THE death of Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Boxing Day has revived memories of 1987 when, at the height of his international campaign against apartheid in South Africa, he visited Durham to be made an Honorary Freeman of the City.

The Northern Echo: How The Northern Echo reported Desmond Tutu's big day in Durham in 1987

As the Echo reported (above), he used the pulpit that the occasion afforded him to attack the South African government led by PW Botha, which was continuing the policy of racial segregation and incarceration of campaigners like Nelson Mandela, and to launch a broadside against the British government, led by Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher’s government did not wish to impose economic sanctions on South Africa, which was one of the key planks of Archbishop Tutu’s non-violent campaign, and he accused it of “playing footsie-footsie with people perpetrating the same kind of policies that the Nazis did”.

The Northern Echo: Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks at the Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye...Archbishop Desmond Tutu...ENDS...092212-10.

Archbishop Tutu (above in 2010), who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and had gained international recognition and respect, appears to be the only overseas person to be made an honorary freeman of Durham.

The honour dates back to distant days when the trades guilds, formed in the 14th Century, dominated Durham. Originally, to become a member of a guild, you had to serve an apprenticeship and learn your craft. The guilds guaranteed a level of service to local people but because you had to be a member of a guild before you were allowed to operate, the guilds also prevented outsiders from coming in and setting up shop.

The charters that allowed the guilds – there were 16 of them – to operate were granted by the Bishop of Durham who controlled the markets of the county. Guild members were freed from paying various taxes to the bishop and performing various duties, and so were “free men”.

The freemen controlled the economic life of the city and evolved to control the political life: from 1602, only freemen could vote for the city mayor, aldermen and councillors, and from 1678, when Durham got its own MP, they were the electorate which chose him – and usually, they chose a member of a local landowning family, like the Lambtons, Tempests or Shaftos.

However, in 1761 Major Ralph Gowland managed to gain control of the city council and, on the eve of the election, he created more than 200 new freeman, many of them “honorary freemen” who didn’t fill the usual criteria. Many of them didn’t even live in Durham.

Next day, these honorary freemen voted for Maj Gowland who, it was said, was illegally using funds from a charity in Pittington to fight the election. He topped the poll and was returned to Parliament ahead of Major General John Lambton, of Lambton Castle, who had expected to win.

Such blatant corruption was investigated by the House of Commons, which declared Lambton the winner, and banned honorary freemen from voting for 12 months after they had been given the title.

The freemen’s political influence ended in the 1830s when national reforms opened up voting to more people and created a Durham city council.

Now there were two distinct types of freeman in Durham: the freeman who qualified either by serving an apprenticeship or through his forefather to be a member of a guild, and the honorary freeman who was created by the city council as a mark of respect.

The Northern Echo: Archbishop Desmond Tutu meets the Queen at a Commonwealth Day Reception in London on March 9, 1987. The following day, he came to Durham

Archbishop Desmond Tutu meets the Queen at a Commonwealth Day Reception in London on March 9, 1987. The following day, he came to Durham

In 1987, Archbishop Tutu became 25th honorary freeman to be created in this new era. Most of the others were either aldermen, councillors or members of the big three landowning families, although in 1945, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was born at Rushyford in the county, became an honorary freeman followed by Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery, renowned for his fighting in the desert, in 1953.

“In a ceremony steeped in tradition, Archbishop Tutu entered the Guild Hall followed by officials and councillors in full regalia,” said The Northern Echo. The councillors, said the Echo, were wearing new robes which had been presented by Coca Cola as part of the company’s 100th anniversary celebrations – it gave the occasion “a bit of fizz”, said the paper.

“Cllr Gerry Steinberg moved the motion that Archbishop Tutu be accepted as a Freeman of the City, describing him as “the most widely proclaimed South African in living memory”,” said the Echo. City council leader Henry Cooper seconded, saying: “While this is the highest honour that the City can confer, it is just a small token of the esteem in which he is held across the world.”

Said the Echo: “After the freedom ceremony, Archbishop Tutu walked out onto the Town Hall balcony to be greeted by a crowd estimated at 2,000 gathered in the Market Place.”

The Northern Echo: The Queen on Durham Town Hall balcony in 1960. Desmond Tutu attacked Margaret Thatcher from the balcony in 1987

The Queen on Durham Town Hall balcony in 1960. Desmond Tutu attacked Margaret Thatcher from the balcony in 1987

He then went with the Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, up to the cathedral for a service. “All seats were taken and people climbed on columns to get a clearer view of the archbishop,” said the paper.

The Northern Echo: As Archbishop Tutu left Durham Town Hallon March 10, 1987, 19-year-old theology student Lisa Girling gave him a carnation - his favourite flower. He responded by giving her a kiss, and the Echo used this picture on its front page. All our other pictures

As Archbishop Tutu left Durham Town Hall on March 10, 1987, 19-year-old theology student Lisa Girling gave him a carnation - his favourite flower. He responded by giving her a kiss, and the Echo used this picture on its front page. This is the only one of our pictures which appears to survive from the day

In his address, Archbishop Tutu urged the people of Durham to keep up the fight against apartheid. “People may say what you do is piffling, that it is miniscule,” he said. “But do not believe them. What you say and what you do makes a difference. It does matter.”

However, the ceremony was not without controversy. In 1986, the Labour-controlled city council had declared itself an “anti-apartheid zone” and had invited Archbishop Tutu as part of its campaign.

The Northern Echo: The Northern Echo reported that Desmond Tutu's honour in Durham was not universally popular

In 1987, the Conservatives, led by Gordon Colquhoun, boycotted the ceremony and branded it “disgraceful”. “Desmond Tutu has no connection with Durham, it is a waste of ratepayers’ money and it gives the impression to businessmen that the city is run by left-wing extremists,” said Mr Colquhoun.

Part of the £20,000 that the Tories estimated the day was costing went on policing because, by “pure fluke”, on the evening of the ceremony, the university debating society had invited the South African ambassador, Dr Justus De Goede, to address it on Palace Green not far from the cathedral. There was a sizeable protest outside but no reports of violence.

In another coincidence, three months after Archbishop Tutu’s visit, there was a General Election. Cllr Steinberg was the Labour candidate and won the City of Durham seat with 12,000 more votes than the Conservative candidate, who was Mr Colquhoun. Mr Steinberg held the seat for 18 years and when he retired, he became the first person since Archbishop Tutu to be made an honorary freeman (below).

The Northern Echo: Gerry Steinberg, the former MP, was made an honorary freeman of the City in 2008, assisted by the Mayoral Bodyguard

When Tutu came to town, the Echo in its editorial rose above the local politics of the day to commend him. “He journeys from a nation where men are measured by the colour of their skin, a truth so appalling and fundamental that it makes mockery of the economic inequalities which threaten to divide our own small country.

“North Easterners respect bravery, individualism and fairness. They will honour Desmond Tutu as one of their own and recognise, through him, the turmoil of a dispossessed people.”

The ever-smiling archbishop was remembered with similar generosity when he died, aged 90, on December 26.

The Northern Echo: Sir Bobby Robson accompanied by his wife Elsie Robson, at Durham Town Hall, after he became an Honorary Freeman of the City of Durham, on December 8, 2008

Sir Bobby Robson accompanied by his wife Elsie Robson, at Durham Town Hall, after he became an Honorary Freeman of the City of Durham, on December 8, 2008

AFTER Gerry Steinberg, the city council made three more honorary freemen: the England football manager Bobby Robson and sculptor Fenwick Lawson in 2008 and author and university chancellor Bill Bryson in 2009. The Rifles were also granted the freedom of the city in 2007.

In 2009, the city council was abolished and its ancient ceremonial duties have been taken on by the Charter Trust, which is run by the county council. The trustees – county councillors from the city – appoint the non-political mayor, who is regarded as the fifth most senior civic dignitary in the country, after the Lord Mayors of London, York, Cardiff and Belfast. The Durham mayor is the only mayor outside London to be allowed his own bodyguard, just as he was in 1602.

In 2010, the trustees made former mayor, William Jeffrey Holmes Lodge, their first honorary freeman. In the same year, they granted the freedom of the city to Durham’s adopted warship, HMS Bulwark, and, in 2017, to No 607 (County of Durham) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Separately, there are today 254 freemen who are members of the eight remaining guilds in the city. These freeman have the right of herbage on the Sands, the right to hold meetings in the Guild Hall, and the right to have a stall in the market free of charge.

This last right appealed to Desmond Tutu. Back in 1987, he told The Northern Echo: “I think it means I can run a market stall without paying a fee. I could sell some bananas.”

Sadly, he was not correct. There are absolutely no perks to being an honorary freeman of Durham.

  • With thanks to Roger Cornwell for setting us off on this track