Guild systems developed in many medieval towns to protect the interests of local trades and to look after the welfare of tradespeople. A guild could represent one or more trade.
Guilds were usually associated with the freedom of a town or city. Having the freedom implied the right to trade without hindrance and to be a full citizen, with voting rights. In most towns, men had to become freemen before joining a guild. London and Norwich were exceptions. There, guild membership was a precondition of becoming a freeman.
Guildsmen often took apprentices; young men aged around 14, who were bound for 7 years or more to learn a craft or trade.
On completion of his term, the apprentice could set up as a journeyman and in time might become a master himself.
Records of freemen, apprentices and guilds are major local sources for the social and economic history of towns. This is especially so for the period from the late Middle Ages to the early 18th century. With the growth of industry, the guilds' economic role in the life of towns became negligible.
Political reforms in the early 19th century further reduced their importance. The Reform Act 1832 and the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 removed of many voting rights from freemen. This meant that they could no longer exercise exclusive control over the running of corporations or the election of members of parliament
Owing to the hereditary nature of the freedom in most towns, the records are also of great use to family historians. This is especially so in cities like Chester, where the freedom has been passed down from father to son for many generations of families.
HISTORY OF THE FREEMEN AND GUILDS OF THE CITY OF CHESTER
Origins of the Guilds
The origins of the Chester Guild Merchant go back 800 years. In a charter dating from c.1190-93, Ranulf III, Earl of Chester, confirmed the citizens' Guild Merchant. The Guild Merchant is believed to have been a single guild body representing the interests of Chester's merchant community.
Later, separate guilds or companies evolved to protect the interests of each trade, although the Guild Merchant still existed in the 16th century. This trend reflected the variety and dynamism of Chester's medieval economy with its many trades and crafts. The exact role of the Guild Merchant in the late Middle Ages is unclear. However admission to it was probably essential if a man wished to join a craft guild and trade in the City.
Early history of the Guilds
Amongst the earliest guilds mentioned in the City archives are the Tanners (first known reference, 1361) and the Weavers (1399) . There is no evidence of separate craft guilds before 1300 and no clear evidence of a comprehemsive system until around 1400. There is a sudden rush of documentary evidence after 1420. The first charter granting collective privileges to a group of craftsmen was in 1370, when Edward the Black Prince made a grant to the Tawyers and Shoemakers, allowing them to tan leather. True 'guild charters' do not occur until after 1500. In the Mayor's Book for 1475-76, 19 guilds are listed and there is evidence elsewhere that another 6 not named in the list were also in existence by then.
The most prosperous guilds were those which supplied Chester's food and drink, such as the Bakers, the Butchers and the Brewers.
Several other guilds were involved in the leather trade, which was important in Chester's economy: the Tanners, Skinners, Glovers, Saddlers and Shoemakers. The clothing and textile trades were represented by the Merchant Drapers, Merchant Tailors and Weavers and the building trades by the Bricklayers and Joiners.
Most of the guilds were combinations of crafts, because few were rich enough to be independent. In general, similar crafts would combine with each other. So, the Cappers combined with the Wiredrawers and Pinners, and the Painters with the Embroiderers and Glaziers. Disputes between crafts sometimes led to guilds splitting up, leading to new combinations of crafts. But mergers between guilds could also be a natural response to economic changes or threats. This was the case when the Coopers, Bowyers and Stringers combined to keep strangers who were using their trades, out of the City.
The Role of the Guilds
The role and purpose of the guilds was very varied. They encouraged trade, set wages and working conditions and arranged apprenticeships. They also gave help to their sick and poor members. Chester's social life also owed much to the guilds. They participated in great events such as the Chester Mystery Play cycle and the Midsummer Show or Watch, until these lapsed in the 16th and 17th centuries. They contributed to the St. George's Day Plate race on the Roodee and provided other minor entertainments well into the 18th century. On all ceremonial occasions, they had to attend upon the Mayor and wear gowns and tippets (small cloaks); in fact, they were fined if they did not do so.
Most of Chester's occupations were represented by guilds, but some, such as labourers, seamen and ale-wives were not. In general, these were unskilled occupations, which were not regarded as entailing the learning of a craft or trade.
Membership of the guilds
Membership of the guilds was quite small, ranging from 20 to 60 members. Women were not allowed to become freemen, but from the late 16th to the 18th centuries, some widows of guildsmen were admitted to guild membership so they could continue the family business and take apprentices. This custom was not found in all companies and if a widow remarried she first had to close her late husband's shop. Also, widows could not vote at company meetings.
All new members swore an oath of allegiance upon admission, which also involved a promise to keep the company's rules and secrets. Each guild had its own rules of conduct and members who infringed these could be fined or even expelled. The guilds did not have a central meeting place. Several guilds rented rooms in the Phoenix Tower (later renamed the King Charles Tower). The Smiths' Company had its own meeting house in Commonhall Lane and the Glovers met in Duke Street. In the 18th century, the guilds tended to meet in inns and became, in effect, dining clubs.
Organisation of the Guilds
Most of the guilds were ruled by an alderman and stewards. The Goldsmiths and Bricklayers Companies were governed by a master and wardens, who had similar functions to aldermen and stewards. These officers were elected annually. The alderman was the chairman of his guild, presiding over the meetings and the swearing in of new members.
The stewards' role was to arrange company meetings and keep the company's accounts. If the accounts were not balanced, the stewards could suffer financial loss. Most of the guilds' income from the 'quarterage' or quarterly charge paid by each member at each meeting. Some guilds derived income from letting their meeting homes but few owned landed property.
The Freedom of Chester before 1835
The freedom of Chester was linked with guild membership.
Admissions into the Guild Merchant are recorded from 1392, while from 1452 onwards they are recorded as admissions to the 'liberties and franchises' of Chester. A craftsman or tradesman had to be a freeman and a member of a guild in order to set up in business. Outsiders, or non-freemen, could only trade in the city at special times such as the Midsummer and Michaelmas Fairs. In practice, there were frequent breaches of the guilds' 'monopoly' despite the Assembly's efforts to exclude 'foreigners' from the trading community. Also, non-freemen could trade in the Gloverstone area, in front of Chester Castle, which was exempt from the City's control. The freedom also conferred the exclusive right to vote in local and parliamentary elections from the 16th century.
Only freemen could be elected to the City Assembly or hold the offices of Mayor or Sheriff.
Until the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, there were four ways to become a freeman: birth, servitude (apprenticeship), gift and purchase. To qualify by birth, a man had to be the son of a freeman.
To qualify by servitude, he had to be bound apprentice to a freeman for seven years or more to learn a craft or trade. Admission by gift or purchase was at the discretion of the City Assembly. If a man had a trade which might be useful to the City's economy, such as that of victualler, grocer, mason or carpenter, he could petition the Assembly to be made free. Men were first admitted by Assembly order in the late 17th century and by the 18th century it was quite common. In some cases, new freemen would pay an entry 'fine', usually £10, but others were admitted without payment. Admission by Assembly Order was not restricted to tradesmen and craftsmen. A number of those admitted are described as 'gentlemen' or 'esquire'. Occasionally members of the nobility, such as Sir Peter Leycester, baronet, in 1754, were admitted by the Assembly.
The number of men admitted to the freedom varied from year to year. By the 17th century, the average annual intake of freemen was over 40. Between 1700 and 1800 over 5500 were admitted, including 515 in 1720-21, 648 in 1731-32 and 412 in 1746-47. These were contested election years, when it was important to enrol all men eligible for admission, so that they could vote in the election.
The Freedom of Chester since 1835
The political privileges long enjoyed by the freemen were largely abolished by the local government and franchise reforms of the 1830s. But freemen retained special voting privileges up to 1918 and separate lists of freemen are included in the electoral registers until that date.
Since 1835, freemen have only been admitted by birth or servitude, though the latter is now rare, occurring once every four or five years. New freemen are admitted by the Lord Mayor at a ceremony called the Pentice Court which is held at least once a year in the Council Chamber at Chester Town Hall. Having been made free, they can apply to join one of the guilds. In 1992, women who were daughters of freemen were allowed to apply for the freedom for the first time and the first women were made free in 1993. Today (1996) there are estimated to be over 700 Chester freemen.
The Freemen and Guilds today
Today, there are 23 guilds in Chester, more than in any provincial city except Newcastle-upon-Tyne which has 29 guilds. This reflects the Chester guilds' resilience in the face of economic and industrial change, which in other towns led to the decline of guilds. The chief reason for this was their endowment, deriving mainly from the Owen Jones charity lands. Owen Jones, a butcher of Soughton, Flintshire, bequeathed the profits of his Cheshire and Denbighshire lands to the poor of Chester's guilds, by his will of 1658. The discovery of lead deposits on the charity's lands at Minera in the 1740s brought a vast increase in profits and royalties. These helped the guilds to survive the structural change of the Industrial Revolution.
Together with the body of freemen, the guilds constitute the Freemen and Guilds of the City of Chester, with a headquarters at the Guildhall in Watergate Street. Many trace their origins back to the medieval period. Several companies have become extinct, such as the Drawers in Dee, the Hewsters (who were dyers of cloth) and the Fishmongers.
Each guild is self-governing and controls admissions of new members. Every new freeman has the right to apply to join one of the guilds and take part in their activities. These include business and social meetings, annual dinners and dances. The Freemen and Guilds as a collective body take part in the annual Lord Mayor's Show and civic events such as Lord Mayor Making and Lord Mayor's Sunday. They hold an annual service at St. Peter's Church, Chester. They also present annual awards to students of the West Cheshire College, for competence in their chosen subject. As far as possible, each guild presents an award for a course in a trade or skill appropriate to its own.
The Honorary Freedom of Chester
Since 1897, Chester City Council has also created Honorary Freemen under the Honorary Freedom of Boroughs Act 1885.
The title of Honorary Freeman has been conferred on people who have given distinguished service to the City. These include several former Mayors of Chester, former Town Clerks such as James Husband Dickson and Gerald Burkinshaw and Robert Newstead, former Curator of the Grosvenor Museum. It has also been given to important national figures such as Admiral Sir David Beatty, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and the present Prince of Wales, as Earl of Chester, in 1973.
The Honorary Freedom is only conferred for the lifetime of the recipient and cannot be passed on to sons or daughters. It is therefore purely titular and does not confer the right to apply to join a guild.
The qualifications for admission to the Freedom of Chester:
1. By birth, as the son of a Chester Freeman.
2. By apprenticeship to a Chester Freeman, for a minimum of seven years.
3. By a special order of the City Assembly, involving:
(a) admission without payment
(b) admission upon payment of an entry 'fine' of £10.
1. By birth, as:
(a) the son of a Chester Freeman
(b) the grandson or great-grandson of a Chester freeman in the male line
(c) the daughter of a Chester Freeman (since 1992 only).
2. By apprenticeship to a Chester Freeman, for the period of years customary in the particular trade.