Frere, John

views updated

Frere, John

(b. Westhorpe, Suffolk, England, 10 August 1740; d. East Dereham, Norfolk, England, 12 July 1807),


Frere was the son of a country gentleman, Sheppard Frere, and of Susanna Hatley. He was privately educated near his home before entering Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, in 1758. He graduated with a B. A. in 1763 and was second wrangler; he took his M. A. in 1766 and was a junior fellow from 1766 to 1768. Frere’s professional career was in law and politics: he was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1761, became high sheriff of Suffolk in 1766, and Member of Parliament for Norwich in 1799. In 1768 he married Jane Hookham and lived at the family seat, Roydon Hall. They had seven sons.

Frere’s scientific work was mainly a hobby, and his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1771 was indicative of his general interest in science rather than of a distinction already achieved. He is said to have been active in the Royal Society, but there is little record of this. The only substantial publication is a two-page letter to the secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, that was read to the society on 22 June 1797 and published in Archaeologia in 1800. In this Frere records his discovery, at a brickyard near Hoxne, of shaped flints which were “evidently weapons of war, fabricated and used by a people who had not the use of metals”. A careful examination of the strata showed that the gravel in which the flints were found had been covered for a very long period. He also heard of, but was not able to see, a very large jawbone which had been found in the same stratum, and concluded that the deposit was “of a very remote period indeed.” Finally, Frere discovered from workmen on the site that they had already disposed of numerous such flints, and he presumed that this was “a place of their manufacture and not of their accidental deposit”.

The discovery aroused little or no interest at the time, and it was not until 1840, when Boucher de Perthes made news by finding similar implements in the Somme, that Frere’s perceptiveness was appreciated. These flints probably exhibited the best known workmanship of the lower Paleolithic period, and further excavations were made later in late Acheulean deposits at Hoxne. The weapons discovered by Frere are in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries of London and are deposited in the British Museum.


Frere’s “Account of Flint Weapons Discovered at Hoxne in Suffolk” was published in Archaeologia, 13 (1800), 204–205; there was a 2nd ed. Of this volume in 1807. The paper was reprinted verbatim, with a discussion of Frere’s work, by J. Reid Moir in his “A Pioneer in Palaeolithic Discovery,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London, 2 (1939), 28–31, with portrait; and by Glyn Daniel, in Origins and Growth of Archaeology (London, 1967), pp. 57–58.

The main biographical sources for Frere are the article by Warwick Wroth in Dictionary of National Biography, XX (London, 1889), 267–268, which includes additional references; the memoir on the life of his son in John Hookham Frere, Works, I (London, 1872), xii-xv; and the entry in J. Venn, Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College, II, 1713–1897 (Cambridge, 1898), 75.

Frere’s work was also discussed in J. Prestwich, “On the Accounts of Flint Implements Associated With the Remains of Animals of Extinct Species in Beds of a Late Geological Period, in France, at Amiens, and Abbeville, and in England at Hoxne”, in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 150 (1860), 277–317; and in J. Reid Moir, The Antiquity of Man in East Anglia (Cambridge, 1927), p. 59.

Diana M. Simpkins