Pioneering 18th-century educator Lady Ellenor Fenn honoured with a blue plaque in Dereham
Archant © 2013
The life and work of a pioneering 18th-century educator has been commemorated with the unveiling of a new blue plaque at her former home in Dereham.
Lady Ellenor Fenn, recognised as one of the most important and innovative early advocates of child-centred education, moved into Hill House on the Market Place, now a hotel, after her wedding in 1766.
Her plaque is placed alongside a renewed one for her husband Sir John Fenn, famed for transcribing, editing and publishing the Paston Letters, the largest collection of private correspondence and documents surviving from the Middle Ages.
But while Sir John’s legacy of historical knowledge is well-known, his wife’s pioneering contribution in the field of early education is often overlooked, even in her home town.
So Dr Bridget Carrington, a retired teacher who has carried out extensive research into the history of children’s literature, made it her mission to secure equal recognition for Ellenor’s vision and determination.
“I realised that although Dereham commemorated John Fenn because of the Paston letters, no-one knew about Ellenor, so I set about remedying that,” she said.
“In Dereham, very little is known about her outside the realms of children’s literature. 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.
“She produced books which were graded readers, so you could use the appropriate level of reading material based on the understanding of the child. Before that, they were only reading the bible.”
Ellenor Fenn was born in Suffolk in 1743. Although her marriage to Sir John was childless, she devised materials to teach her many nephews and nieces, and began to publish them, calling herself Mrs Teachwell or Mrs Lovechild.
By the time she died at Hill House on February 1, 1813, Ellenor had produced almost 50 works, which were promoted by the most important publishers of the day. Her books were enormously popular, with the best known, Cobwebs to Catch Flies, remaining in print until the mid-1870s. Dr Carrington said this success was also noteworthy in a male-dominated world.
“Women were not considered the right sort of people to be publishing,” she said. “They were fine for educating children, but not regarded as primary writers in the late 18th and early 19th century.
“Ellenor also did quite a lot in Dereham itself. She started a needlework school and a Sunday School for small children, where they were learning reading and writing as well as religion.”