Page last updated at 06:46 GMT, Wednesday, 10 September 2008 07:46 UK

The honour of the freedom award

By Jo Manning
BBC News

David Davies
David Davies will be the first in 53 years to be given the freedom of Barry

What do Nelson Mandela, the Royal Welsh regiment, footballer John Charles and Pope John Paul II all have in common?

They've all been given the "freedom" of a particular city, town or borough in Wales, and Olympic silver medallist David Davies has joined their ranks.

The swimmer has been awarded the freedom of Barry for services to the seaside town over the last six years.

But other than providing winners with a day out and a certificate, what does it mean in practical terms?

For Davies, dubbed Dai Splash, the freedom of Barry won't allow him to do much in practical terms. It does not carry any ancient rights, such as the freedom to graze sheep.

And unfortunately it won't guarantee him a free pint in his local pub - aptly named the Dolphin - although there are sure to be plenty lining up to buy him one.

However, it is the highest honour the town council can bestow on a person.

In Davies's case it was felt he had already contributed eminent services as an ambassador for the town despite being only 23.

On Tuesday evening he was honoured with a civic ceremony and dinner and presented with a scroll - the first time the honour has been bestowed in 53 years.

Freemen and women in Wales
Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Kimmy Carter and David Lloyd George
Newport: Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, Mary Ann Hart, Aubrey Hames, Merchant Navy Association
Swansea: Jimmy Carter, HMS Scott, William Gladstone, John Charles
Cardiff: Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Sir Tasker Watkins
Rhondda Cynon Taf: Stuart Burrows
Tenby: David Lloyd George, HMS Tenby, Augustus John
Neath Port Talbot: Michael Sheen
Haverfordwest: Lord Nelson

Derek Wolfe, chief executive of Barry town council, said they believed it was last awarded to former MP Dorothy Rees in 1956.

"It is a very special award in recognition of outstanding service - and that doesn't even begin to describe what David has achieved," he said.

"We think this award is really special and what David has achieved is very special, a superlative performance."

"He's also helped promote the town - he mentions Barry in the statements he makes."

Contrary to popular belief, those awarded the freedom of a particular place aren't given a ceremonial key.

Its origins lie in medieval times when craftsmen and women throughout Europe were organised into trade guilds which required workers to sign up as freemen.

These guilds, which were a more primitive version of a trade union crossed with a trade association, would strictly regulate members.

In London, the scheme dates back to 1237 and only freemen there were allowed to vote. There is also some evidence that they avoided bridge and other tolls.

It was actually quite a big deal when I was awarded the freedom of Cardiff because I was one of the only women to have been handed the honour
Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson

By 1835, the growing population made the scheme unworkable and so trade and franchise restrictions were abolished.

In Cardiff, those honoured since the award began there back in 1886 include sports heroes Colin Jackson and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson; political giants like Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and members of the Royal family.

There are currently no special arrangements attached to the award although when Paralympics legend Dame Tanni was given the honour in 2003, it seems she was told it meant she could graze sheep in the city centre.

"My sister was egging me on to buy a sheep and test the theory but it didn't happen," she said.

"David should definitely try grazing his sheep in Barry just to see what reaction he gets!

"It was actually quite a big deal when I was awarded the freedom of Cardiff because I was one of the only women to have been handed the honour.

"That kind of recognition is really nice. I got a really beautiful certificate which was nicely framed and hung over the mantelpiece.

"We've just moved house and that frame is one of the few things that we have kept out ready to go up.

Augustus John and Tenby montage

You shall, as much as lies in your power, contribute and do every act and thing for the good government and safety of the rights and privileges of this ancient Borough and the inhabitants thereof. So help you God

Part of the freedom of Tenby oath taken by Augustus John in 1959

"We also enjoyed a really nice day out as a family because there was a civic reception and a special presentation."

The military also do well in the "freedom" stakes across Wales.

On Saturday, the Royal Welsh marched through the streets of Wrexham to celebrate being granted the honorary freedom of the county borough.

The regiment marched with their colours flying, bayonets fixed, drums beating and bands playing, sticking to the rules laid out by their honour.

For individuals, it seems a promise of duty to the town or city is required.

Sir Harry Jones, former leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, had to promise to be obedient to the mayor of Newport and its councillors and also contribute to the city when he was given the freedom of Newport in 2004.

So being given the freedom of a place is certainly a big responsibility. Although it surely can't be any harder than swimming in the 10km open water event in Beijing.

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