The Committee & Common Hall

From 1835 until 1863 there appears to have been no organised body to look after the Freemen’s affairs. But in 1863 some Freemen objected in Common Hall to a plan to the construct a raised path which would divide the southern end of Port Meadow. Despite this opposition, a portion of the path was built with the Sheriffs approval. The Freemen then banded together, appointed a Committee to deal with the matter, and destroyed the path. This appears to have been the origin of the General Committee and from then on, the Freemen’s day-to-day affairs have been administered and jealously guarded by such a committee.

From time to time, when important matters need to be discussed, the General Committee asks all the Freemen to assemble in ‘Common Hall’ which is usually held in the Council Chamber at the Town Hall. Common Hall is the Freemen’s legislative assembly where every Freeman has the right to voice his opinion and vote on the matters put before him. According to legal experts, Common Hall is a successor to the ancient Leet Courts and, providing only matters relating to Oxford Freemen are dealt with, any decisions made by it would be upheld in any court. It is therefore important that you attend these assemblies to ensure that you have a voice in the way your rights are handled.

A new committee with the power to co-opt further members is elected by the Freemen at every meeting of Common Hall. The aim is to have a blend of experienced and inexperienced Freemen so that eventually the latter can take over from the former. This policy can only succeed, however, if Freemen come forward when a vacancy arises and stay on the Committee for many years. It does not matter if they are unfamiliar with the ways of the Freemen as they will become conversant with them in the course of time.

The Background Story of Common Hall

by R.A.J. Earl.

Before the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the main purpose of the Commons (the whole assembly of Freemen) was to elect 24 of their number to serve on the City Council. The Council then appointed 13 of its members to serve on a committee to deal with certain matters. The Council was the legislative assembly and met in the Council Chamber in the Guild Hall. The “13” met in another room, and the Commons met only at the time of an election in the Commons hall where, for instance, they would vote on nominations for the City Council. 

After 1835 a different system for running the Freemen’s affairs evolved. Instead of the whole assembly of Freemen electing a legislative body, as it had done before the Act, it took over the role of legislation itself and became known as Common Hall. In 1863, Common Hall appointed a committee to deal with a problem concerning Port Meadow and this committee eventually became involved with the Freemen’s day-to-day affairs. By then the Freemen already had a committee to handle the Buckinghamshire Railway Fund (a fund that was eventually to become the Freemen’s pensions fund), and so the new committee became known as the General Committee.

The modern Common Hall is, in effect, continuing duties similar to those of the Guild Merchant/City Council before 1835 - which, on many occasions over the centuries had imposed strict laws upon the Freemen, even to the extent of disenfranchisement (that is, taking away their rights as Freemen). According to Sir William Anson, who was Parliamentary Secretary for Education, about 1894, and an expert on ancient laws, Common Hall was to all intents and purposes an ancient Leet Court and providing only matters relating to Oxford Freemen were dealt with (and were within the laws of the land) any decisions made by it would be upheld in any court. 

A Leet Court was a small local court that, towards the end of its life, dealt with petty common-law offences. It could impose fines but not imprisonment and became progressively weaker until it became extinct in 1960.

The first record we have of a meeting which today we would call a Common Hall, is dated 16 September 1823. This was about 12 years before the Act of 1835 which effectively divorced the City Council from the Guild Merchant. The first mention of a Common Hall by that name, is contained in an Oxford Chronicle report on the Common Hall of April 1904 at which a speaker refers to a Common Hall held in 1845. There may, of course, have been Common Halls before that date.

Possibly not yet called a Common Hall, but in essence that is what it was, the meeting of September 1823 was convened to take into consideration the Report of the Committee appointed by the Council Chamber and the general body of the Freemen, to enquire into the mode and custom of stocking Port Meadow, and to consider the expediency of subjecting the Commoners to rules and regulations in stocking the Meadow - a subject that has been discussed regularly at General Committee meetings ever since.

On 27 April 1847, a matter of great importance to the Freemen was dealt with at a joint meeting of the Freemen in Common Hall and the City Council when the Byelaws and Rules for the Regulation of the Oxford City Fisheries were enacted, confirmed and passed without dissent. The preamble to these bylaws says:

The right of fishing in the Free Waters of the City of Oxford belongs exclusively to the Freemen being part of the rights reserved to them by the Municipal Corporations Act, 5th and 6th William IV c.76.

I will not go further into the question of the Freemen’s fishing rights because it is outside the scope of this article - except to say that the Freemen should never relinquish their claim to these rights.

In the Freemen’s archives we hold details of every Common Hall held since 1845 - as well as the meeting of 1823. Attendances in the past were high but in recent years only a few have bothered to attend meetings that may well decide the future of the Freemen. Until the end of the 1920s, Common Halls were fully reported in the local press which published speeches verbatim. Much of the Freemen’s history can be gleaned from these reports and by studying them it can be seen that our predecessors knew the folly of making hasty decisions. Before voting on important issues they held meeting after meeting until a matter was thoroughly thrashed out. They knew that decisions made without due consideration might later prove to be wrong and  difficult to overturn - thus adversely affecting the affairs of Freemen well into the future.

Freemen’s Roll

Before the mid-l7th century, there was no proper system for keeping records of proceedings of the town council and it was only later that council books were kept. When the list of Freemen was compiled during the mid-1800s, it was taken from the books that had survived, and so the Freemen’s Roll only includes admissions from 1663. Unfortunately, research has shown that this list is not complete. However, once the roll had been compiled, current entries were made at the time of each admission - so that from the mid-1800s, the roll should be complete - although not, perhaps, totally accurate.

The Lord Mayor, through the City Council's Members' Services Department, is responsible for validating all claims for admission to the freedom of the City and, after admissions, for entering the details into ‘The Alphabetical Index to the Admissions of Freemen of the City of Oxford’, generally known as the Freemen’s Roll. Entries include the name of the admitting Lord Mayor, full name of the new Freeman, reason for his admission and the date he was admitted. Our archivist also keeps a record of all admissions.