Bristol Burgesses

The freemen or burgesses of Bristol have been recorded for hundreds of years

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The following background information about the Bristol Burgess Books has been extracted from a BAFHS journal. The article was written by Mary Williams of the Bristol Archives, and published in the December 1995 issue (No.82). Not only does it tell you (almost) all you need to know about Bristol Burgesses, but it also gives you some idea of the informative articles which appear in the Journal of the Bristol & Avon Family History Society on a regular basis.

What are the Burgess Books?

The Burgess Books of Bristol recording the names of men admitted to the freedom of the city exist in an almost unbroken sequence from 1558 to the present day and contain, in twenty-two volumes, tens of thousands of names. However, the freemen or burgesses of Bristol are of much greater antiquity than this, and it is known that they played an important part in the early history of the town. They were the body of townsmen who, in the Middle Ages, chose the mayor by acclamation and from their ranks until 1835 were chosen the mayor, sheriff, aldermen and all the councillors of the town.

Further evidence of their importance is shown by the inclusion of their name in the official title of the Corporation, still perpetuated as the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Bristol. They had a number of keenly valued judicial and commercial privileges and were exempt from dues and other exactions which would be imposed on strangers or foreigners bringing merchandise to the town.

The freedom of the town and the freedom of the craft guilds were also closely linked, and it was difficult, and at some periods virtually impossible, for a man to set up as a master in his own craft or trade and take apprentices without first being admitted a freeman.

How to become a freeman

Until 1835, admission to freedom was fourfold. As early as 1344 it was laid down that a man could claim admission:

  1. as the son of a freeman
  2. by serving at least seven years apprenticeship to a burgess
  3. by marrying the widow or daughter of a freeman or
  4. by redemption, i.e. by paying a large sum to purchase the privilege.

The usual fee was 4s.6d., but if freedom was by redemption men sometimes paid as much as £20.

The most interesting of these four ways is apprenticeship. Since apprenticeship could lead to freedom, it was necessary for the Corporation to keep an accurate record. Master and apprentice would come before the mayor and particulars of the apprenticeship indentures would be taken. As a result, there exists in parallel to the fine series of Burgess Books, an equally fine series of Apprentice Books from 1532 to the present day. Recorded here are the name of the apprentice, of his father, and of the master, the master's trade or occupation, the length of the term to be served, which was never less than seven years and sometimes as much as ten, and any other special particulars.

These interesting books, infinitely valuable for the study of the commercial and business history of the City, contain the names of many men who played a great part in the life of the City and even further afield. For example, in 1626 we find Francis Eaton, who was ship's carpenter on the Mayflower taking an apprentice. Many burgesses must have had the right to claim admission in two or more ways, for the sons of freemen would also serve an apprenticeship to their trade. It was common for men to take up freedom shortly after completing their apprenticeship. No-one could become a burgess until he was twenty-one.

Burgess Privileges

There was another important and interesting privilege attaching to the status of freeman. Until the Reform Act of 1832, Bristol's two Members of Parliament were elected by the votes of the freeman of the City. The importance of this can be seen most clearly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. By this time the old restrictions on trade and manufacturers were disappearing and the commercial value attached to freedom declined in proportion. Many men, therefore, although holding the necessary qualifications, did not trouble to seek admission until an election occurred. Then, in the few weeks preceding a Parliamentary election the Burgess Books show hundreds of men being admitted, the fee no doubt in many cases being paid by the Parliamentary candidates!

A further advantage belonging to the freeman was that the benefits of many of the City charities were reserved for burgesses and their dependents. The newly made burgess was given a 'Burgess Certificate', a parchment document recording the oath (or Affirmation in the case of a Quaker) which he took on his admission, and bearing the signature of the Mayor and Town Clerk. Amongst other things, the Oath provided that the freeman should know no unlawful Assemblies, Riots or Routs, a provision which many must have forgotten at the time of the Bristol Riots.

Voting as a freeman

A number of these certificates are now with the City Archives in family or other collections. Some of these, as in the one illustrated above, show a number of devices, such as a heart, a diamond and a lion, franked upon them. One of these symbols was chosen by the Sheriff at each election, and upon the Burgess producing his certificate as proof of his entitlement to vote, the chosen device was stamped upon it, thereby preventing him from voting a second time.

The Reform Act of 1832, with alterations in voting qualification, and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which so greatly changed the constitution of boroughs and cities, saw the end of the period when freedom carried with it many practical advantages. Henceforth it was a dignity only, but one which is still held in high value by many Bristolians, and each year a small number of freemen are admitted by the only two ways now permissible - by patrimony or apprenticeship. It was until recently a necessary qualification for admission to the Merchant Venturers Society.

Honorary Freedom

There is also a special kind of freedom, the Honorary Freedom of the city, which is quite distinct from that referred to above. The status of a freeman has long been held by the corporations of cities and boroughs as the greatest honour which they can confer. From the beginning of the 17th century and probably before, until 1835 (when the Municipal Corporations Act temporarily removed the right), and again from 1885 (when the right was restored), Bristol has bestowed honorary freedom upon eminent persons (e.g. members of the Royal Family, William Pitt the elder, Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill), and sometimes groups of people and institutions (e.g. the Gloucesters Regiment in 1958 and HMS Bristol in 1974), in recognition of their services to their country, and even upon places (e.g. the City of Hanover in 1983).

Our Burgess Project

A team of BAFHS volunteers has undertaken a several-year project transcribing, typing, printing, checking, and indexing this fine series of Bristol Burgess Books. Our Bristol Burgess products are available in the BAFHS shop.