RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET                                                                         Issue No 72 December 2002

FREEMEN OF RUTHIN


The Freedom of the Borough of Ruthin was a rarely awarded privilege. The existing Register of Freemen opened in 1921 and records the names of all subsequent holders of this honour. As to those who were thus honoured prior to that time, assuming that there were any, it seems that their names are lost within the Minutes of the Corporation.
 
Perhaps the first question that arises is "What is a Freeman?" followed closely by "What does it mean to be a Freeman?" The Ruthin Corporation was initially created by Charter of Reginald de Grey in 1282, a status enjoyed until the operation of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. However, it would seem that the rank of "freeman" existed well before the Edwardian conquest. According to the law-books of the native Welsh princes, every Welshman born of Welsh parents was "a gentleman innate, without taint of servility". Freemen were aristocrats and probably in the minority among the Welsh. It was a matter of pedigree, of birth. They were the landowners. Below freemen were the serfs, men without pedigree, and below them were the slaves.

In and after the medieval period, the term acquired a new significance, especially for the Welsh who became second class citizens. Residents within the Borough, initially just the settlers whom de Grey had imported, were known as Burgesses under de Grey's Charter and its successors. Latterly, in the days of the infamous 'Rotten Boroughs', this status could be purchased by non-residents

 thereby giving the purchaser a parliamentary vote. It was also available, occasionally, to someone who by their very presence was adjudged to bestow a direct benefit to the Borough. It is possible that the concept of "Freedom of the Borough" derives from this latter distinction. However, modern legislative authority for the award of such distinctions sprang from the Honorary Freedom of Boroughs Act, 1885, and then subsequently from the Local Government Act of 1933 which referred to "persons of distinction and any persons who rendered eminent services to the Borough." It seems now to be a distinction lost in the quagmires of local government and regional assembly re-organisation.

 

Photo:  ALDERMAN JOHN ROBERTS by B W Williams

 

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Finding Freemen before 1921, when a Register of Freemen was opened, is difficult, but sometimes their names are encountered by chance. Ruthin's Freemen's Rolls, which would also have included guild members, seem not to have survived. The Freemen of the pre-1836 period probably enjoyed a share in the profits of the Borough, if any, that would have accrued from income from market and other tolls, rents and so forth. Freemen could also claim exemption from the payment of tolls. Since 1835, and spelt out again in the Local Government Act of 1933, the role became purely honorary.


An early 'Freeman' of the Ruthin Borough was Ambrose Thelwall of Bacheirig. He was admitted to the Freedom on 20th February 1666, and he was followed in February 1704-5 by his son also named Ambrose. John Fisher in his lecture of March 1899 reports that in 1726, the freedom of the Borough was conferred upon one William Jones, described as a "dancing master".


A little more recently, and enigmatically, Alderman John Roberts of Well Street is reputed to have been admitted to this status. It is perhaps a reflection of the transience of fame that by today, little is known of John Roberts. His reputation survives only in a reference by "Rhuddenfab", who referred to his portrait [see above] and recorded that he had been held in high esteem by the inhabitants. {Roberts was the Chirk Castle estate agent in Ruthin during the long and extensive legal battles between the co-equal heiresses to the estate and for a couple of decades c1800-1820 was the only estate representative at Ruthin}.

"Rhuddenfab" also stated that this portrait, in its handsome gilt frame, hung over the fireplace in the old Town Hall (demolished in 1863) on the Square. It is now in the present Town Hall {Now in Nantclwyd y Dre} and this identification is simply an assumption based on "Rhuddenfab's" account. Allan Fletcher, in his article "Ruthin, 1851-61", lists a "J. Roberts, Currier" as a councilor, but it would stretch credulity to its limits to make a firm connection between the two. The discovery of any Freemen created between 1835 and 1921 is therefore a matter of chance discovery, possibly in contemporary newspapers.


The North Wales Times of 8th October 1921 gave a fulsome account of one such ceremony when two worthy citizens of the town were made Freemen. The first of these was the then Mayor, Alderman W. G. Lecomber, an Englishman of Huguenot descent; the second being Mr. Ezra Roberts. The press report was effusive, even sycophantic, in the style of those times, but it conveyed an interesting picture of the two individuals concerned.


Alderman W.G. Lecomber had been elected Mayor in November 1917 and was still Mayor at the time of the ceremony. He was also a magistrate, county councillor and churchwarden. Clearly, he was one of the principal citizens of the town and one of the wealthiest too. The press report said he was the principal property owner in the town. Born a Liverpudlian and a Mancunian by adoption, he became proprietor of the engineering firm of Thos. Ryder & Co., Knott Hill, Manchester, of which his father had been one of the founders. Later, his father also acquired the works of Allen, Harrison & Co.


It is not clear what brought Lecomber to Ruthin in about 1909. He married a lady of this district, which might be the explanation. However, having arrived, this former Manchester City councillor made an important contribution as a civic leader and as a generous philanthropist. This is not to say that he had abandoned his Mancunian interests, for in addition to his business affairs, he had retained his connections with Henshaw's Institute for the Blind. He was their Chairman and an active supporter. In other columns of the North Wales Times, there is an account of a meeting convened to consider how support might be drummed up for this important body which is still very active. It seems reasonable to suppose that this meeting may have been initiated under Lecomber's influence.


Lecomber purchased several important properties on the break-up of the Castle estate in 1913 and 1919. He acquired, for example, the present HSBC Bank, the Old Court House and Exmewe House on St. Peter's Square, with several other properties, though he was soon to take his profits by their resale to new owners. It is interesting to note from other reports in this same newspaper, for example, 1st October 1921, his possible involvement in the sale of Ruthin Castle to the Duff House Clinic of Banff, Scotland [see page 4]. Of his properties, he gave to the town 3 acres of land for use as allotments and another plot for housing or other purposes.


At a philanthropic level, the full extent of his generosity will never be known, but during World War I he offered to present a gold watch to every medal-winning Ruthin soldier. There are accounts of two such presentations. These ceremonies usually ended with a slap-up meal for all concerned funded by Lecomber at a local hostelry. These presentations were probably an emotional response following the death in action of one of his own sons. Again, it was said that he had been instrumental in raising £100,000 for the war loan. After the war, he funded from his own pocket the cost of the Borough's celebrations. These included, of course, the roasting of a whole ox on St. Peter's Square and teas for the schoolchildren. He had also added a valuable medallion, at a cost of £100, to the Mayoral Chain of Office.


Following the "Freedom of the Borough" ceremony, Lecomber commissioned two portraits of himself and Mrs. Lecomber. These were by Julius Hare, one of the oldest members of the Royal Academy, and he was portrayed in Mayoral attire with the Freedom of the Borough parchment in hand. After exhibition at Plas Mawr, Conway, Lecomber's portrait was said to be destined for Henshaw's. It was in fact presented to the Borough Council and still hangs proudly in the Council Chamber. {Now at Nantclwyd y Dre}


Lecomber's other interests involved Ruthin School, where he was a Governor and the present Brynhyfryd School, of which he was Chairman.


Lecomber died at his Ruthin home, Dedwyddfa, on 8th January 1925, aged only 54. The Dedwyddfa estate was put up for sale in the following October and the press report of this event revealed how extensive his estate was. It included farms, business, commercial and residential premises, and land ripe for development. In addition to his own residence, and to the town properties already mentioned, Garthgynan was one of the more prestigious properties involved. It is also interesting to note that he had created a new farm, "Cantaba", off the Llanfair Road. He chose the name after an alloy which he had developed for anti-friction bearings and which he had named "Cantaba".


To be continued in the next issue.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Gwyn A. Williams, When Was Wales?, Penguin, 1985; W.M. Myddelton, Chirk Castle Accounts, 1666-1753, Manchester University Press, 1931; John Richardson, Local Historians Encyclopaedia, Historical Publications, 1986; Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions, Vol. 32, 1983, p.28, Allan Fletcher, "Ruthin, 1851-61"; North Wales Times; Denbighshire Free Press; Mr. Gwynne Morris; The Town Clerk, Ruthin Community Council; Mr. Brian Windsor Williams for the photograph of Alderman John Roberts and other assistance; Rhuddenfab, Handbook of Ruthin and Vicinity, [1884], p.15.

 


THE VICTORIAN POOR OF RUTHIN


There was a belief in the nineteenth century that poverty was akin to disease and that rigorous treatment would cure the patient. Lleufer Thomas, who in many respects was a kindly, liberal man, wrote in his report on the Agricultural Labourer in Wales:


"As pauperism always tends to be hereditary, any attempt to break the succession is certainly praiseworthy".


It was to this end that Edwin Chadwick drafted the Royal Commission Report, which resulted in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Previously each town and village had, if they so chose, a poor house funded by the parish. In addition, there was out-door relief, dole if you wish, again funded by the parish. The greatest number of beneficiaries were agricultural workers, who by the seasonal nature of the work were often unpaid during the winter months. It was to a certain extent a subsidy to the farmers.
Chadwick's proposals, which became law, created large workhouses to serve a catchment area of several parishes. Out-door relief was abolished. It is these proposals in relation to Ruthin that are discussed in this brief article. Ruthin was chosen as one of the centres for a workhouse. The area contributing funds to the Board of Guardians of Ruthin stretched from Aberwheeler to Derwen, and Gyffylliog to Llanynys. The population it served in 1851 was 13,464 at a time when the population of Ruthin was 3,339. The Poor Relief and administration of the Workhouse was managed by a Board of Guardians. The Ruthin Board for years was under the chairmanship of James Maurice. He was a confidant of the Wests and represented their interests. The Board were advised by London but their advice was not law. Ruthin conducted their affairs as they saw fit.


Certainly they did not stop outdoor relief. As late as 1870 there were 1,200 receiving it. This was the peak, just after the railways came to the area and the American Civil War with its consequent cotton shortage in Lancashire was over. The drop of 700 in those receiving outdoor relief in the next decade cannot be coincidental. Clearly, men and women had gone to seek work in a revived textile industry and the relative prosperity which was a by-product of these events. The area had exported its poor. Nevertheless the workhouse population remained unchanged from 1850 through to the 1890s at about 100 or thereabouts. Sadly, these were probably the unemployable, the halt, the lame, the inadequate and, for a good part of the period, the insane. In 1851 the number of inmates was 117. Of these, fifty-eight were children and surnames of many of these cannot be correlated to the surnames of any of the inmates. It might therefore be assumed it was also serving as an orphanage. This certainly was not what Chadwick had envisaged. Family units were split in workhouses into male and female, each living in separate accommodation. Therefore, it is impossible from the census data to allocate some children to their parents.


The cost of keeping someone in the workhouse was considerably cheaper than giving them outdoor relief. In 1851 the cost per week per inmate was is 1s 7d (about 7½p), whilst equivalent outdoor relief was 2s 5d. The Board of Guardians consisted of the great and the good of the parishes served by the Ruthin Union. These, almost by definition, were the major rate payers and their peers judged them principally on the rate levelled upon them and so the Board was under constant pressure to minimise the rate. This in turn resulted in the draconian conditions of the workhouse and kept outdoor payments to the minimum.


Nevertheless, the Ruthin regime was relatively liberal. It was known to pay the fines of labourers found guilty of drunkenness or even poaching. The rationale behind these somewhat bizarre decisions was that if the man could not pay the fine, he went to prison. In these circumstances his family would be forced to seek outdoor relief or go into the workhouse. It was cheaper to pay the fine. Again, the magistrate who levied the fine in the first place was probably on the Board of Guardians. It was a complex situation. Often for long periods of time there was friction between London and Ruthin over the levelling of a high poor rate.
The workhouse and the conditions prevailing there became a byword for Victorian brutality through the writings of Dickens and others. However, there was another side to the picture. In Ruthin, for example, the Board paid for the children to attend the British School in Rhos Street. James Maurice was on the Board of Governors of the School which was always short of money. Maurice probably saw the opportunity of killing two birds with one stone. The workhouse should have employed a teacher under the conditions laid down by statute and the school of which he was a Governor needed the cash. The British School was non-denominational, probably most of the children involved, not all obviously, were dissenters. If they had not been in the workhouse, they would not have gone to school for their parents would not have been able to pay ld per day the schools demanded. Therefore, in a manner of speaking, to afford a basic education one had to be moderately affluent or very poor.
Although medical facilities were basic in the nineteenth century, they were unattainable for the poor, unless through the charitable conscience of the doctor or other such means. There was a medical officer in the workhouse. Also, in each district of several parishes a medical officer was appointed. For example, Doctors Josiah Jenkins and Evan Pierce were medical officers for their districts. A forerunner perhaps of the N.H.S. Albeit, their primary duties were to assess the health of those going into the workhouse.


Anecdotal evidence of the harshness of the regime is too numerous to mention in detail. However, two perhaps may be used as examples, Price Roberts, one of the relieving officers applied to the Board for an order to compel a widow to surrender her dead husband's wooden leg which had been supplied by the Board. The widow demanded payment for the leg as it 'was for years part and parcel of her husband'. An order for the return of the leg was granted. An inquest in 1857 was held on a Elizabeth Jones who died in her rocking chair. The rumour was she had died of starvation. The neighbours gave evidence that she had eaten nothing but a swede during the week prior to her death. The relieving office gave evidence to the effect the day before her death he had granted the couple 3s. in outdoor relief. The coroner directed that a verdict of 'death by natural causes' be returned. Perhaps a case of 'too little too late'.


It would be too simple to say that it was a merciless system. In Ruthin, the Board seemed to be in perpetual conflict with the London authorities over the extent of the poor rate. Ruthin was always spending a greater amount than the guidelines issued by the centre and the extent of outdoor relief by the standards of the time was generous. When one considers the workhouse system, one really has to apply the philosophy of the period and what might have ensued without it.

 

A.F.

SOURCES: A Fletcher, Social and Economic Changes in the Railway Era (Unpublished M.Phil. thesis, University of Wales) 1991; A. Fletcher, ‘Ruthin 1851.61: A Social and Administrative Study’, Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions. Vol. 32 1983; Anne Digby, The Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century, Historical Association (1982).


                                               

DUFF HOUSE CLINIC – Post Script – (see No: 69)

Further information has recently been discovered about the transfer of this clinic from Banff. The North Wales Times of October 1921, reported on a public meeting convened by the Mayor, Alderman W.G. Lecomber. On the platform were three directors of the clinic which had acquired the castle. The purpose of the meeting was to solicit local support for the scheme, and to give local inhabitants the opportunity to purchase shares in the company. Several councillors and prominent citizens of the town, including bankers, were present.


The sale of the Castle estate, which began in 1913 and concluded in 1919, enabled tenants to become owner/occupiers. It also enabled speculators, like Lecomber, to acquire property for subsequent profit-taking. Such transactions enabled desirable change and redevelopment to occur.


While most of the lots were sold, the castle and castle grounds themselves did not reach their reserve. In the event, the Castle, partly furnished, was purchased by the Duff House Clinic at a cost of £28,500 with 500 acres of land, including two farms. The company's architect, a Mr. Bennett Mitchell, was already working on the conversion and enlargement of the castle at an estimated cost of £100,000. It was now the Mayor's aim to sell the project to the people of Ruthin, persuading them of its merits and practical benefits to the town.


Lecomber extolled the work of the new owners at Banff, emphasizing that this new hospital at Ruthin would become one of the finest in the country. Not only would patients benefit, but so would the town as at least 100 additional residents, - medical men, nurses, etc., would be brought in, plus visitors. Mr. Francis J. Scott, a director and secretary of the clinic, pointed out that the clinic had been offered other locations, including one near London, but they had settled for Ruthin as a beautiful and picturesque place. They had also been encouraged by the support offered by leading citizens. Originally, they had been hesitatingly welcomed at Banff, but they had established an excellent reputation thanks to their managing director, Dr David Lawson. Between 1,000 and 2,000 patients had been successfully treated there. Leading figures in the medical world were impatient for the new clinic to be opened in Ruthin, such was their reputation. The directors had sent Dr. Spriggs to America to explore similar work done there and to see whether their own could be improved. However, Spriggs reported back that he had found nothing better. Their future success seemed assured and Ruthin would become the Mecca of the medical profession. He concluded by appealing for local investment in the project.


Some local councillors endorsed the project. Alderman T.J. Roberts highlighted Ruthin's historical credentials, pointing out the number of well-known people who had resided in the district. He himself employed one of Telford's descendants as an apprentice chemist. Another Alderman, T.H. Roberts, declared his intention to invest in this enterprise.


Lecomber then revealed that the directors hoped to pay out some £80,000 per annum in salaries and wages in Ruthin. He pointed out that a ld rate in the town raised just £35 so that the economic benefits would be considerable. On another occasion, Miss Anna Rowlands, Head of the County School, said that she suspected that Le-comber had had a good deal to do with the making of Ruthin Castle into a sanatorium as part of his plan for Ruthin's future prosperity. Thus, began the preliminaries to the opening of Ruthin Castle Clinic in 1923. The clinic came, and the clinic went. Perhaps they would have done better to have moved nearer London after all, but they did leave an excellent and indelible impression upon the town.

 

DW