On Tuesday, 6 June 2023, Jimmy Flint, one of the most feared punching featherweights in Britain back in the seventies, made an appearance in court. He turned up respectfully suited and booted to be greeted by his numerous friends who had come along to support him and, when he saw us all there waiting for him, his face broke out into a sunny smile because it was far from a sombre occasion. We were at the Guildhall in the heart of London’s square mile and we were heading for the Chamberlain’s Court where Jimmy was to be bestowed with the honour of Freedom of the City.
The freedom ceremony, which dates back to 1237, is one of the oldest surviving traditions in the world. Back in the middle ages, a Freeman was not considered to be the property of a “feudal lord” and was entitled to earn money and own land. Two of the ancient privileges which Jimmy particularly liked were the permission to carry a sword around London and the right to be escorted home after a drink too many, but sadly these benefits no longer apply. However, should he ever want to, Jimmy can still drive sheep across the London Bridge on a certain day every year which, it has to be said, didn’t seem to impress him all that much.
Jimmy follows in the footsteps of the likes of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela and the courtroom is a historical treasure-trove with many relics from past ceremonies on display. The proceedings are conducted by the clerk of the court garbed in a silk gown, and the medieval language of the declaration contains a couple tongue-twisters, particularly the part where the recipient has to promise to “maintain the franchises and customs and keep this City harmless, in that which in me is”. When the clerk asked Jimmy to read from the card, there was a sense of togetherness in the room as we collectively willed him to get through it without a hitch, but we needn’t have worried. As a result of his acting experience, Jimmy is a man who is used to reading lines and he pledged his oath calmy and clearly.
As soon as the business end of things was done and dusted, we adjourned to the bar upstairs. While the drinks flowed and plentiful plates of sandwiches were munched, common councilman of over 20 years, Henry Jones, who put Jimmy forward for the accolade explained “I’ve known Jimmy for donkey’s years from Wapping. We go back 40 years plus and we still have a drink together most weeks. I can put people’s names forward to receive the Freedom and I spoke to Jimmy about it because it’s a lovely ceremony that dates back hundreds of years. Obviously, it’s more a formality now, but these old traditions are things that we’ve got to cling on to and keep.”
In the meantime, the man of the moment finally had time to sit back and relax. With a mischievous little grin, he reflected that “Today was interesting, about the sheep and everything, but where’s my sword? I want to get drunk and carry my sword, and they’ve taken all that away! I mean, what am I getting out of all this?” Then, as he surveyed the sunlit room full of smiling faces, the mellow hum of convivial chatter permeating the air, his eyes shone with a contended gleam and his expression became serene. The lad from the streets of Wapping who was raised in two rooms with an outside toilet has come a long way. “Seriously though, I was very proud to receive this honour today. It brought some people together and it was really nice. It’s been a lovely day, something different, and I’m very happy because now I know that my name is there forever.” Well done Jimmy. We are all very proud of you.