A first for Freemans

Cousins Alison McDonough and Katherine Wortley, right,  will become two of the first female Freemen of Durham today Monday 6th February.
Cousins Alison McDonough and Katherine Wortley, right, will become two of the first female Freemen of Durham today Monday 6th February.
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COUSINS Katherine Wortley and Alison McDonough were today making history – signalling the end of a 700-year gender barrier.

The West Rainton pair are among 17 women being admitted to the City of Durham Freemen.

The honour will be bestowed after a change in the law allowed the organisation, which dates back to 1327, to accept women for the first time.

The organisation is split into eight guilds which recognise professions.

They welcome those who qualify either through apprenticeships served in the city’s boundaries, or inherited through generations of men – and now women.

Law student Katherine, who will be the youngest of the new women Freemen at 19, will inherit her position through dad Melvin, 66, a retired driving examiner.

The family’s Freemen connection began in 1811 with Thomas Wortley, an apprentice plumber.

Alison will become a member though her father Geoff Kitson, 60, who was an apprentice plumber with Frederick Dennison Ltd in Crossgate, in 1966.

The 31-year-old, who works alongside husband Adam, 32, a fellow teacher at their village primary, will join him and her brother Leighton, 36, who are already members.

The women are related as Geoff is the brother of Katherine’s mum Janet, 55.

Katherine, who is studying at Hild and Bede college and wants to be a barrister, said: “I think it’s a really good opportunity and it’ll be really good to carry on a family tradition and the change is a good idea.

“It’ll be really nice to say I’m following on and my friends have been really good about it and supportive.”

Melvin, who became a member in 1967 when he was 21, added: “We didn’t have a son, therefore she will be able to carry on the family line.

“Unfortunately, a lot of families lost sons, children would die young, and then there was the First World War and Second World War, and lots of families lost their connections.

“It’s only really since I became involved I’ve discovered more about it.”

Geoff, who was put into the barbers guild to boost the numbers, has asked that his daughter is signed up to the plumbers’ section.

He will join wife Sheila, 59, at the ceremony today and hopes grandchildren Thomas, six, and William, three, will also become Freemen.

He said: “It’s important and I’m proud of Durham and watched it developed over the years.

“Alison’s quite pleased about it and to be nominated.

“I think my wife would have liked to become one too.”

The family also has another link to the Freemen – Geoff and Janet’s uncle Norman Donkin, 93, is an honorary member as he served as a bodyguard to the mayor of the city for 40 years and is also an MBE.

Adam is also a member of the order through his marriage too, as son-in-laws have previously been accepted.

Twitter: @EchoEastDurham

THE newest members of the City of Durham Freemen will help the organisation remain as one of the country’s largest.

Its membership before today’s ceremony stood at 130 and is already a modern-day record, with the Freemen allowed to exercise a number of ancient privileges.

These include the right to graze livestock, and hold a fair on the Sands area of the city.

All but two of the 17 women to be accepted will inherit their membership.

John Heslop, chairman of the wardens of eight surviving freemen’s guilds said: “We have been working towards this day for years now.

“We wanted to extend the eligibility criteria since I became chairman 10 years ago but we have been held back by legislation.”

He said today’s event will be a “momentous milestone in our history and one which will change us for the better”.

The change came after years of work by group leaders to overturn a rule set out in a Parliamentary act.

A change in the law in 2009, which said women should have the same membership rights to organisations as men, allowed the group to amend its rule.