The Frere collection of antiquaries' papers constitutes a part of the huge collection assembled by Peter Le Neve (1661-1729) as the basis of a projected history of Norfolk. From Le Neve the whole collection passed to the antiquary, topographer and historian of Norfolk, Francis Blomefield (1705-1752), and then to the antiquary, Thomas Martin (1697-1771). Martin resisted attempts to have it placed in public ownership and it was sold and dispersed on his death. The bulk, however, passed to the antiquary, Sir John Fenn (1739-1794), who added material of his own and of the antiquary, Antony Norris (1711-1786), whose papers he had acquired.
From Fenn part came to John Frere of Roydon (Norfolk) and part to William Frere (1775-1836), antiquary and Master of Downing College, Cambridge. In 1889 representatives of the latter presented his part to the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society. In 1926 further papers, most probably derived from John Frere, were presented to the Society by the antiquary Prince Frederick Duleep Singh (1868-1926). (Duleep Singh also retained a quantity of items deriving from Frere, and these were deposited at Norfolk Record Office in 1969).
The history of the collection as a whole is summarised in the published Calendar of Frere Manuscripts: Hundred of Holt (B. Cozens-Hardy, Norfolk Record Society, I, 1931) and in D. Stoker 'The ill-gotten library of 'Honest' Tom Martin' (in R. Myers and M. Harris ed., 'Property of a Gentleman', Sir Paul's Bibliographies, Winchester, 1991, pp. 90-111).
The Frere collection comprises antiquaries' notes and transcripts, with which are placed many original documents of dates mostly ranging between the late 13th century and the early 18th century. Some of these documents (for instance a county militia rate list 1659) were sliced up for filing. Much of the material is arranged topographically in parish and hundred bundles. For one parish there are sometimes several hundred slips and several dozen original documents. The rest remains in miscellaneous bundles.
The Frere collection is predominantly that of Le Neve, with substantial additions by Blomefield, Martin and Fenn, though Fenn added to the topographical section (except perhaps for Northwold and Edgefield). Martin arranged unsorted matter in his own series of folders, by hundred but not by parish. Other frequently occurring hands are those of Le Neve's clerk Thomas Allen, John Kirkpatrick (1685-1728, antiquary) and Thomas Tanner (1674-1735, antiquary and Bishop of St Asaph). The antiquary Benjamin Mackerell (d 1738) acted as Le Neve's assistant (see Norfolk Record Office, Hamond Collection, HMN 7/309, NRA 40234) and his hand occurs (see Lynn bundle) as do those of the antiquary Edward Steele (flourished 1705-1760) (e.g. Banham, South Lynn bundles), of John Hare (d 1720), Richmond Herald (e.g. Wilby, Broomsthorpe bundles), of the herald and antiquary John Anstis (1669-1744) (e.g. Pulham bundle), and of local antiquaries such as Guybon Goddard (Lynn bundle), John Borret (d.1698) of Griston (hundreds of Wayland and South Erpingham bundles), John Holmes, the Holt Schoolmaster (Holt hundred bundle) and James Baldwin (Bunwell bundle). (For identification of some minor figures see J. Blatchly, 'The Topographers of Suffolk' (Suffolk Record Office, 1976).) Blomefield's questionnaire of 1734 and other requests for information brought replies from clergy and gentry, the most notable that of parson John Russell of Postwick (Blofield hundred). Hundreds not covered in the topographical section are those of Clackclose, Clavering, North Erpingham, East and West Flegg, South Greenhoe, Loddon, Mitford and Walsham, while Blofield is very thinly represented.
By far the greater number of original documents came to Le Neve from two sources, the family collections of the Knyvetts of Ashwellthorpe and the Gawdys of West Harling, both concentrated in the period 1580-1680, those of the Knyvetts including papers of their predecessors in title at Ashwellthorpe and elsewhere. Le Neve was obliged to disgorge part of the Knyvett archive and that part (with some of Le Neve's slips and other additional material) now forms a section of the Knyvett-Wilson collection in the Norfolk Record Office (see NRA 17855). Members of the Knyvett and Gawdy families were justices and filled other county offices. Consequently the collection includes a quantity of JPs' papers, notably for the hundreds of Diss, Earsham, Eynesford, Guiltcross, Shropham and Wayland. These are filed in the appropriate topographical bundles or more generally by subject and place. They include: constables' returns concerning such matters as the poor, apprentices, alehouses, and tobacco vendors in the period 1625-1635; accounts rendered by parochial keepers of the poor 1599-1641 (mostly of the 1630s); muster papers; subsidy and other tax and rate assessments; hearth tax assessments, with lists of exemptions; and petitions and letters to the justices. From the Knyvett archive also came estate, manorial and suit papers (for instance of the manor of Colkirk 1590s), papers relating to the associated families of Appleyard and Flowerdew (including a 16th century coal delivery account), and correspondence with Sir Arthur and Sir John Heveningham, the Hollands of Quidenham and the Branthwayts of Hethel. Amongst the Gawdy papers are letters (filed under Hempnall and Diss) from the Earl of Sussex recommending Sir Bassingborne Gawdy (d.1606) in the county election of 1601.
In this report the several hundred topographical bundles are described briefly and the miscellaneous bundles are listed more fully, box by box. The box numbers reflect shelf locations in the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society Library and they overlap where bundles are boxed out of numerical sequence. There is also a section summarising the manorial and hundred records found in the Frere collection. Changes to the archival arrangement of the papers made during the Society's custodianship include sorting out some of the bulkier items in the topographical sequence and separate series and, in seven hundreds, the pasting of slips onto foolscap sheets, sometimes in this way obscuring the antiquaries' re-use of ephemera as scrap paper. There are sixty boxes of papers and the condition of the documents is generally good.