Throughout the centuries, Doncaster has seen fit to bestow the honour of ‘The Freedom of the Borough ‘ upon certain select members of society. It was, at one time, more popular than it is today. Today, men and women have been honoured with the Freedom more as an award in recognition of a lifetimes work in a particular field.
Two or three hundred years ago, the Corporation saw fit to make certain illustrious characters Freemen and below I will tell you about some of them, starting with:
- The Rt Hon Lord Viscount Downe (the 4th).
The Doncaster Corporation were most pleased on the 8th July, 1751, and believed that a great honour would be conferred on the town if the Rt Hon Lord Viscount Downe would accept the Borough Freedom, to be presented in a silver box gilded with gold. These marks of esteem promoted the prosperity of Doncaster, as well as advance the personal welfare of its inhabitants. The honour was given to 2 other VIP’s at the same occasion, they were:
- The Rt Hon the Marquis of Rockingham
- The Rt Hon the Marquis of Granby
The Marquis of Granby made a grand banquet for the civic community at Carr House, on the 11th August, 1752. The council were robed; the Sergeant at Mace in attendance, and proceeded by the town waits and the officials, they presented a demonstration “remembered long after the gallant soldier had gone to his rest”.
The Marquis of Rockingham, in his day, occupied a large space of political distinction and had a private benevolence that was highly venerated. He also had strong connections with the powerful Fitzwilliam family.
John Manners, the Marquis of Granby was created Commander-in chief of the British forces serving under Prince Ferdinand, of Brunswick, in Germany, and was the eldest son of the 3rd duke of Rutland. The Marquis lived for several years at Carr House, in Doncaster. He was exceedingly popular for his sporting pursuits; “he hunted the stag; he had a brilliant array of attendants, and displayed undaunted courage and skill as a horse-man”. Legend has it that, “the noble deer, which frequently strayed from nearby Sherwood Forest, ceased to visit the Carrs, almost as soon as the noble Marquis removed from this part of the country”.
- His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (later George IV)
- His Grace the Duke of Clarence (later William IV)
It was September, 1806, when the Prince and the Duke were in Doncaster for the famous race meeting. “The Prince occupied the apartments of Mr Lindley, architect, and the Duke, those of Dr Chorley, in South Parade. They were entertained each day by Earl Fitzwilliam, at the apartments of Mr Tootle, in French Gate.
On the 23rd September, 1806, the Prince was waited upon by three members of the Corporation at “a quarter before ten o’clock, at his lodgings at the house of Mr Lindley. The Corporation had proceeded up to the lodgings, from the Mansion House, attended by the constables, to present the Prince with a letter. The procession included The Mayor, Recorder, six senior Aldermen, the Town Clerk, and three senior Common Councilmen. The letter contained the following statement:
“To His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. May it please your Royal Highness, the we the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen, and Capital Burgesses of the borough of Doncaster, beg leave to approach your Royal Highness with our sincere congratulations on your safe arrival at this place, and to assure you of the high respect and veneration we entertain for your Royal Highness’s person and family, as we must ever reflect with gratitude upon the happiness and prosperity which this country has experienced under the mild and equitable government of the illustrious Prince of the house of Brunswick. Being anxious to transmit to our successors a lasting memorial of the honour we now receive from the presence of your Royal Highness and your august brother, we humbly entreat that you will be pleased to accept the Freedom of this Corporation, and permit your royal and illustrious names to be enrolled amongst the Freemen of this ancient and loyal borough”.
The Prince replied this way:
“To the Mayor, Recorder, Aldermen, and Capital Burgesses of the borough of Doncaster. I receive with pride and pleasure your congratulations upon my arrival in your town. The loyal motives by which you are actuated in the testimonies of respect and regard which you express towards my person and my family, as well as our glorious and excellent constitution under the House of Brunswick afford me the most heartfelt satisfaction. The advantages I have derived from my short tour in making me acquainted with the genuine character and affectionate qualities of my countrymen, will, I trust, be seen and felt in the zealous interest I shall ever take in the furtherance of their prosperity and happiness; and it is most flattering to myself and to my brother to have the franchise of your ancient and very respectable borough conferred upon us.
And so, the Freedoms were conferred to both the Prince and his brother, the Duke, at the same time, and were recorded with the following entries:
“The Corporation………………, appoint His Royal Highness George Augustus Frederick, Prince of Great Britain, Prince of Wales, Electoral Prince of Brunswick, Duke of Cromwell and Rothsay, Earl of Chester and Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland, and Knight of the most noble order of the Garter, and also, His Royal Highness Prince William Henry of Brunswick, Duke of Clarence, and St Andrew in Great Britain, Earl of Munster in Ireland, third son of his most gracious Majesty, Knight of the most noble order of the Garter, and first principal Companion of the most ancient Order of the Thistle………………………., to be Freemen of the ancient borough of Doncaster, and to be entitled to all the benefits and priveleges thereof.
The documents certificating the Freedoms were later delivered in 100 guinea, gilt boxes to the men, by Earl Fitzwilliam.
- The Duke of Sussex
The duke of Sussex was enrolled as a Freemen of the Borough during his visit to Michael Angelo Taylor Esq. M.P. at Cantley Hall, on Tuesday September 17th, 1822. The most respected Mayor at the time was a gentleman by the name of Edwood Chorley Esq.
The Corporation travelled to Cantley in 4 carriages. The Mayor wore his robe of office and was accompanied by the Chief Magistrate, also in the civic party were three senior councilmen in their furred gowns, the Mace-bearer, and two Sergeants at Mace. The Freedom was presented in a gold box of the value of 50 guineas, after which there were elegant speeches from both parties. Following this, Michael Angelo Taylor, who was famous for his hospitality, entertained the gentlemen and laid on an excellent boars head platter.
- The Duke of Wellington
The ‘Iron Duke’ came to Doncaster on 2 occasions. Granted, one of the occasions was not planned when His Grace’s carriage “suffered a vexatious mishap”, (today we would say, ‘his car broke down’). The second occasion, however, was planned, as he was visiting the town for our famous classic horse-race, the St. Leger in 1829, where he stayed at The Angel. On his arrival “crowds hastened thither to give the noble Duke a real Yorkshire welcome”. The crowd then followed him from Mrs Belcher’s, through town, to Clemet’s establishment, (near the old gaol).
He received his Freedom on Wednesday 15th September, by the Mayor, Mr George Clark Walker, accompanied by the Deputy-recorder, Mr William Walker, and the Town Clerk. The civic party presented the Freedom to the Duke in the presence of, Prince Esterhazy, Lord Chesterfield, Lord Wilton, Sir John and Lady Ann Beckett, along with a great many other men and women of consequence.
The Duke thanked the Corporation with these words:
“I assure you gentlemen, that there is no man in existence who could feel more grateful than I do for this mark of your consideration and attention.”
The Dukes other, more commonly known title was of course, Prince of Waterloo, a principality conferred by the King of the Netherlands upon His Grace, in consideration of his last, greatest, and most decisive victory over the French army, commanded by the Emperor Napoleon, 18th June, 1815.
Today we have 11 Freemen (and women) of the borough. They are:
- Roy Clarke
- Gordon Gallimore
- Rodney Bickerstaff
- John Ellis
- Jeanette Fish
- Lesley Garrett
- The Venerable Robert A Fitzharris
- Roger Tuby
- Tommy Joyce
- Dennis Rollins
- Tony Storey
You can find out more about them as individuals, how they came to be Freemen, and what their duties involve today by clicking here.
Soon after completing this article I decided to send letters out to all the surviving heirs to the above, more illustrious Freemen. As of yet I have only received two replies. This first reply came inside two weeks and was from Prince Charles’ secretary at Clarence House:
Dear Mr Waller.
Thank you for your letter of 6th June 2012, in which you very kindly invite the Prince of Wales to write a letter of encouragement to the present Freemen of Doncaster.
His Royal Highness was very interested to learn that King George IV was given the Freedom of the Borough of Doncaster, and has given careful consideration to your request. However, I am afraid that he has reluctantly decided that he must decline. Unfortunately, The Prince of Wales receives many invitations of this nature and can only accept a very small proportion. He consequently has to decline a number of very worthy requests of which yours is, sadly, one.
I am sorry to send what I know will be a disappointing reply, but His Royal Highness has asked me to thank you for thinking of him in this way and sends his best wishes.
Basically, this reply appears to be a letter written to inform me that a letter couldn’t be written (bit of a mouthful).
The second and, at present, the final letter to arrive was from Wykeham Abbey at Scarborough and was from the hand of the current Viscount Downe:
Dear Mr Waller
Thank you for your letter dated the 6th June 2012. I confess that I had not been aware that one of my ancestors had received the honour of being granted the Freedom of the town of Doncaster. Your letter prompted me to do some research.
I have managed to find the silver box in which the freedom document was presented, though sadly I can not find the freedom document itself. The box is a fine piece of workmanship, with the seals of both the Town and the Mayor engraved on the lid. I am informed that the silver mark indicates that the box was made in 1751. I therefore assume that this was the year when the freedom was granted. If so, it would have been granted to Henry Pleydell the 3rd Viscount Downe (1727-1760) rather than his brother John the 4th Viscount. Henry Pleydell was something of a character and I enclose a brief article on his life that may be of some interest. Clearly as the owner of Cowick Hall he was very much a local man.
Thank you again for bringing this fascinating piece of history to my attention.
The Viscount Downe.
And the following is the background information that came with the letter:
Henry Pleydell Dawnay, Third Viscount Downe
The Downes, on the whole, have played only minor parts upon the national stage. Had he lived long enough, however, Henry Pleydell Dawnay (1727-1760), the 3rd Viscount, might well have achieved either fame or notoriety. He was soon chosen by George II to be a lord of the bedchamber, an honour which involved the duty of waiting on the King and which was granted only to favourite courtiers.
At the age of 23, Pleydell was returned unopposed as member of Parliament for Yorkshire. A contemporary letter records that on being elected, ‘instead of sighing at the ladies feet in Arlington Street, he sets out instantly for Paris, and hopes to preserve firm peace and amity between the two nations by running his hands immediately up the coats of Madame de Pompadour: alert and assuré, like any Frenchman, but without the language’. Alert and self-assured, these words come to mind when one looks at the expression of calm arrogance captured in his portrait at Wykeham Abbey.
Pleydell’s claim to fame, however, does not rest solely on his exploration of a French noblewoman’s petticoats, nor on the family tradition that he was once accosted by a highwayman whom he disarmed and then let go. His most notable achievement was his part in securing an overwhelming victory against the French at the battle of Minden in 1759. Pleydell was in command of one of the four English regiments and, if Horace Walpole is to be believed, he returned to England cock-a-hoop and with the most gruesome spoils of war. Walpole wrote about the battle to the Earl of Strafford:
“All we know is that not one Englishman is killed, nor one Frenchman left alive. If you should chance to meet a bloody wagon-load of heads, you will be sure that it the part of the spoils that came to Downe’s share, and going to be hung up in the great hall at Cowick.”
What an extraordinary man young Pleydell must have been if this account can be trusted! On the one hand he shared the refined taste in architecture and the arts that was common in the aristocracy of his day; on the other hand, according to Walpole, his sense of gloating triumph urged him to arrange for the conveyance of the grisliest cargo that has ever been received into England. What happened to the heads? Did they festoon the entrance hall at Cowick? Are they buried in some corner of the park? Or, is Walpole’s account merely a too literal interpretation of some jubilant remark or gesture that Pleydell may have made after the battle?
Pleydell’s vivid career was cut short when he returned to the fray in 1760. The combined English and German troops suffered their worst defeat at the battle of Campen and the Annual Register reports as follows:
“On this occasion the English nation regretted the loss of one of its most shining ornaments in the death of Lord Downe who, whilst his grateful sovereign was destining him to higher honours, received a mortal wound in this battle. He was a person of free and pleasurable life; but of an excellent understanding, amiable manners, and the most intrepid courage. In the beginning of this war he had a considerable share in rousing a martial spirit amongst the young people of rank in England, and having long shewed then by a gallant example how to fight, he at last, by a melancholy one, showed them how to die for their country.”
Pleydell was buried with full military honours at Moeurs at the age of 33 and so England lost a young man who was, if we may judge from the few hints that history has left us, a full-blooded adventurer who might have become so much more.
Pleydell’s early death, however, probably saved the family fortunes. In his short life he had managed to run up debts of alarming proportions. The marriage settlement of his brother, John, his successor in the Viscountcy, refers to a lump sum of £6,000 and an annuity of £310 which Pleydell was compelled by order of the King’s Bench to pay to one Lieutenant-Colonel George Scott. These figures suggest a very serious personal misfortune which Pleydell had brought upon Colonel Scott. Moreover, the 4th Viscount’s father-in-law, William Burton, a commissioner of excise, advanced £10,000 towards discharging the debts of Pleydell and John. The latter had to find a further £3,000 to complete the payment of Pleydell’s debts. The comment in the Annual Register that Pleydell lived a ‘free and pleasurable life’ seems to be a polite understatement!
If I receive any more letters I will post them on here.