The Remarkable Mr Fenn

We have discovered over the 20 years of the society’s existence a large number of stories layered into the central objects – into the letters and documents themselves. We started by promoting the story of the Pastons as the history of Paston village itself and how the presence of such a prestigious family changed the story of the village physically and the lives of those who lived there.

We have visitors from all over the world who trace their roots to the Paston sites here in Norfolk and want to connect to the letters, and that is why we are working on a database of all records to be found on the village of Paston initially – and those records include the letters – at our new research website, http://www.thisispaston.co.uk.

We have traced the sites of several of the letters and have researched why such a powerful Norfolk family who built so many grand houses are now represented by only one – Barningham Hall.

Over the years we have found so many ways to explore the letters – through re-enactment, through poetry and art, by walking the landscape and mapping the context of the letters, and of course through historical research into the letters themselves, their context in Norfolk county history, in the history of England and in archaeology.

But in all these varied ways of looking at the letters, I feel one voice is missing, and so I salute, and hope that you will join me in honouring, the remarkable Mr Fenn.

John Fenn was born in 1739, the son of a surgeon. His father, also J Fenn, was apprenticed to an apothecary in 1721 for £80, so he was not of the “gentry” of the times. He writes in his handwritten autobiography that at Botesdale school in Suffolk  “ I had always observed that neither birth nor fortune gave such a high degree of consequence among my schoolfellows as the maintaining a high place in the school”. 

He was not keen on sports and worked hard to attain his goal, a place in Cambridge at Caius College, to which it seems likely he gained one of the annual Norfolk and Suffolk scholarships. There he says he was “at a great advantage, for I presently discovered that I knew more of the lectures than my contemporaries and shortly obtained from the college tutor, Mr Davy, leave to attend only when I pleased”. Later he notes that following public examination at the Senate house he was “placed high in the list of wranglers”. 

Although a contemporary describes Fenn as a prig, he did have a circle of friends at Cambridge. He married Ellenor Frere on 1 January 1766. She was the sister of his great friend at Caius, where he studied from 1763. The Frere family were better born than the young Fenn and seem to have welcomed him and adopted him totally. It is hard to find evidence of any further connection between Fenn and his own family. 

John and Ellinor Fenn were unable to have children and adopted several of Ellinor’s nieces and nephews temporarily – and William Frere in earnest.

Ellinor was also a respected authoress of works for the young that were far ahead of their time. She wrote under the pseudonym of Mrs Teachwell or Mrs Lovelace.  She is described as being a philanthropist and grammarian, being the first person to see that, in order to educate the children of the gentry it might be necessary to educate their mothers – and that mixed age teaching would be necessary in the home.  She addresses her little books to Bartle, William, Jane and Susan etc, and we know these were names of her nieces and nephews. So she was a lady we would recognise in the early 19th century and beyond, full of good works, understanding the importance of education and, in the absence of her own children, devoted to educating those of her brother and sister. She was also busy in the town of Dereham in establishing and running Sunday schools for the poor.

The eighteenth century was a fruitful time for what was then called the studies of antiquities. The Society of Antiquaries was revived in 1707, and Norfolk boasted many notable and important antiquarians. One of the most import early studies of the antiquarians was heraldry and the connections of families.

The second Earl of Yarmouth, William Paston, died in 1732 in so bankrupt a state that he appears to have left Oxnead Hall derelict, and to have begun selling off the family papers before his death. Peter Le Neve was the greatest collector of historical documents in Norfolk, and he was also Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of the Society of Heralds and first president of the newly re-formed Society of Antiquaries. He gained access to the Paston papers with the help of “Honest Tom” Martin of Palgrave, another keen collector of heraldry and curiosities.  In turn, Le Neve allowed Blomefield access to his papers and collections, including the Paston papers. He appears to have added some of the letters before 1732, as Blomefield mentions seeing them while working on his great History of Norfolk.

This interconnection helps in part to explain why the Paston collection of manuscripts survived in Norfolk while so few fifteenth-century collections of letters survive elsewhere. This cluster of antiquarians all living in East Anglia were highly influential in the new Society of Antiquarians, and so newcomers without any sponsors other than their own enthusiasm for heraldry and for studies of antiquity could be sponsored through local feeling and local interests. These links were enough to save the Paston letters just as the family lost sight and ownership of them.

The Rev Francis Blomefield died in 1752 when the young John Fenn was still at Botesdale school, but even then Fenn had become obsessed by antiquaries, sparked in the first place by a book of heraldry that he copied and coloured and by studies in churches. In this he was very like his mentor, “Honest Tom” Martin of Palgrave. Honest Tom was also a grammar school boy but oddly the only one in his class. He therefore pursued whatever studies pleased him and quickly began the habit of making curious collections and tracing families through heraldry that stayed with him all his life.

In his introduction to the Paston letters Fenn expresses some thoughts on the eighteenth-century habit of collecting. He comments that men known to him have collected first one and then another set of curious items to such an extent that they never have time to actually read, study and understand the items collected.

There can be little doubt that he is referring to his mentor, to whom he owed so much.  From a letter of 1777 from John Worth, a surgeon and chemist of Diss: “He died without a will, or rather it is supposed he laid one by, which the family cannot find at present. His affairs are as yet in an unsettled state. There have been a number of applications from booksellers and there is a vast quantity of things it will take a long while to sort.” Worth bought most of Martin’s collection to sell on. This is where Fenn finally obtained the Paston letters and bought the right to work on them in peace. He had found his “object” and was to devote the rest of his life to bringing the letters to the public. The first task of Fenn as editor was in organising the mass of papers he had acquired. As he explains in his introduction, all the letters were written on different sized pieces of paper. As paper was expensive and hard to come by in England in the early fifteenth century, a letter would be written and then the paper torn off for the next communication. The letters were then folded and sealed so as to become envelopes as well. They are often quite small and hard to handle in consequence, when trying to unfold them. We do not know at what point Fenn asked for help with this task. When he was confident of an audience after the publication of the first two volumes, he hired William Dalton to undertake the painstaking task of actually transcribing each letter word for word as written. He then undertook the translation himself. But he points out that the translation in many cases is closer to the original than the transcription.

There is the evidence of Fenn’s system in the first volumes, preserved as filed in the British Library.  This I find reassuringly homely at first glance, as he appears to have read and sorted the letters by laying them out and compiling lists of their contents.  For example, a torn strip of paper from the local newspaper showing that these letters concern ladies’ fashions and customs. The next strip is attached to the King’s visit to Norwich, and so on. For Fenn himself, the political and public aspects of the letters were the most interesting. He designed the first volumes to cover all the reigns of the kings from Henry VI to Henry VII and chose letters which reflect the politics of the times, the murder of the Duke of Suffolk, calls to battle, letters to and from notable patrons such as the Bishop of Oxford, letters to and from the Paston sons at court. These were selected as being of national importance and showing the importance and connections of the Paston family.  

When the first volume sold out within a week and the king wished the letters to be presented to him (with the strong hint that the result would be a knighthood for John), Fenn then had to plan subsequent volumes with the same time scale – this makes it impossible to read the letters in sequence in Fenn’s version and is the great advantage of the Gairdner edition of the
letters. Fenn had gained quite a reputation in his own circle in producing accurate signatures as a party trick, and from his earliest interest in history had taken to copying inscriptions and monuments accurately for his own records. He now put his capabilities to good use. In each the volume of the letters he traced watermarks from the original letters and then had them copied onto copperplates for printing. He then carefully noted which watermark went with which letter, and dated them. This may seem an obvious thing to do, but in fact no-one else had done it, and as a result, his work is a small history of papermaking in the 15th century and beyond, showing how it spread from the continent to England. The first English papermill was only built in 1475, enabling Caxton to bring the printing press to England, and John Tate’s mark is on the last of the copperplates for the two volumes. All earlier marks are of continental paper. In addition Fenn carefully copied each seal and signature for each letter and placed them in his appendix under the correct monarch. This gives a great sense of immediacy to the reader. At present it is very rare to see a Paston letter, or even a copy of one, as most are in the British Library. Yet Fenn’s facsimiles of two letters which he added to his second edition of the first two volumes explain so much about the times and about how difficult was his editorial task. They also bring an immediacy, a sense of the person, as all handwritten letters do. We owe a great debt to John Fenn. The boxes of over 1000 small, tight-folded papers and letters that had lain so long in the attics at Oxnead Hall could so easily have defeated him. After all, we have evidence that the letters passed through the hands of at least five other antiquarians in Norfolk at the time – none of whom attempted the challenge. Horace Walpole encouraged Fenn to undertake the task, but the Society of Antiquaries, when Fenn sent a sample letter for perusal and possible publication, ignored him. Walpole later testified to the authenticity of the letters and added that “the period at which they were written, has from the turbulence and distractions of the time, furnished fewere materials than almost any portion of our story”. Fenn was judged when the accuracy of his publication was called into question in 1865, as later researcher for the Society of Antiquarians William Hardy said: “Scrupulous care, general accuracy, and adequate skill are manifested in the labours of the editor; that the materials employed bear the marks of unquestionable authenticity and that they have been honestly and efficiently produced.” John Fenn managed to preserve and translate papers and letters that many overlooked.  He went further in the carefulness and accuracy of his editing than many contemporaries, recognising that not only the contents of the letters but the very paper they are written on is of importance to the story, and his work has remained in print to the present day either in his own or in the hands of subsequent editors. Fenn was, above all, a man of especial talents and limitations who realised the moment when he was presented with an object he could carefully translate, edit and publish – and this he did with complete success.  It is only sad that he is so often forgotten in the lists of notable antiquarians of Norfolk.