The Frears family

The contribution to the University of Leicester of the Frears family, researched and written by Caroline Wessel

As well as having distinguished careers in business, politics, the arts and philanthropy, three generations of the Frears family of Leicester have connections with the University of Leicester and several were strong supporters and generous benefactors.

The family bakery business was founded in 1870 by John Russell Frears’ father. When John joined, it became Frears & Son, moving to larger premises as the business expanded and in 1910 was registered as a limited company, Frears’s Bread Company Limited. In the 1920s the firm amalgamated with Black’s Bread Company Ltd, to become Frears & Blacks Ltd., where biscuits were also made. As a result the business was split into two, Frears and Blacks Ltd on Abbey Lane and Frears Biscuits Ltd in Woodgate. As John Russell withdrew from active management, his sons took over as directors – Charles running the biscuits business and John Newton administering the bakery. Abbey Bakeries developed into one of the largest bread producers in the country, and the growing range of Frears Biscuit brands, such as Morning Tea, Butter Fingers and Teatime Assorted, with their beautiful tins, became a national institution.

First generation

John Russell Frears

John Russell Frears (1863-1937), the first of the three notable Frears generations, was a councillor for Leicester’s Newton Ward from 1906, became an Alderman and in 1913 was elected Mayor of Leicester. Alderman Frears served on several Borough Committees including those for Finance and Lunatic Asylum Visiting and was on the Education Committee of Wyggeston School for Girls. Even before the proposed University College of Leicester, Leicestershire & Rutland opened, John Russell Frears was on its Committee and his bakery company had made a donation. In 1924 he was serving on the College Council and by the following year was even more involved, being a member of the Finance and General Purposes Committee, and on the Court of Governors. And almost a hundred years later, all those passing into the Fielding Johnson Building are still reminded of Mr Frears’ dedication to the new University College; for he is amongst the nine people listed on a handsome plaque in the entrance porch as a trustee of the Fielding Johnson Trust.

Frears was also a Freemason, serving as Provincial Grand Secretary; a Justice of the Peace; and a member of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society. In 1924 he gained the Freedom of the City of London in order to become a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Framework Knitters (many of whose members were Midlands based). In the 1891 Census John, aged 27, is recorded as living in his father’s household, as was their bakery apprentice, Harry Cape – and in 1898 John married Harry’s elder sister, Minnie Keighley Cape. John and Minnie Frears had five children, and their three sons were all high-achievers.

Second generation

Charles Russell Frears

Charles Russell Frears (1899-1977) is no doubt well-known to many through Leicester’s Charles Frears School of Nursing, so named as a tribute to his considerable contribution to Leicester’s health services. But he was a man of many parts. As a nineteen year old, he had served with the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment on the Western Front in France in the final year of the war. He was a 2nd Lieutenant commanding the 7th Platoon, and regimental records describe his attack on the enemy at St Vlaast, where two posts were to be taken at all costs. The orders to attack from Battalion HQ never arrived, so the men had to start ‘under their own steam’; the platoon sustained high casualties and ‘were somewhat rattled due to the unseen fire of snipers’.

In 1935 Charles was one of the county’s first six pilots to gain a Royal Aeronautical Club private pilot’s licence, and his test was in a Gypsy Moth at the Leicestershire Aero Club’s Desford Airfield. Amongst his other appointments were Managing Director of Frears Biscuits, Justice of the Peace, President of Leicester Rotary Club, President of Leicester Literary & Philosophical Society (1950) and Lay Canon of Leicester Cathedral. In addition, he played a key voluntary role for many years in Leicester’s health provisions, particularly within the hospitals and from 1962-1973 was an outstanding Chairman of the Leicester No. 1 Hospital Management Committee. To honour this, Leicester’s new Royal Infirmary School of Nursing was named ‘The Charles Frears’, which he described as “the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life”.

But Charles Frears’ contribution to Leicester’s University was equally as exceptional, for he served on its College Council for thirty years, and in 1959 succeeded Percy Gee as its Chairman. Also on the Gardens Committee and enjoying gardening as his main hobby, in 1962 he presented the University Library with a most precious gift – a set of John Sibthorp’s Flora Graeca, one of the rarest and most splendid botanical works ever produced, which is still today the outstanding item amongst the Library’s notable collection of flora volumes. But perhaps – most significant of all – Charles had lost many Platoon 7 comrades in a devastating war, for which the University stood as a permanent memorial.

John Newton Frears

John Newton Frears (1906-1981) was given his second name because he was born the same year that his father won Newton Ward in Leicester. He too had a distinguished career in civic life, being a long-serving Justice of the Peace; a President of Leicester Rotary; the youngest member of the Borough Council (1932); and the youngest ever Lord Mayor of Leicester (1947), aged 41. After taking an engineering degree at Cambridge, he went straight into the family bakery business, in due course becoming its Chairman.

In 1938 John purchased a 1929 Rolls Royce car made by Thrupp & Maberley, called Bluebell, and as an engineer delighted in making various innovative alterations to it. A year later during WW2’s ‘phoney war’, Winston Churchill, concerned that Britain could be starved into submission if warships bringing grain from America were constantly sunk, gave ‘the Bread Problem’ top priority. So the government looked around for a non-military person to be responsible for putting bread on Britain’s table – and John Newton Frears was their ideal man. He accepted and became a Senior Civil Servant with the title ‘Head of Bakeries, Ministry of Food’. His car, Bluebell, was also commissioned and served as Mr Frears’ official government car. It was re-painted dark blue because of the wartime blackout and Mr Frears’ new job took him all over Britain – 55,000 miles in total – to advise on production techniques to maximise bread output. He was given an official petrol allowance, but even so petrol was often hard to find. So he removed the two spare wheels in the boot of his car and installed a large fuel tank in its place, to fill up with petrol whenever he could. In 1955 John Newton Frears received a CBE for his work.

After the war Mr Frears gave much time and effort to the University of Leicester. He was appointed a member of Council (1950); Chairman of Council (1973-1981); and a Pro-Chancellor (1962-1981). He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate, (Doctor of Laws) in 1967, and the Jubilee Scholarships that he personally suggested were re-named the John Frears Scholarships in his honour. And to this day there is a John Frears House, student accommodation in James Street, Leicester, that he funded. In the University Vice-Chancellor’s address at his funeral (1981), he described John Newton Frears as being never vainglorious, for all he did was out of duty, putting “service before self”. He was a “patient listener, wise in few words, a sound judge of men and staunch in a crisis”. John was much loved by his family and was at heart a romantic, loving philosophy and poetry.

Russell Edward Frears

Russell Edward Frears (1909-1977), the third son of John Russell Frears, was not directly involved with the University, and described by his son as rather more eccentric than his brothers. He qualified as a chartered accountant, and worked at Frears Bakery, becoming a director, though apparently was not as wealthy as his older brothers. Russell also gained an early private pilot’s licence at Leicestershire Aero Club (1935) and during WW2 served in the RAF. But post-war he trained to be a doctor at Barts Hospital, London and became a G.P. in Nottingham. His wife, Ruth Danziger, was Jewish, but her family were not aware of this until later in their lives. In 1946 he bought the famous Rolls Royce ‘Bluebell’ from his brother!

Third generation

Stephen Frears

Stephen Arthur Frears (b. 1941) the youngest of Russell and Ruth’s three sons and the third generation of Frears, has achieved a career as a world-renowned television and film director, his movies exploring social class through sharply drawn characters. He became an overnight success at the grand old age of 44 when he dissected multiracial sexually-adventurous Thatcherite Britain with his film My Beautiful Launderette (1985). Amongst his twenty-three other films, made between 1967 and 2019, are the top-ranking Dangerous Liaisons (1988), High Fidelity (2000), Dirty Pretty Things (2002), The Queen (2006) and Victoria and Abdul (2017). He adapted The Snapper (1993) and The Van (1996) from Roddy Doyle novels, and his television work includes the highly-acclaimed A Very English Scandal (2018). Stephen Frears has received fourteen Film Awards for Best Director and in 2008 The Daily Telegraph named him amongst the 100 most influential people in British culture.

In interviews Stephen has vividly described his childhood memories of Leicester – his matriarchal grandmother (Minnie), who seemed like an old Empress and sent her Bentley to fetch the family to her big house. He recalls his schooldays love of learning, even reading Homer at a very young age; the unpleasantness of prep boarding school; and his parents fragile marriage. He was delighted at discovering his own Jewishness, through his mother, as it explained his sense of outsiderness. Stephen studied Law at Cambridge, where he was Assistant Stage Manager for the 1963 Footlights Revue, starring Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese and Bill Oddie Stephen Frears and his career then started in television.

His first marriage was to Mary-Kay Wilmers, Editor of the London Review of Books. The live-in nanny for their children was the acclaimed Leicester-born author, Nina Stibbe, who wrote letters home describing their London literari life. These were published as the bestseller Love, Nina (2014) and won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award (2014). Nina received an Honorary Doctorate (D.Litt) at the University of Leicester in 2018.

Stephen Frears was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate (D.Litt) by the University of Leicester in 2002, in the year of its eightieth anniversary. One interviewer has described Frears as ‘like a British bulldog, giving blunt, direct responses to questions … but get past the bark and there is no bite’. Alongside Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, Stephen Arthur Frears is now considered to be part of the great triumvate of British film directors.

Key Sources

ROLLR Frears and Black archives

1891, 1911 Census Returns

Astley Clarke scrapbook ULA/D2/1

University Annual Reports

Lit and Phil Presidents listings

Boynton, Helen & Seaton, Derek (1999) Tollgate to Tramshed

Vyse, Charles (2013) Survivor.

Notts and Derbyshire Regimental archives

Obituary in Bulletin vol. 13 no. 8 June 1981, University archives P/BU151

BBC interview with Stephen Frears 11 Jan 2008

University list of Honorary Graduates