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.

The couple had no children but became guardians in 1768 to a 10 year old orphaned heiress, Mary Andrews. She lived with them until she married. Ellenor was close to her nephews and nieces. She became the full-time parent of her brother’s fourth son, William Frere. He remained part of the Fenn family throughout his life and later, wrote warmly of his aunt and uncle1.

Through her parenting, Ellenor realised that the story books of the time did little to educate children, especially children from poorer families.  These children had limited access to reading at home and to formal education. Ellenor’s aunt Ellenor, after whom she was named, had helped with Ellenor’s education when she was young2. Perhaps this was the spur for Ellenor to write stories for her children. The stories centred round a home that resembled Hill House. Although homespun, the books were bound and illustrated by Ellenor herself; the earliest was a collection of fables in 17753.

Enter Mrs Teachwell

Ellenor’s stories for her family led her to look towards a wider audience. She and John Fenn made frequent trips to London in connection with his business. Through these trips Ellenor met the publisher John Marshall. He agreed to publish her books, aimed at mothers to read to their children. The stories were designed, not only to expand a child’s interest and knowledge, but also to instil a sense of morality and good behaviour. Ellenor explained the ethos behind her writing:

‘Those who are conversant with children, know, that they are more influenced by maxims which they chance to meet with in books, than by those that are inculcated by their parents.  It ought not to be so. – But so it is.  Since this is the case, we had better write for our children than preach to them.

School Occurrences by Mrs Teachwell p.ix-x. Publisher, John Marshall, London. [1783]

Whilst John Marshall offered Ellenor a wide market for her work, she earned no income from it; all rights being held by the publisher. Ellenor agreed to this contract as an unknown author, so both costs and profits were borne by Marshall’s. School Occurrences was a success and ran to four editions by 1800.

Ellenor Fenn, aka Mrs Teachwell, was a prolific author with 17 titles under this pseudonym.  Some titles were directed specifically at girls, others at boys such as ‘School Dialogues for Boys’ published in 1784.

Ellenor’s 7th and most successful book was the intriguingly titled, ‘Cobwebs to Catch Flies’. First published in 1783, it became a best-seller for Marshalls. The title was a metaphor for Ellenor’s philosophy of teaching children. If a story is interesting enough to capture the imagination of the child, it had succeeded. The book contained 26 oval illustrations, drawn by Ellenor.  A parent could read to their child whilst developing discussion and play. Cobwebs to Catch Flies continued to be sold in Britain and America into the 1870s; an outstanding achievement by any author.

Marshalls also published a set of cue cards Ellenor had devised as a teaching aid for her nephew. These were innovative in their day.  Each card contained a word, figure or other image to assist a child to read, learn grammar and arithmetic.

Poster from an exhibition of Ellenor’s life at Bishop Bonner’s Cottage. including text from Cobwebs to Catch Flies: ‘She picked up a wood-loufe, and laid it gently in his little hand. There, faid fhe, you fee the wood-loufe roll itfelf into a little ball, like a pea’.  and
The Grammar Box of educational toys (bottom right). Photo by Jackie Mitchell

By 1790, Ellenor stopped using the pseudonym Mrs Teachwell, although titles under that name remained popular and sold by Marshalls for many years. She did publish a small number of children’s books from 1790-1797 anonymously, using printers in Norwich and Dereham. During this time John Fenn died suddenly, on 14 February 1794 from a paralytic stroke.  He was buried at St Bartholomew’s church, Finningham, Suffolk, in the Frere family plot.

Welcome, Mrs Lovechild

In 1797, Ellenor Fenn began writing under this pseudonym, using the publisher Elizabeth Newbery. Again, Ellenor did not earn royalties but instead, received some free books for her own distribution. A series of new titles and teaching aids for mothers were published, mainly aimed at children under 6 years old. This recent review of Ellenor’s work shows her wider influence:

‘Fenn did more than simply support the status quo; she encouraged women to take a prominent role in teaching their children, and to appreciate that girls as well as boys could benefit from education.

Lesley Delaney. [2012]

Ellenor developed her ideas with ‘The Infant’s Friend’, published in 1797. It was a move into educational tracts. The book was in 2 parts. The 1st was a spelling book and the 2nd, reading lessons. Part 1 cost 1/- and part 2 cost 2/6d.

Mrs Lovechild’s stories encouraged children to appreciate and nurture the insects and plants of the countryside. The Short History of Insects, published in 1796 is an example of this. 

A poster in Ellenor Fenn’s Sensory Garden illustrates how she encouraged children to learn about nature. From The Rational Dame, 1786. Photo by Jackie Mitchell

Lady Bountiful

Lady Bountiful was the third identity of Ellenor Fenn, although not one she chose for herself. It was the Dereham born author George Borrow who described her as; ‘Lady Bountiful, she, the generous and kind, who loved to visit the sick, leaning on her gold-headed cane, whilst the sleek old footman walked at a respectful distance behind.’ [Ibid] 

In 1786 she set up a Sunday School in Dereham. 

‘The aim was to give education to the lower classes, both adults and children, and provide a chance for them to share in the world of their betters, this was regarded by many as radical at first with only reading being taught as it was feared that if a poor person learned to write they might rise above their station and become a threat.

Bishop Bonner Museum [2022]

Ellenor came from a Christian family whose core belief was to live a good life and do good works. She lived up to these aims. Lady Ellenor Fenn died on 01 November 1813 and was buried alongside her husband in the Frere family vault in Finningham Church, Suffolk.

Postumous recognition

Ellenor wrote over 50 children’s books and received a notable obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine. This described her as a ‘woman whose life has been spent in doing good’. Thus the identity of ‘Mrs Teachwell’ and ‘Mrs Lovechild’ at last became common knowledge.’4

Over 200 years later the people of Dereham recognised the impact Ellenor Fenn had had upon the life of children in the town. She came to the fore through Bridget Carrington, a retired teacher, who gave an interview about Ellen Fenn to a local newspaper:

‘She is a largely unrecognised but very important person.  What she did was largely providing materials, books and games for mothers to be able to start early education for their children, teaching them to read and write and nature study.’

Eastern Daily Press 10.10.2020

Dereham Town Council formally recognised Ellenor’s contribution to nature and wildlife by opening the Ellenor Fenn Sensory Garden on 13 September 2021 and collating the exhibition of the lives of Sir John and Lady Fenn at the Bishop Bonner museum in Dereham in 2022.

Blue Plaque for Ellenor place alongside one for Sir John Fenn outside Hill House in 2013.     
 Photo by Jackie Mitchell 2022.

Summary

To put Ellenor’s work in the context of her time; there was no compulsory state education for young children until 1899, no votes for women until The Representation of the People Act 1918 allowed some women over 30 to vote.  All women gained the vote in 1928. This pathway to emancipation for women is a useful reference point in which to place the achievements of Lady Ellenor Fenn a.k.a. Mrs Teachwell, Mrs Lovechild and Lady Bountiful.

Researched and written by Jackie Mitchell

Footnotes

  1. The Fenns of Hill House & the Paston Letters. Bishop Bonner Cottage Museum, Apr.-Oct. 2022
  2. (D. Stoker [2007] p. 2.)
  3. Ellenor Fenn as Mrs Teachwell and Mrs Lovechild, leaflet in Norfolk Heritage Centre
  4. The Gentleman’s Magazine., 88 (1813), pt. 11 508 in D. Stoker p. 25. [2007]
This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Snapshots from the Archive. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. janet watters says:

    I do not have a password, so cannot access this.

    Sent from my iPad

    Like

  2. Kathy Saunders says:

    What’s all this about passwords? I’ve never had to do that before. Is it really necessary?

    Thanks, Kathy Saunders

    Sent from Mail for Windows

    Like

  3. mo eeles says:

    Unfortunately I got “page not found” – searched Ellenor Fenn which brought up an article about Jonn Fenn’s diaries.Regards, Mo Eeles

    Like

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