ID: MARG_127_021 / Trevor Hearn

TitleThomas Frere and his Connection to the British Slave Trade
AbstractThomas Frere and his Family's Connection to the British Slave Trade

East Anglia has been the home of the Frere dynasty from early times and it is considered that they are descended from the Normans. Henry le Frere of Suffolk is the first known recording of the Frere name in England in 1212 during the reign of King John. A couple of generations later sees a mention of a John le Frere who appears in the records in 1275 participating in an inquisition for the hundred of Mitford in Norfolk along with others. It is from this John le Frere that the lineal descent occurs for the established East Anglian branch of the family, resulting in a connection to the parish of West Mersea as it was in the seventeenth century. There are other distinct Frere family lines across the country although the name has evolved into other formats such as Freer, Fryer, Fryar and other anomalies. There are two family pedigrees of the Frere family online (see Sources below) but it appears that one of these gives erroneous information about one branch of the family pertaining to Elizabeth Frere (the sister of the Thomas Frere of this article). A digitised copy of the will of Thomas Frere was obtained from the Essex Record Office which gives certain details of the correct lineal descent and family relationships.

The John le Frere mentioned above is almost certainly the John Frere from whom lineal descent of the East Anglian branch of the Frere family can be traced, and he married a lady with the surname Thurston. It is predicated on this fact that John Frere is erroneously sometimes referred to as "of Thurston". However, research has shown that the Thurston family have never had connections with the place of that name and have been identified as hailing initially from Thetford and thence from Hoxne. "Thurston" is not a territorial name but is derived from an old Saxon familial one. Hoxne is located quite close to Eye and there is a possibility that the John Frere that married a Thurston was indeed the same John le Frere of Eye who was the grandson of Richard le Frere of Eye. Richard lived in the latter half of the twelfth century but here the waters get murky as there is a dearth of documentary evidence to back up this filial connection and copyhold tenure did not exist until the reign of Henry III. It is extremely difficult to categorically prove the descent of any family prior to the thirteenth century unless family members had held manors or had paid fines to the reigning monarch. Therefore the theory must remain supposition based on circumstantial evidence.

The latter descendants of John Frere of Thurston were resident in Swaffling in Suffolk and some among these descendants purchased property and lands in Suffolk, including at Occold. One of the family members, also named John Frere, was born in Occold, Suffolk and he purchased lands at Wickham Skeith, being a man of considerable wealth. He married Julian, the widow of Richard Margeny, and they had three sons: John Frere, born in 1510 in Wickham Skeith; Thomas Frere, (latterly known as Thomas Frere of Occold), born in 1515; and Robert Frere, born in about 1518. Robert Frere was a minor at the time of death of his father in 1532. Not much is known about him other than he was married and had three daughters, Agnes, Audrey and Margaret. Hence, the male Frere line from this particular son hit the buffers. However, the lineal descendants of John and Thomas went on to establish distinct family branches, the "senior" branch and the "junior" branch respectively. Paradoxically, it was the junior branch that was by far the most numerous and enjoyed greater longevity that the senior branch which eventually petered out into obscurity through lack of male issue.

Upon the death of John Frere in 1532 his two sons, John (the eldest) and Thomas (the second son) inherited the properties, the former taking the property at Wickham Skeith and the latter that at Occold. Robert, being a minor, missed out on the division of the property. Thomas was the ancestor of the Freres of Occold, Harleston and Barbados and, in the Civil War, these Freres were supporters of the Parliamentarians. He was the progenitor of the junior branch. Thomas Frere of Occold was married twice and produced many sons. The first marriage was to Margaret Bacon in about 1539 and they had two sons, Alexander and George, and a daughter called Margaret. His second marriage was to Elizabeth Baxter and, of their issue, only one left any posterity. This was Richard Frere of Harlston who also married twice and, by his first wife Thomasine Flowerdew, had one son, named Thomas, who succeeded to the Occold property and whose descendants settled in Barbados. Thomasine was the daughter and heiress of Martin Flowerdew of Hethersett in Norfolk. By his second wife, Alice Blosse, he had sons named Richard, Tobias and Anthony. Tobias succeeded Thomas at Harleston and Anthony was Rector at Mulbarton in Norfolk where his own descendants settled. The surviving children of Richard Frere settled in Barbados at about the time of Richard's death in 1652, and their descendants lived there on a plantation known as Frere's or Cleverley's until the beginning of the twentieth century.

John Frere, the eldest son and progenitor of the senior branch, inherited the lands at Wickham Skeith and married Agnes Bacon sometime before 1530. Agnes was the sister of Margaret, the first bride of John's younger brother Thomas. Following the line of lineal descent, the eldest son of John and Agnes was also named John and he was born at Wickham Skeith although the year of birth is not recorded. This John became known as John Frere of the Abbey as he had purchased an abbey which he used as a home. He was married twice, firstly to Katherine, the daughter of John Rivett of Rishangles, Suffolk and then to Thomasine Jessop of Thornton, Suffolk. The first marriage produced no issue. The second marriage with Thomasine Jessop produced three sons and five daughters. The eldest son was John, of Green Farm, who was born on 21st October 1569 at Wickham Skeith, followed by his younger brother, Peter. The third son was christened John II and he went on to establish a distinguished line of the Frere dynasty which is still well represented in England. It is the middle son, Peter, and in particular his descendants, which have the connection to West Mersea. It was the will of his grandson, Thomas of Fingringhoe, that has led to the discovery of the Frere family's connection to Barbados and the slave trade.

Peter married Anne Bacon, his second cousin, and had four sons and three daughters. Of these children, Thomas and William were both unmarried and George, although married to Blanche, died without issue. George was a merchant in London and became wealthy, enabling him to purchase the manors of Peet Hall and Fingringhoe. It was the latter manor in which he lived and died.

Fingringhoe Hall as rebuilt after being badly damaged by a lightning strike in August 1787, and before thefire of 1975.

There is an interesting monument to George in Fingringhoe church where he bequeathed that bread be distributed to the poor of the parish.

Either Mary or Lettice married a Mr Hayes, whilst the other appears to have died unmarried, and Penelope married a John Goddard and had four sons, John, George, Edmund and Robert, and one daughter, Susan. The eldest child of this marriage, John junior, was left property from his uncle George of Fingringhoe, not in his absolute name but in trust, with the remainder to himself, for the great-nephew of George Frere, also named George, provided he was apprenticed and attained the age of 24. The young George was a minor at the time of his great-uncle's death.

It is apparent that young George Frere must have died prior to attaining the age of 24 although the parish register of deaths only commences in 1778 so it is impossible to clarify the exact date. In any event John Goddard inherited the manors of Peet Hall and Fingringhoe in his sole name. Goddard sold the manor of Fingringhoe in 1707 to Marmaduke Rawdon.

Peter's eldest son was named John and he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Robert Symonds of Witford Bridge in Cambridgeshire. Little is known about the life of John other than the fact that in 1645 he was a defaulter in the manor of Wickham Skeith. It is interesting to note that in the will of his son, Thomas, it is mentioned that Thomas was "the son and sole heir of Mr John Frere, late of Kilcock near the City of Dublin". This intriguing snippet shines some light, perhaps, on the whereabouts of John following his default on the Suffolk manor. As far as the scant records show, there were three children resulting from the marriage of John and Elizabeth: the eldest son was John, but he died probably before 1647 as it was in that year that his uncle George was admitted to the manor of Wickham Skeith in place of John's father who had defaulted. There was then a daughter, Elizabeth, and a second son, Thomas whose will has been transcribed. The death of the eldest son, John, elevated Thomas to the position of "sole son and heir" as mentioned in his will. Thomas of Fingringhoe was married, but there are no details of his wife's name. In his will, Thomas mentions the name of two sons: the eldest, George, and a younger son, Thomas. It was this eldest son George who was the beneficiary in trust of the manors of Peet Hall and Fingringhoe that had been bequeathed to him by his great-uncle George as detailed in the previous paragraph.

Thomas's sister, Elizabeth, married Captain John Jackson of Christ Church, Barbados on 24th March 1651 in the parish of her husband. Both she and her husband pre-deceased her brother Thomas, as his will mentions that he inherited both real and personal estate in the island of Barbados from them. It is not immediately apparent how Elizabeth met Captain John Jackson: was he visiting Suffolk when they fell in love or had she some business in Barbados when she first met him?

The Barbados connection in terms of the plantations and estates was established by the descendants of Elizabeth's great, great uncle Thomas Frere of Occold from whom the junior branch of the family descends as mentioned above. It was the descendants of Thomas's grandchildren that settled in Barbados and became not only firmly established but successful in their own right. They also became involved in the burgeoning slave trade. The eldest son of Richard Frere of Harleston (the eldest son of his father, Thomas of Occold) was also named Thomas as stated earlier, being born in January 1581. Thomas became a prosperous merchant and around 1603 he married Anne Wallis, the daughter and co-heiress of Edmund Wallis of Fersfield, and half-sister of Roger Stone of Fersfield. Thomas and Anne continued to live their lives in England while their children went abroad and became the founders of the Frere dynasty in Barbados.

The English slave trade is widely believed to have commenced in 1562 when John Hawkins embarked on the first of his three slaving voyages. It is recorded that he sold slaves in St Domingo in 1563, undertook a second slaving voyage in 1564 before ending his tenure on a disastrous third and final voyage in 1567. English merchants at this time were primarily interested in African produce rather than the slave trade with numerous charters being granted between 1553 and 1660 for the establishment of settlements on the West Coast of Africa. These were founded for the supply of such goods as ivory, gold, pepper, dyewood and indigo and led to an upsurge in rivalry on this coast between such European powers as Portugal, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. Significant losses were sustained by many companies involved in these enterprises and things only got worse with the introduction of slavery on plantations in the American continent.

The introduction of sugar to Barbados by Dutch merchants in the 1640s brought both knowledge and technology that had been garnered from the plantations in Brazil which the Dutch had seized from the Portuguese in 1630. The Dutch showed the Barbadian planters the mechanics of growing and processing sugarcane. The new found knowledge was supplemented by labour when the Dutch also introduced plantation slavery to the local growers. The sugar which was produced was sold in Holland. Sugar became an important commodity with a huge surge in demand and interest necessitating a change in the method of cultivation. The English method of agriculture with a large number of small farms growing crops, cotton and tobacco was supplanted by fewer landowners monopolising the agricultural land to concentrate on the large scale production of sugarcane. The intensive process of growing, harvesting and processing sugarcane needed large numbers of labourers which were initially sourced from convicted and indentured servants from Britain, supplemented by a few African "servants".

However, the supply of convict labourers was soon exhausted leading to the English seeking alternative sources. They set their sights on the Dutch who appeared to have an inexhaustible supply of labour from Africa and thus the English commenced their involvement in the triangular trade of enslaved Africans. The local Barbadian growers were soon employing large gangs of slaves from Africa. Not content just with employing this enslaved labour, very restrictive laws were passed that inhibited the rights of the African slaves, even to the extent of classifying them as personal property of the owners. This process spread to other American colonies owned by the British where many of these laws were copied and adapted.

At least 70% of the trade of African slaves to the Americas was shared by Portugal and Britain with the latter becoming the most dominant between 1640 and 1807, when the British slave trade was abolished. Estimates suggest that 3,100,000 Africans were transported by the British to their colonies in the Caribbean, the Americas and other countries. Of these only 87% actually arrived. The initial success in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of British companies developing trade in Africa with burgeoning trade routes exploded when Africa was opened up and the slave trade became available to all in 1698. It was at this moment that Britain came to dominate the trade in African slaves.

The initial foray to the British colonies in America was undertaken by the children of Thomas Frere and his wife Anne. Their six sons: Tobias Frere, Thomas Frere, Alexander Frere, John Frere, William Frere and Richard Frere, went as merchants, adventurers, attorneys and planters. Even the daughters were tempted to travel there, one marrying John Piddock of Barbados and another tying the knot with Benjamine Payne of the same Caribbean island. Their cousin, Elizabeth Frere also travelled there to marry Captain John Jackson as mentioned above. The eldest son and heir of Thomas Frere was Richard and he had acquired some property in Barbados by the time of his death in 1646. He nominated his oldest brother Tobias, to be the executor of his estate and the guardian of his sons, Thomas and Tobias. The family tradition of using established family names continued unabated. In the 1670s, Tobias Frere (the brother of Richard) sought the assistance of the Barbados Council in claiming legacies for Thomas, the eldest son and heir of Richard from the estates of John Gunning and Captain John Jackson, husband of the cousin Elizabeth Frere.

Tobias was registered as a passenger aboard the "Plaine Joan" on 15th May 1635 aged 18, having attested to the conformities of the orders and discipline of the Church of England. His fellow passengers included Thomas Turner aged 21, Robert Lewes aged 23, Richard Fleming aged 24, Edward Wilson aged 22 and Thomas Lloyd aged 20. The ship was owned by Mr Richard Buckham and was bound from London to Virginia. On 17th September 1647, Tobias Frere and Mr Robert Vause bought 400 acres in Yorke County, Virgina from John Hartwell located on Queens Creek bounding along Hartwells Creek and Maiden Swamp Creek as part of a 650 acre grant assigned to Frere and Vause.

Tobias was a merchant and a planter who removed to Barbados sometime before 1650. In 1654 he had invested in 3,000 acres of land in Suriname with his friends John Arnott and John Egron, who were also land owners in Christ Church Parish, Barbados. Later that year he leased or sold 125 acres of land to his brother John Frere near the estae of "Coverley". In 1655 Thomas Frere, Tobias Frere. Thomas Middleton, Colonel James Drax, Jonathan Andrews, Robert Hooper and Thomas Tron, all English merchants, petitioned the Lords of Trade for permission to trade arms in Barbados. They were granted permission to remove arms from the Tower for the trade. In 1660 Tobias provided John with another 330 acre plantation in Christ Church which was bought by a merchant's syndicate that included John among others. This syndicate owned over 10,000 acres of land.

Tobias married Elizabeth Middleton, the daughter of English merchant Thomas Middleton who owned the estates of "Mount" and "Valley" in St George's Parish, in 1663. Tobias and Elizabeth had two children: Elizabeth and Tobias, Jr. The relationship with his brother John was embittered for many years in 1670 by a dispute over the ownership of some 125 acres of land. It was taken to the Court of Error where John was given control of the land but, after many years of fighting, the decision was overturned by the Council and the land was given to Tobias. In 1673, Tobias was listed as having 400 acres of land in Christ Church. Tobias Frere, Sr died in 1683 in Christ Church Parish.

In 1683 Tobias Frere made a provision in his will that if his son and heir, Tobias Frere, Jr, should die without heirs, then his estate would be inherited by his nephews, Thomas and Tobias Frere, sons of his brother Richard Frere. Thomas Frere, the elder nephew, was to inherit two-thirds of the estate and Tobias would receive the remaining third. However, Tobias Frere, Jr died three years later in 1686 but did leave two children and heirs, Susanna and Tobias Frere III. The executor of the will of Tobias Frere (senior) was his brother Thomas, or should he die, then his brother Captain John Frere, the sixth son of Thomas and Anne.

John was also an English merchant and investor who had travelled to Barbados sometime before 1650 and was the first of the family to settle in Christ Church Parish. Married to Anne Pearson in 1653, he owned a plantation of 125 acres by 1654. There is an interesting case recorded in May 1655 when John Frere commenced an action against John Woodworth and his wife in 1654 in the precinct court of Christ Church for trading with one of his servants, Henry Brereton. In 1658 John Frere won the action and recovered 7,000 pounds of sugar in damages. The court held that Woodworth, by trading with the servant, had "undermined Frere's property rights and title in his servant", and Brereton's servitude was extended by two years.

John had established himself in the local plantocracy and rose in the ranks of the militia from Captain to Major and then to Colonel. He was a Justice of the Peace and elected to the House of Assembly for Christ Church Parish from 1661 to 1667. By all accounts he was a feisty and assertive individual and had plenty of controversy.

John and Anne had six children although their fourth child, a daughter called Rachel, died when she was two years old in 1661. Then, on 11th October 1664, John's wife died leaving him with five children to raise between the ages of 1 and 9. He re-married four months later to Frances Seawell, a sister of his neighbour Richard Seawell who owned about 550 acres. He arranged for his children to receive an excellent education, sending his sons to England as was the custom of the time, although to which scholarly establishments is not known.

In October 1667/8, John bought just under 45 acres of land from Edward Oistin for 62,497 pounds of muscovado sugar. In the census of 1673, John Frere is listed as owning 300 acres of land on Barbados making him one of the substantial landowners according to Governor Atkins.

The Frere family were firmly established in Barbados as major plantation owners for the growing and processing of sugar. There are various entries in the official records that detail their holdings and allude to the fact that they were active users and supporters of the African slave trade. Here is an extract with some of the details:

Frere - Tobias, having 395 acres with 5 servants and 150 negroes
Frere - John, having 180 acres with [blank] servants, 80 negroes
Frere - William, having 120 acres with [blank] servants and 40 negroes
Frere - William, having 1 acre with [blank] servants and [blank] negroes
There is also a mention of "Captain Tobias Frere had handed over to him as servants Thomas Townsend and John Hughes, two out of 90 persons transported to Barbados for their part in Monmouth's rebellion." There is an entry at the Record Office to the effect that in 1638 a William Fryer had more than 10 acres in Barbados. This date is so early that it appears probable that this William Fryer, elsewhere spelt Frere, was the brother of George Frere of Fingringhoe.

Map of Barbados showing Frere Plantations
With thanks to

The Frere dynasty was an important and vibrant part of the life in Barbados and became wealthy landowners in the pursuit of the sugar industry. Whilst the thought of participating in the African slave trade is abhorrent to us today, it must be placed in its historical context when such activities were sadly the norm. In any event, the family has a fascinating history and one in which the interest was sparked by an entry in the will of one of its members, Thomas Frere of Fingringhoe. Did Thomas ever visit Barbados? The court rolls of Wickham Skeith describe Thomas as "beyond sea" in 1649 implying that he may well have gone out there with his sister from whom he inherited lands and property and returned to England after the death of his uncle George in 1655. The younger sons of Thomas were born in Fingringhoe after this date giving credence to this speculation. There can be no doubt that Thomas was a member of an eminent family whose tentacles reached throughout England and across the Atlantic to become historical playmakers in the sugar industry and its shameful participation in the African slave trade.

Trevor Hearn
May 2020

Read More is a base for research into the Freer / Frere family
See MARG_127 for the Will of Thomas Frere of Fingringhoe 1663, which started this path of research.
PH01_PTY text=A History of Pete Hall;

AuthorTrevor Hearn
Keywordspete hall
SourceMersea Museum