The Life of Ellenor Fenn – One Woman: Three Identities.

Lady Ellenor Fenn is listed in the Norfolk Record Office as the wife of Sir John Fenn. He found fame through his work transcribing the 15th century Paston Papers. The first two volumes were published in January 1787 and led to him receiving a knighthood. He was a notable figure in Norfolk, holding several civic roles over his lifetime; he was High Sheriff of Norfolk 1791-1792. However, with a little more investigation, Lady Fenn is revealed as a person of substance in her own right.

Lady Ellenor Fenn, née Frere was born 12 March 1744 in Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, Suffolk. The Frere’s were a wealthy family. Ellenor was the only daughter of 6 children born to Sheppard and Susanna Frere. Her parents later moved to Roydon Hall, Diss, Norfolk.

Portrait of Ellenor Fenn in Bishop Bonners Cottage Museum, (2022).

John Fenn met Ellenor through her brother John Frere; both attended Cambridge University (1758-63). He recounted his courtship in his autobiography of 1763 where, in the proper language of the day, he “paid his addresses” to Ellenor. (Fenn’s ‘Memoirs’ N.R.O. NNAS 505/4/13 f.10.) John Fenn bought Hill House in East Dereham, which at the time overlooked a bustling market square. The couple were married on 01 January 1766.

Ellenor Fenn can be regarded as a pioneer of feminism.  She pursued her own career at a time when the place of a wealthy woman was to be at home supporting the career of her husband. Instead, she was an early innovator of children’s learning and education. However, she was modest about her work and used 2 pseudonyms throughout her career; her achievements only being fully realised after her death.

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The Clandestine Marriage of 1774

The Norfolk Record Office (NRO) holds a large series of correspondence of Elizabeth Leathes, formerly Elizabeth Reading, later Elizabeth Peach, but known to her friends and family as Betsy. Part of the Bolingbroke Collection, these letters (BOL 2 link) give us a glimpse into what life was like for this sociable lady who enjoyed moving in gentry circles, attending card parties and balls, and having a wide range of life-long correspondents.

This blog is concentrating on Betsy’s marriage to Edward Leathes, which took place without the knowledge of either of their parents in Holborn, London, in 1774 by licence. However, some background first. Betsy was an only child, daughter of Elizabeth and Revd James Reading of Woodstock, Oxfordshire and was born in 1748. James was a teacher at Woodstock Grammar School and the rector of nearby Stonesfield. Betsy was well educated, had a large circle of friends, played the harpsichord and corresponded with her friends regularly. In Celia Miller’s 2016 biography of Betsy, she says ‘By the time she reached her 20th birthday she had acquired all the social skills needed to function effectively in polite society, and knew how to present herself to the best advantage.’

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From Tram Conductor to Chief Inspector: The Police Registers of Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn

From Norfolk Record Office documents C/PO 1/58 & C/PO 1/46

Brief History of the Police Force

The first official police force was the London Metropolitan Police set up by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.  The County and Borough Police Act 1856 required a national system of policing throughout England and Wales and towns such as Kings Lynn (KL) and Great Yarmouth (GY) would each have their own forces.  Smaller town forces did not merge until the 20th century.

Registers Held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO)

The NRO holds personnel registers for the GY and the KL police forces.  The first dates from 1871 to 1924, the second from 1845 to 1920.  The KL register has suffered water damage making some entries difficult to read. 

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The Ghostly Mystery of Mannington Hall

With the nights drawing in and a distinct chill in the autumnal air, our thoughts turn towards all things ghoulish, ghostly and spectral. If you’re looking for a spine-chilling tale to tell by the fireside on a dark winter’s evening, look no further…

Our story begins in Victorian England, where there was a national hunger for the supernatural. The tradition of the winter ghost story was gaining popularity, and gothic literature surged forth as anathema to the rigid social and religious structures of the day.

Dr. Augustus Jessopp (1823-1914)  made his name as a clergyman and headteacher in Norfolk in the latter half of the 19th century. Although ordained in the Christian church, he was not averse to the rise of the popular new religious movement of Spiritualism.

It came to pass that in October 1879, the combination of a ghostly tale recounted by Jessopp, a trusted ‘man of the cloth’, and the nationwide thirst for all things beyond the grave caused quite a stir both within Norfolk and the wider world.

Dr. Augustus Jessop, 1913
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Heritage Open Days 2022 at Norfolk Record Office

This year to mark Heritage Open Days (HODs), we invited members of the public to take a peek behind the scenes, gave a talk about Richard Bright ‘The Man Behind the Discovery of Bright’s Disease’ and the Conservation project at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), and hosted an online special Reading from the Archives.

Heritage Open Days 2022 at NRO

Heritage Open Days is England’s largest festival of history and culture, and thanks to the help of local organisations and volunteers, it provides free access to events and local heritage sites, many of which are not normally open to the public. Each year there is a theme to the festival, and 2022 was ‘Astounding Inventions’.

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Snuff in 19th Century Norfolk

Snuff, high society’s choice of tobacco inhalation, first appeared in England in the middle of the sixteenth century, along with tobacco imports from America.  Sir Walter Raleigh is usually supposed to have been the first to bring it home to the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but Leonard Bolingbroke, of the Norwich Science Gossip Club, feels that it was more probably Ralph Lane (a lesser- known English explorer of the same period) in 1586.

The Norfolk Record Office has the typed lecture notes which Mr Bolingbroke, solicitor and Registrar of the Diocese of Norwich, used for a talk to the Club in the late nineteenth century (NRO, BOL 1/90, 739×2). He talks about Christopher Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America in the fifteenth century, when ‘the natives not only smoked tobacco, but they inhaled the powder of it through a cane half a cubit long into their nostrils.’ (A cubit is about 18 inches or 45.72 centimetres).

Notes for Leonard Bolingbroke’s talk on tobacco and snuff. NRO, BOL 1/90, 739×2

Snuff was, at first, not as popular as tobacco. ‘Early snuff takers had to grind his [sic] own snuff in a grater or grinder’, Mr Bolingbroke continued.  ‘These were made of metal, wood, ivory or bone and beautifully carved or engraved. These days they are very rare.  They are not to be confused with a nutmeg grater.

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Caught Red Handed: Duck Feathers and all!

Looking through the archives can lead to some interesting stories. Take, for example the case of Robert Goffin. He was convicted of larceny at the Norfolk Quarter Sessions in January 1843 .  A contemporary report from the Norwich Mercury newspaper revealed that Goffin (aged 25) was, in fact, charged with having stolen eleven ducks, the property of John Howlett of Bowthorpe on 23 October 1842 and Maria Goffin, his mother, stood charged with receiving the same, ‘well knowing the same to be stolen’.  The deposition of Mary Howard, wife of a farm balliff in Bowthorpe, stated that she had the care of the ducks in question and ‘on the 20th of October I put 20 ducks into the fowl-house; at six o’clock the next morning I missed 11 of those ducks; I have seen a wing and some feathers which were shown to me by police officer Copeman, and believe them to belong to the same ducks that were stolen from my master’s’.

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‘Too common amongst young people’

Engraving of Norwich Cathedral by C. Hodgson, dated 1829. Norfolk Heritage Centre Prints Collection, ref. 1137488. Courtesy of

These words relate to having sex outside of marriage. They were written in a letter of support, dated 3 May 1760, for a James Lacey of Scarning. The letter is just one of several thousand documents which form the archive, held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO), of the Norwich Consistory Court. Before the mid-nineteenth century, church courts were responsible for many aspects of human activity, such as matrimony (including sex outside of marriage), probate, church taxes, and defamation. The records produced by the Court, provide a fascinating insight, often salacious, into day-to-day life of ordinary people. The language used in them is seldom found in any other archival document. The records offer a treasure trove for family, local and social historians.

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