his father was a freeman. So it could be the first-born son does not gain freedom by that route and has to serve an apprenticeship, yet later sons gain freedom by patrimony.

3. By Redemption

The third way was to pay, called Redemption. This had to be via permission of the City Alderman and is too complicated to go into in this short space.

4. By Honorary

Finally the last way was to be an honorary freeman. Quite a rarity, a great honour, and along with it comes a grand ceremony in the Guildhall and celebration afterwards.

If your Forbearer left a will which says, "Citizen and such and such of London," you are in a fortunate position of searching the Guildhall Library/CLRO archives and most likely being successful in gaining information. Most Livery Company records have been deposited in the Guildhall/CLRO. The few that are not are kept within their own archives. The records that will glean the information needed include the following:

City Freedom Admission Papers.

City Freedom Books

Apprenticeship Enrollment Books

Apprentice Complaint Books

There are printed indexes to some of the livery companies

London Apprentices; by Cliff Web

The Guildhall is at:

Guildhall Library, Aldermanbury, London EC2P2EJ, England.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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