One of my ancestors was made a freeman of the borough of Pembroke. I know this because it’s recorded in his parish register.
Now what I know about people being granted the freedom of the borough is that it is a significant honour reserved for those who have done something of great value to the town, like freeing it from a plague of rats, or who had done something immensely noteworthy, like being the first man ever to row backwards round the world in a bathtub, using his wooden leg as a oar. That sort of thing.
So when I discovered that my Anthony Thorne was made Freeman of Pembroke borough in 1714, I was quite excited. What could he have done to earn such a signal honour? It was especially puzzling as he was a farmer in the parish of Nolton, which is fifteen miles from Pembroke for the average crow but nearer to thirty muddy miles travelling by road, in order to get around the then unbridged Cleddau river. There were ferries, I suppose, but even so, a farmer in Nolton village would have to be someone very special to be honoured by the ancient borough of Pembroke.
Of course it’s not nearly as glamorous as I would have liked to believe. The idea of offering freedom of the borough, any borough, as a sign of special recognition, was a late Victorian thing. “Freeman” in the 18th century meant “burgess,” someone who owned property or had license to trade in a borough – and with the title came the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This was at a time when parliamentary seats were considered a family asset by the local landowner, to be sold to the highest bidder or palmed off on a younger son to keep him out of mischief. Often, the candidates were unopposed. When there was opposition, all manner of underhand jiggery-pokery was employed. In return for a nice back-hander, men who had no connection at all with a town could be made freemen of the borough, as long as they guaranteed to vote for the right candidate.
In Pembroke, the election of 1715 pitted George Barlow against Brigadier Thomas Ferrers and Barlow’s brother wrote a painful account of it, with shameless skulduggery on both sides.
“…I must tell your lordship that most of these new burgesses of Pembroke were made to out-number our Wiston burgesses and abundance of new ones at Tenby by Sir George to equal those made at Pembroke for the Brigadier. The number of each side was so great as to amount to a thousand men.”
So, alas, my ancestor was not some great hero, worthy of special honour, but a willing pawn, trawled from around the county, with a thousand others, to vote for a brigadier in a bit of corrupt election engineering. My consolation is that the election, corrupt or honest, would probably have made no difference whatsoever to the lives of the people of Nolton or Pembroke. I only hope Anthony got a decent price for his vote and he wasn’t just hooked by a cheap three-word slogan. Not that that could possibly happen now.