Who were the Freemen and what was their role in the Corporation?
Freemen were originally members of the City craft guilds. However by the mid eighteenth century the Freemen were practically semi-hereditary and it was a closely controlled group consisting of those entitled by birth, apprenticeship, marriage or purchase or those granted it by a favour. Freemen were often not resident in the City and rarely came from a merchant or commercial background.
The Corporation operated as an administrator of land and property, as granted during the Ulster Plantation, collecting rents and engaging in legal battles with the city’s London landlord, the Irish Society and any others who challenged locally established rights.
The jurisdiction and liberties of Londonderry city extended 3 miles in every direction (including the River Foyle east bank). Liberties didn’t imply ownership of land; rather it meant the liberty to exercise one’s craft or trade. No one could carry out business in the liberties unless he was a Freeman.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, in a city dominated by merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen, only Freemen of the City were entitled to conduct business, own property and receive protection within the walled city.
The ‘ailen dues’ were a tax on traders who sought to sell their goods at the markets. The vast majority of traders were liable to such taxes, only the Freemen were classed as ‘non-ailen’. A custom charge was also added to practically all items sold in the markets; once again Freemen were favoured and charged up to 50% less.
The Corporation minute books also detail complaints by Freemen of ‘strangers and foreigners exercising their trade’ in the city and liberties.
View the Freemen Records
The links below access digital copies of four handwritten manuscripts relating to the Freemen of the City from 1675 to 1945. The original volumes are part of the Derry City and Strabane District Council Archive, currently housed in the Tower Museum. The first volume is an alphabetical index of the Freemen and the other three books contain extracts from the Corporation Minute Books where a Freeman or Freedom of the City is mentioned.