9. John Frearson

The Birmingham General Cemetery (Key Hill)

Section H 4 

JOHN FREARSON is largely unremembered, but witnessed the great socialist changes from the Chartist and Owenite movements in the 1830s and 1840s, to the Co-operative movement of the 1870s and the New Socialism of William Morris in the 1880s.

He was born in Grace Dieu, Leicestershire in 1811, and first emerged in Manchester, where he was probably apprenticed. He married a French born girl in Manchester in 1833 and they had two daughters there in the 1830s, sadly they both died young. He was a ‘cutler’ in 1840.

He was a political activist, following Chartist ideals, and had been a supporter of Robert Owen from 1832 - being on his committee of examiners in Manchester. He ran a bookshop, selling socialist tracts, which was visited in 1840 by agents provocateurs, who bought tracts as evidence. This ‘evidence’ survives at The National Archives.

Probably to avoid arrest, he travelled to America (missing the 1841 census), leaving his family behind. In America, he became embroiled in debate on the efficiency of steam and water power.

He returned and moved to Birmingham before 1843 and he set up in business, first with his father, as ‘Clasp and French Clog Makers’, later on his own and then with a Charles Ilife. In 1851, his ‘Manchester Works’ in Birmingham was the first to introduce the Saturday half-day for workers. Cadburys, who claimed to be first, did not do this until 1860, ten years later!

He specialised in fastenings, particularly hooks and eyes for ladies’ dresses, and exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851. He filed many patents, several for screws and their manufacture, and one for a cross-head screw, still known as a ‘Frearson’ screw in USA, although known in Europe, as the slightly different ‘Phillips’ screw.

In Birmingham he had two more daughters and two sons before his wife died in 1857. One of his sons died fighting for the Unionist cause in the American Civil War in 1864, possibly when dealing with his father’s patents. In the 1860s he even found time to manage a French Giant! Then in the 1860s and 1870s, he and his second wife also ran a Temperance Hotel.

He was much involved with the Co-operative Movement, and wrote articles and pamphlets, some as ‘Meritum Justitia’. He gave the opening address to the 1869 Co-operative Congress, chaired by Thomas Hughes MP, (author of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’), and to which Florence Nightingale wrote with her apologies because of illness.

From 1885 to 1887, he corresponded with Edward Aveling and H Halliday Sparling, who were closely connected with Eleanor Marx and Mary ‘May’ Morris respectively, and were members of the New Socialism movement. Through them he offered advice - probably largely unheeded! - to William Morris on his socialist organisation and his publication ‘The Commonweal’.

John Frearson died in a Birmingham Homeopathic Hospital on 2 January 1888 and was buried in a public ‘guinea’ grave in Key Hill Cemetery.  His name is recorded on a memorial tablet.

A Booklet on his life is in preparation and an illustrated lecture is available and has already been given to two interested groups. More information from johnphfrearson@btinternet.com.