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The Yorkshire Archaeological & Historical Society

Since 1863

For everyone interested in Yorkshire's past

Brearley’s Memorandum Book for 1772-3

In 2020 the Society added an important new item to its Collections of books and manuscripts.  It can be read online by following these links.

The memorandum book consists of 200 individual leaves bound together, though not always chronologically.  For reference purposes each leaf is numbered in pencil at the top right hand corner of the front (recto) but not the back (verso).

John Brearley was a Wakefield cloth frizzer, active there in the 1750s and (we now know) into the 1770s. Keeping a personal reference book like this – sometimes called commonplace books, and noting recipes and remedies and all sorts of personal and industrial information – was not rare. Brearley’s, though, is exceptionally striking. Its date (1772-3) coincides with a time of accelerating industrial change. It includes information relating to his working life, and most vividly contains his own sketches of machines, devices and power systems used in textiles and other trades, about 140 of them in all.

Frizzing, or frizing, was an operation in finishing woollen-cloth. The fibrous surface, ‘nap’, was raised by rough combing, and after that the cloth cropped with hand-shears for a smooth finish. So Brearley was essentially a miller, working on commission in water-powered premises. Clothiers brought their pieces for him to process. This was one kind of public mill – corn- and fulling-mills were others – and also semi-public sites, like Kirkstall Forge, which served as informal information exchanges as people came and went. Brearley was certainly not alone in collecting and noting this kind of data, from technological ideas such as improving water-wheel efficiency or the design of tenter-frames, to milling techniques. The regional grapevine was a source, too, of commercial news, about the cloth trade, on prices, potential suppliers and customers, and the health (or otherwise) of various businesses. Among all this, carefully noted by Brearley, his sketches were an aide memoire of machine and gadget designs described or shown to him.

The memorandum book does not name Brearley as its author, but was quickly identified as his work because of its close similarity to two other notebooks* held by the Leeds office of the West Yorkshire Archive Service (reference WYL 463). Significantly, in the 1772-3 volume the author notes ‘Eleven Writen Books in Cupboard Now in December 1771’. It is clear that there were at least nine other such notebooks and the Society would therefore be grateful for any information as to their whereabouts.


The purchase was supported financially by the Friends of the National Libraries and by the Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, as well as some individual YAHS members and the Society wishes to record its gratitude for this generosity.


Some Examples of Brearley's general observations

p 25 v refers to the problem of workmen who steal or 'cabbage' wool:

Brearley condemns alcohol on more than one occasion - this example comes from p 54

There are several remarks about the sale of fabric, including this one (p 44 v):

* Note:

An edition of the two memorandum books held by Leeds Archives was published in the Society's Record Series  To order a copy click here

Woollen Manufacturing in Yorkshire. The Memorandum Books of John Brearley, Cloth Frizzer at Wakefield, 1758-1762  John Smail ed (2001)