John Fenn – A Dereham Man: The Diaries of Sir John Fenn, 1786-1794

Taken from documents held at the Norfolk Record Office, NRO, MC 525/1

Sir John Fenn was a man most notably known for his publication of the Paston Letters.  But his eight engagement diaries, spanning 1786 to 1794 tell us so much more than that about this Georgian gentleman.  He was a man known for many things but above all else, he was a Dereham man.  This blog focuses on his life in (East) Dereham and Norfolk.

Sir John Fenn (Serpell)

Fenn’s Diaries

The diaries span seven full years, 1793 is missing and Fenn died early in 1794.  Each double page recorded his engagements and his meticulous accounts. 

Additional information, all accessible from the NRO, adds context.  This includes ‘Sir John Fenn, His Friends and the Paston Letters’ by M F Serpell and Find My Past.  A fuller picture of Fenn’s life is available through other documents held at the NRO.

A Brief Biography

Fenn was born in Norwich in 1739.  He and his mother moved to North Elmham in 1741 following the death of his father. His mother Mary Fenn was a thrifty woman and valued the importance of education, qualities Fenn carried on into his adult life.  His mother is mentioned frequently in his diaries.  She survived her son by two years.

Fenn attended Elmham School (1744 to 1746), East Dereham School (1746 to 1748), the public grammar school at Scarning (1748 to 1751) and Botesdale Grammar School until 1756.  He studied at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge making lifelong friends there.  He completed his BA in 1761 and his MA in history in 1764.  It was over this period of time that Fenn developed his childhood interest in history, particularly that of his own county.

Through his friendship with John Frere at Cambridge, Fenn met and married his sister Ellenor in 1766.  The couple moved to Hill House, Dereham where they lived for the rest of their lives.  Ellenor was equally well known in Dereham.  Passionate about education, she started a Sunday School, a needlework school and revived a tow spinning factory.  She wrote educational books under the names of Mrs Teachwell and Mrs Lovechild.  Her books can still be bought on Amazon today!

Hill House (Serpell)

Fenn and Ellenor had no children of their own but in 1768 they became guardians to Mary Andrews age 11, until she reached her 21st birthday, an orphaned heiress. Mary married the Reverend Edward Mills and they lived in Hitcham.  Fenn made frequent visits to visit them.

Dereham Land and Property

Much of Fenn’s day to day work revolved around his landowning responsibilities and his tenants. He had inherited estates at Edgefield, Foulsham and Themelthorpe which were held in trust by his grandmother until his 21st birthday.  Fenn took his responsibilities seriously and, from his diary entries, appears to have been a hands-on landowner, not afraid of hard work and physical labour.  In January 1789 he Laid my muck upon my field.

Some of his tenants were Mr Riseborough of Withers Farm, Mr Drosier of Foulsham Farm, Mr Winter of Gressenhall Farm, Mr Rayner of The Horse Shoes Inn and Mr Mack of Themelthorpe Farm.

In managing his estates Robert Hawes (1742-1830) was a valued estate manager.  Robert at Edgefield is an almost weekly entry in the diaries.  He was paid £20 pa.  Hawes spent much of his time at Edgefield.  On 24 March 1786 Fenn wrote: Agreed to give my servant Robert Howes 5£ at Michaelmas above his wages and another year 21£ wages & 3s whenever he went to Edgefield; he funding himself Boots, Breeches etc. Hawes married Grace Mason , another of Fenn’s servants, on 1 November 1790.  Their monument in St Nicholas churchyard.

The eight diaries build up a picture of a home loving man.  Home improvements were often on the agenda.  In April 1787 he Purchased of Mr Barker the Barn Houses, Eagle Stable, square piece of the yard

 In June 1790 he formed an Arbour in my garden.  Two months later:  This week altered our Necessories & we moved the Servants to the old Stables to prevent offensive smells.  In May 1792 Began my Chapel Barn Garden Seat . . This week I converted a part of the Garden House by the Chapel Barn into a Summer House. 

Dereham Theatre Royal

Fenn loved the theatre.  It is thought that his love of history stemmed from seeing Shakespeare’s historical plays as a child.  Imagine his delight therefore when the Norwich Players came to Dereham’s Theatre Royal in June 1792.  Between the 4 and 29 June he saw 16 plays, some familiar such as The Rivals and others less familiar so such as The Young Quaker. The only Shakespeare play performed, at the request of Fenn, was The Merchant of Venice.

Dereham, Theatre Royal (ref 30129028285196). Image courtesy of

Dereham Illuminations

In April 1789 the nation celebrated the King’s recovery from a period of illness with illuminations, a popular form of celebration in Georgian times.  Dereham entered wholeheartedly into the event.

Monday 13 April 1789: We this day commemorated the Happy Recovery of our beloved Sovereign George III . . . the Sunday School Children paraded the Market at ten . . they then with the inhabitants proceeded in order to Church where the service was concluded with the Coronation Anthem.  About noon notice was given for all the poor Inhabitants of the town to take their seats at tables prepared for them in the Market Place, where about 1400 were entertained by a town subscription with Plumb Puddings, roast, boiled beef and strong beer.  His Majesty’s health was drank with three cheers.  This was followed by 60 ‘principal Inhabitants’ dining at The George and Fenn’s house was illuminated. 

Public Duties

Fenn became a Deputy Lieutenant and a magistrate in 1776, a Justice of the Peace (from July 1786/7) and High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1791.  Fenn was acutely aware that his appointment as High Sheriff would incur extra expense.  On 9 December 1790 he wrote: Being one in the Nomination List for High Sheriff of Norfolk for the year 1791 & the only one qualified to serve this Office I purchased a Lottery Ticket No. 29962 hoping for such a prize as may enable me to pay the expenses of the Sheriffalty.  In the 18th century private lotteries were created by Acts of Parliament to raise funds for large projects. This ticket cost £16 10s 0d.

Consequently 1791 was a busy year for Fenn.  On 17 March 1791 he wrote: My tenants, Javelin men, Trumpeters came to Dereham to attend me to Thetford assizes as High Sheriff for the County of Norfolk. 

In 1778 Fenn was elected Director within the Hundreds of Mitford and Launditch at Gressenhall House of Industry which had opened in 1777.  He would alternate each month with a Mr Davy to attend all committee meetings.

Accounts page showing High Sheriff expenses (NRO, MC 525/1/6)

In later life Fenn became a trustee of Scarning School. In November 1789 he was involved in appointing a new Headmaster.  Meeting at the George of the Trustees of Scarning School.  Election of the Master fixed for the 4th of Jany next.  The Reverend John Priest was duly appointed.  Fenn would occasionally dine with Priest and on one such occasion, 27 October 1790, they discussed plans to put a footpath across the school land.

Fenn’s Finances

(A 1790 shilling is approximately £3.84)

Fenn acquired his moderate wealth through inheritance and hard work.  Every penny spent was accounted for with an annual summary to carry forward to the following year.  The start of each year saw considerable income as this was the time for collecting rents.

His accounts tell us much about life in the late eighteenth century.  He paid his taxes quarterly; land tax 16s, house tax 3s 9d, old window tax 3s 9d and new window tax 17s 3d.  Ellenor, referred to as Nellie in his accounts, received three guineas a month allowance, a figure that never changed over the years.  His mother regularly paid him £1 1s for wine and 4s 6d for tea.  The mole catcher’s annual bill in 1786 was 1s 6d and Mr Allen was paid £3 15s for working 25 years as parish clerk at 3s per annum. 

Fenn was a charitable man.  At Christmas he gave money for gifts for the poor.  Two further entries in 1789: Gave a distressed stranger 2s 6d, Gave a poor woman 1s.

Fenn’s annual carry forward increased steadily to such a point that in 1791 he was able to put £1000 in the Bank of Messrs Gurney at Norwich at 3 per cent until wanted for a Purchase or Mortgage . . . . Desired Mr Smyth to procure a Mortgage for me at 4.5% interest for £600, £800 or £1000.

His final carry forward, in his 1794 diary, was £162 0s 10d having been able to invest £500 the previous year.


Fenn’s 1794 diary ended abruptly on Friday 14 February.  Another hand wrote:

This Day Sir John Fenn died suddenly of a paralytic stroke.  His death appears to have been sadly unexpected.  Fenn himself had recorded suffering a stroke in July 1791 but no other ailments were mentioned.

Fenn was a man with enough money to enjoy life but he also had a strong work ethic and sense of civic duty.  He was able to indulge his love of history but he also had a huge sense of responsibility for his local community.

John, and later Ellenor in 1813, were both buried at St Bartholomew’s Church in Finningham, Suffolk, home of the Frere family.  Both left lasting legacies.

Written by Daryl Long, NRO Research Blogger

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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