- 1943 (Creation)
Level of description
Extent and medium
Name of creator
Baptised 12 Nov 1739 at St Mary in the Marsh, Norwich, the son of John Fenn (1707-1741) surgeon of Norwich, and Mary (b. 1712) nee Emerson. Fenn was educated at grammar schools at Scarning and Botesdale, Suffolk, then Gonville and Caius Cambridge, graduating BA in 1761 and MA 1764. At university his friends included John Norris (son of the antiquary Anthony Norris) and John Frere. He married Frere's sister, Ellenor Frere (1744-1813), daughter of Sheppard and Susanna Frere, in 1766. The couple settled at Hill House, East Dereham. They remained childless, but brought up an heiress, Mary Andrews, and later their nephew, William Frere (1775-1836). Ellenor wrote instructive children's books under the pseudonyms Mrs Teachwell and Mrs Lovechild.
Fenn served as Deputy Lieutenant of Norfolk in 1766; churchwarden of St Nicholas’ church, East Dereham 1768-1775; a director of Gressenhall House of Industry from 1775; magistrate from 1776 onwards; and High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1791-1792. He inherited an estate in Edgefield, including the manor of Edgefield Bacons, after the death of his father in 1741.
A protegee of the antiquary, Thomas Martin of Palgrave (d. 1771), Fenn also helped publish final sections of Parkin’s continuation of Francis Blomefield’s ‘History of Norfolk’. After Martin’s death Fenn catalogued Martin’s library for its new owner, John Worth of Diss, before its sale in 1773-1774. He also listed Worth’s collection after the latter’s death in 1774. Around this time Fenn acquired the Paston letters. He published the first two volumes of the Paston letters in 1787, which proved so popular they sold out within a week. In May 1787 Fenn presented the original letters to George III and was knighted. When the manuscripts disappeared, there were accusations that they were fakes, but their authenticity was proved when the originals reappeared in 1889. Two further volumes of letters were published in 1789. Fenn died from a paralytic stroke on 14 Feb 1794 and was buried at Finningham, Suffolk. His manuscript for the fifth volume of Paston letters was published by William Frere in 1823.