Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fenn, John (1739-1794)
FENN, Sir JOHN (1739–1794), antiquary, born at Norwich, 26 Nov. 1739, was educated at Caius College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in 1761, M.A. in 1764. He was early attracted to antiquarian studies, and in a short account of his youth, called ‘Early Thoughts, Observations, and Studies’ (Original Letters, vol. v., Frere's ‘Advertisement,’ p. xiii), he gives an interesting account of his first enthusiasm. After his settlement at Dereham in Norfolk he became commissioner of the peace for the county, and he held the office of sheriff during 1791. He was a member of the Society of Antiquaries, of which he published an historical survey, entitled ‘Three Chronological Tables,’ showing its growth from 1572 to 1784. He acquired the manuscript of the Paston letters from Thomas Worth, a chemist at Diss. Worth had bought them from the library of Thomas Martin, who had married the widow of Peter Le Neve, the antiquary. Le Neve had bought them from William Paston, second and last earl of Yarmouth. Fenn edited and prepared these for publication in five volumes as ‘Original Letters written during the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV, Richard III, and Henry VII, by various persons of rank and consequence, and by members of the Paston family.’ His work was encouraged by Horace Walpole and others, and the first two volumes were produced with a dedication by permission to George III. Three volumes of manuscript, containing the material of the two printed volumes, were presented, richly bound, to the king. Fenn was knighted in honour of his gift on 23 May 1787. Two more volumes were published in 1789, with notes and illustrations. A fifth volume, completing the work, was published after his death by his nephew, Serjeant Frere. Mr. Gairdner states that Fenn's work is ‘a perfect model of care and accuracy for the days in which he lived.’ He appears to have copied the manuscript twice, first in the original spelling, then in a modern orthography. The two copies were carefully collated by a friend, Mr. Dalton, who made many suggestions, carefully considered by Fenn. Dalton himself made some of the transcripts in the old spelling. The originals of the fifth volume were carefully compared with the printed text by a committee of the Society of Antiquaries, and the errors appeared to be few and trivial. The book was illustrated by careful facsimiles of handwritings, seals, and paper-marks.
The original manuscripts presented to the king, and those of the third and fourth volumes, have disappeared. In 1865 doubts were suggested as to the authenticity of the letters, from the absence of the originals. In the same year, however, Mr. Philip Frere, son of the editor of the fifth volume, discovered the originals of that volume in his house at Dungate in Cambridgeshire. He found a few other letters of the collection, which are now in the British Museum. Twenty letters came into the hands of Francis Douce, and are now in the Bodleian. Others were in the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps. Mr. Gairdner has made additions from these sources in his careful edition (1872). Fenn was high sheriff of Norfolk in 1791. He died 14 Feb. 1794, and was buried in the chancel of Finningham Church, Suffolk, where there is a monument by Bacon, the sculptor. His only other publication was ‘Three Chronological Tables, exhibiting a State of the Society of Antiquaries,’ 1784. He married, 1 Jan. 1766, Eleanor, daughter of Sheppard Frere, esq., of Roydon, Suffolk. Lady Fenn shared the high motives and literary zeal of her husband. Under the names of Mrs. Lovechild and Mrs. Teachwell she wrote various works of an educational kind for the young, of which the following may be named: the ‘Child's Grammar,’ ‘Short Grammar,’ the ‘Family Miscellany,’ ‘Cobwebs to Catch Flies,’ and ‘Short History of Insects.’ She died 1 Nov. 1813. They had no issue.[Original Letters, &c., by J. Fenn; Gairdner's edition of the Paston Letters, 1872; Gent. Mag. 1813, pt. ii. p. 508, 1814, pt. ii. p. 3; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, viii. 139–40; Nichols's Illustrations of Literary History, v. 167–81 (several of his letters), vi. 623, 821; Granger's Letters illustrative of Biographical History, ed. Malcolm, pp. 79–114.]