Cornish connections with 1790s radical and literary circles: Part 1

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This is the first of two linked articles focussing on the life and Cornish connections of the novelist and childrens’ book writer Eliza Fenwick. 

Two women writers who were part of Mary Wollstonecraft’s circle had family connections with Cornwall. The fact that Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, the mother and the close aunt of the Bronte sisters, came from Penzance is well-known. The earlier Cornish family origins of Ann Batten Cristall and Mrs Eliza Fenwick shared many similarities with the commercial activities and Methodism of the Branwells in Penzance. Eliza’s father Peter Jaco was an itinerant Methodist preacher whose family had interests in the Newlyn pilchard fisheries and trade with southern Europe. This article focuses for the first time on the impact of Fenwick’s Cornish connections on her writing, and on her time as a Penzance shopkeeper in 1802-3. Eliza Fenwick’s novel Secresy or the ruin on the rockwas printed twice in 1795; by the author with an identified list of booksellers, and also by ‘G. Kearsley’. It is suggested here that the gothic setting and plot of the novel both incorporated elements derived from Fenwick’s knowledge of places and great landowning families in Cornwall notably the Eliots of Port Eliot.

Eliza Fenwick’s origins

Eliza Fenwick’s father Peter Jaco was born in 1728 the fifth of six children of Nicholas Jacka and Honour Downing. Jaco became one of the Wesleys’ early followers while working for his family’s concern in the Mount’s Bay pilchard fishery. In the early 1750s Jaco may have met the elder John Fenwick when Fenwick visited Cornwall as an itinerant preacher. By 1753 Peter Jaco had been identified by the Methodist local society as an ‘exhorter’ or lay preacher and he then travelled widely from the mid-1750s.

In 1756 the elder John Fenwick married Priscilla Mackariss in London. Fenwick subsequently established himself as a merchant in Newcastle on Tyne where he lived for two decades with his wife and family before travelling again as a Methodist preacher from 1777. Fenwick was briefly dismissed as an itinerant preacher for drunkenness in 1785 before being reappointed to Epworth in 1786.

Peter Jaco’s itinerancy as a preacher make his family circumstances more difficult to trace. It is possible that Jaco was appointed to the Staffordshire circuit or travelled in advance of John Wesley who preached there in March 1764. Eliza Fenwick’s birthday was in February and it is likely that her christening was that recorded at Lincoln cathedral on 21 February 1764. In the following decade Jaco was appointed to circuits in Sheffield; Lancashire; London for two years in 1767-8, and Kent in 1769; Newcastle for two years in 1770-1 when Jaco probably renewed his connection with the elder John Fenwick who was an active Methodist society member; Dublin in 1772-3; and in London from 1774 where Peter Jaco’s health gradually declined before he died in July 1781.

Peter’s wife Elizabeth Jaco travelled with him and it is possible that their daughter Eliza spent some time staying with other relations, including in Cornwall, or attended boarding school before the family settled in London. In his will Peter Jaco bequeathed his daughter Eliza £100 on condition that any marriage she made was with her guardians’ agreement. Jaco’s will described him as a ‘hosier’ and it is likely that his wife and daughter worked alongside him. Eliza probably initially continued to live at home on Artillery Lane near Spitalfields market with her widowed mother who later received financial support from the Methodist widows’ fund.

The younger John Fenwick was his parents’ first child born in 1757. It is unlikely that Elizabeth Jaco would have objected to her daughter marrying John Fenwick who was the son of a fellow itinerant Methodist preacher. Nonetheless it is possible that John and Eliza were not married; John’s brother Thomas later had five children without being married to the Helston born woman he identified in his will as ‘Catherine Pascoe known and reputed as Catherine Fenwick now and for many years past residing with me’. Eliza and John Fenwick’s first child Eliza Ann was christened at St Dunstan and All Saints Stepney on 28 June 1789 when Fenwick was described as a gentleman. By October 1792 John and Eliza Fenwick were living south of the Thames at 7 Apollo Buildings on East Street near Walworth Common. In the early 1790s John Fenwick released funds through a series of property transactions related to Norris farm in Enfield in which he had received an interest from the estate of his maternal grandfather Robert Mackariss.

Political radicals and writers

The younger John Fenwick was a political radical who was a member of the London Corresponding Society which advocated universal manhood suffrage. He was a friend of the philosopher and novelist William Godwin whose diaries show that he met regularly with Fenwick for at least 35 years from 1788 when his diaries start until Fenwick’s death in 1823. John Fenwick joined the Society for Constitutional Information, which published radical political literature, in October 1792.

Unlike Mary Wollstonecraft who left England in December 1792 John Fenwick travelled to France after the execution of Louis XVI and after France had declared war on Britain on 1 February 1793. Godwin’s Political Justicewas published the same month. In January Godwin had taken a copy of his work to the French ambassador in London with a letter to the National Convention in which Godwin declared himself ‘un des admiratuer les plus zélés de la révolution française’. The purpose and intended destination of John Fenwick’s journey was almost certainly known to Godwin who wrote to Fenwick on 15 February that:

You will remember the terms upon which the inclosed copy of my book is sent. It is to be given to General Miranda, provided you are likely to live upon terms of easy access to him; otherwise to any Frenchman of public importance & personal candour to whom you have access: that at all events there may be an additional chance from your influence, to gain a hearing & if possible a translation for the work.

This suggests that Fenwick intended to travel to France’s northern front where Miranda was commanding the Army of the North. It was a dangerous time to travel in French territory given that British citizens were subject to arrest as prisoners of war, and cross Channel post was soon largely interrupted. By April France had withdrawn from Belgium, Miranda was arrested, and the Committee of Public Safety had been established.

By October 1793 John Fenwick returned to London where he worked as a translator and political writer. In 1794 Fenwick published a translation of the Memoirs of General Dumourier; he wrote an anti-war Letter to the people of Great Britain, respecting the present state of their public affairs published by James Ridgway in 1795 who was a prisoner in Newgate at the time; he translated and edited a play He’s much to blame in association with the dramatist Thomas Holcroft; in 1798 Fenwick wrote and published highly critical Observations on the trial of James Coigly for high treason; in 1799 he wrote the first biography of his friend William Godwin; and in 1800 Fenwick’s play The Indian was staged. Fenwick’s political opinions were not in doubt but he was not one of the 1790s radicals who were arrested. It is possible that Fenwick had other employment alongside his political activities and publications. Fenwick may have worked as a journalist before being proprietor and editor of the unsuccessful Albionand Plough in 1801-2, and his family may have lived partly on the proceeds of his transactions related to Norris farm.

John and Eliza Fenwick were both part of the circle of radical writers in 1790s London some of whom wrote novels, plays, or poetry to communicate political messages. Many years later Eliza Fenwick recalled that she had been ‘a unit of a circle where Faiths, Politics, Systems, and Literature were constantly discussed – I, a mere listener among the Elite of those well qualified to be assailants & defenders’. Eliza Fenwick met women who earned their living from writing. It may have been during John’s absence from London in February to October 1793 that Eliza Fenwick started to write her novel. In the same year she may have organised or provided care for her sick mother; Elizabeth Jaco died of ‘consumption’ in January 1794. When Secresy or the ruin on the rockwas published in 1795 a positive review described the author as having ‘studied and imbibed the principles and spirit of Anna St Ives’ by Thomas Holcroft; while a terse review lambasted the novel’s sexual relationships outside marriage as ‘a morality, worthy enough of modern France, but far removed (we trust) from the approbation of Englishmen’. Fenwick’s epistolary novel was partly intended to illustrate the benefits of educating girls by contrasting the disastrous mistakes of an uneducated heiress Sibella Valmont with the rational conduct of her educated friend Caroline Ashburn; after the novel was published Eliza established stronger relationships in the Fenwicks’ circle.

After Mary Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter in August 1797 the placenta did not deliver. John and Eliza Fenwick stayed with the Godwins for two weeks. Eliza nursed Mary and managed the baby’s wet nurses. After Mary died it was Eliza who, at William Godwin’s request, wrote to Mary’s sister Everina to inform her family noting ‘I was with her at the time of her delivery, and with very little intermission until the time of her death’. This experience may have brought John and Eliza Fenwick closer together; their son Orlando was christened on 3 May 1798. The Fenwicks continued to see William Godwin regularly and became acquainted with Mary Jane Godwin whom he married in December 1801; Mary Jane was the grand-daughter of the Exeter merchant Samuel Tremlett and had children from her previous relationships. Eliza Fenwick became close friends with the novelist Mary Hays who she saw regularly in London and with whom she confided and corresponded for thirty years 1798-1828.

At the turn of the century John and Eliza Fenwick became friends with Charles Lamb; in his Last essays of Eliahe recalled writing for the Albionnewspaper in 1801:

Fenwick resolutely determined upon pulling down the Government … Our occupation now was to write treason … Blocks, axes, Whitehall tribunals were covered with flowers of so cunning a periphrasis … that the keen eye of an Attorney General was insufficient to detect the lurking snake among them.

As children Charles and Mary Lamb had lived with their parents at the London address of one of the MPs for Liskeard and Inner Temple bencher Samuel Salt by whom their father John Lamb was employed as a factotum. In 1783 a meeting of the Society for Constitutional Information which was attended by 60 landowners in East Cornwall had identified the interests controlling or influencing the 44 parliamentary seats in Cornwall. This list included the six MPs elected at Liskeard, Grampound, and St Germans in the interest of ‘Mr Eliot’.

The Eliots of Port Eliot

In 1702 Daniel Eliot bequeathed Port Eliot to his cousin’s son on condition that his chosen heir Edward Eliot married Daniel’s daughter Katherine; in the event Katherine Eliot instead married the historian Browne Willis. The later Eliots of Port Eliot derived much of their eighteenth century wealth from the merchant James Craggs which had been made partly from the transatlantic slave trade. Craggs was a director of the South Sea Company established to deliver the British government’s obligations to supply enslaved workers within the Asiento contract. Craggs had one son and three daughters. The younger James Craggs had one daughter Harriot outside of marriage by the actress Hester Santlow. Two of the elder James Craggs’ three daughters married great Cornish landowners: Elizabeth to Edward Eliot of Port Eliot and Margaret to Samuel Trefusis of Trefusis. Following the collapse in share prices of the South Sea Company the government imposed a fine of £64,000 on the elder Craggs. Nonetheless after the younger Craggs died shortly before his father the elder Craggs’ remaining legacy of £1.5 million was shared between his three married daughters. At the age of 13 Harriot Craggs was married to her uncle Richard Eliot who was managing in trust and later inherited his brother Edward’s estate.

In due course it was Edward Eliot (1727-1804), the son of Richard and Harriot, who inherited Port Eliot. Two of his sons were MPs and early supporters of the abolition of the slave trade. Of these two sons Edward James Eliot was a university friend of William Wilberforce and William Pitt. Edward James Eliot was one of the subscribers to Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac sonnets(1784) published while her husband was in debtor’s prison. In 1785 Edward James Eliot married William’s sister Harriot Pitt against the wishes of his father who wanted his son to make a more financially advantageous marriage. Edward James Eliot was known to 1790s radicals as a political reformer who was also an evangelical Anglican and member of the Clapham Sect. In advocating the abolition of slavery Edward James Eliot did not acknowledge that his family’s wealth had derived partly from the slave trade.

In Cornwall in the early 1790s the elder Edward Eliot was not concerned with political or religious reform. In 1792 he commissioned Humphry Repton to draw plans to remodel Port Eliot, which was a waterside property and former priory. Earlier works commissioned by Edward Eliot removed tombstones outside the church. Edward Eliot provided replacement land for burials on which he built a new and substantial family vault. After this work had been completed an unknown artist painted Port Eliot in the late 1770s or early 1780s, as shown here. Repton produced a ‘red book’ of designs with written explanation one page of which was headed plainly ‘Of Gothic’; Repton’s plans included a proposed gothic walkway linking the house to the church.

Secresy or the ruin on the rock

Eliza Fenwick’s novel revealed an inner imagination which drew on places in Cornwall, and the stories she had heard of some great Cornish landowners, notably the Eliots of Port Eliot, as well as her personal experience.By the end of the novel the secrets have been revealed. Mr Valmont of Valmont Castle tells Clement Montgomery that he is his father. Mr Valmont’s niece Sibella discovers she is an heiress and need not depend on Valmont in future. Clement is revealed as leading a dissipated life and having had an affair with Mademoiselle Janetta Laundy. Arthur Murden, the nephew of a nabob, confesses that he disguised himself as a hermit and lived in ‘the ruin on the rock’ to be close to Sibella whom he loves; nonetheless Arthur is shocked when he realises that Sibella is pregnant by her childhood friend Clement, who has by then married a wealthy widow. The passageway between Valmont Castle and the hermitage is discovered.

Etching by Letitia Byrne, Lyson’s Magna Britannia (1813), courtesy

The setting of Eliza Fenwick’s novel in the moated Valmont castle may have derived from her knowledge that the Enfield property in which John Fenwick had a family interest had been a moated farmhouse. Other elements of the novel’s gothic setting echoed dimensions of Port Eliot, and the actual or proposed changes by Edward Eliot, including: the wooded, waterside location; the building of a new family vault; the ‘wild and rocky’ scenery adjoining the park which Repton’s plan labelled ‘the Craggs’; and the passageway which, in the novel, joins the castle to the eponymous ruined hermitage clinging to a dramatic outcrop. During visits to Cornwall it is likely that Eliza Fenwick had seen the hermitage at Roche. The first description of Sibella Valmont in the novel is of her seated, dressed all in white, nursing a pet fawn Nina; there was a deer park at Boconnoc, the Pitt family’s home in Cornwall, not at Port Eliot.

The plot of Secresy or the ruin on the rockturned on the secret intention of Mr Valmont to engineer the marriage of his niece and heiress Sibella to Clement Montgomery so as to secure his illegitimate son’s future fortune and inheritance of Valmont castle. The Eliot family history included foiled intentions to arrange the marriage of an heiress to an Eliot cousin as well as the integration of an illegitimate child through marriage into the family.

The character of Clement Montgomery may have incorporated Eliza’s personal doubts about John Fenwick. John was seven years older than Eliza but they probably met as children when both their families were in Newcastle. John and Eliza were, to echo Thomas James Fenwick’s phrase, ‘known and reputed’ as married, but they may not have been; John Fenwick had probably had relationships with other women of which Eliza was aware. John Fenwick acquired a reputation for mismanaging money and heavy drinking; he provided the inspiration for Charles Lamb’s character ‘the excellent toss-pot’ Ralph Bigod in the Essays of Elia.


On a visit to Cornwall in September 1776 Eliza’s father Peter Jaco wrote from Mount’s Bay to Mrs Hall in London that:

I have two neat chambers, built upon the extreme margin of the shore … so that at this moment I can see nearly twenty sail of ships, and upwards of a hundred large fishing-boats … Nothing on earth can be more agreeable to me.

For Peter Jaco returning to Newlyn was a homecoming; he saw his family including his father Nicholas. Eliza was aged 12 when her father wrote this letter. Perhaps because of her father’s influence or childhood visits to her relations Eliza Fenwick imagined Cornwall as a place to which she could escape.

In the summer of 1800 Eliza considered leaving her relationship with John Fenwick and ‘totally’ separating herself and her children ‘from his bad or good fortunes’. Eliza’s relations in Cornwall included her ‘brother’ Thomas James Fenwick who had opened a draper’s shop on the Market Place in Penzance. In a letter to Mary Hays in July 1800 Eliza noted that she had ‘written to Cornwall & urged them immediately to enable me to come there’; but she did not travel to Cornwall at that time. In a reverie in September 1801 Eliza Fenwick had ‘half a mind to jump on a little vessel now in the river & sail away to Cornwall’.

The circumstances in which she moved to live at Penzance in the following summer were not carefree. In June 1802 John and Eliza Fenwick’s daughter Eliza Ann was unwell. Eliza’s mother had died of consumption and Eliza, fearing for her daughter, noted with relief that ‘Carlisle’, one of the doctors who had attended Mary Wollstonecraft, called Penzance ‘the Montpellier of England & that were she in London & money were no object he should order her hither’. By the autumn Eliza Ann was well enough to attend school in Falmouth while her mother ‘could bear a gallop of 25 miles to Falmouth for dinner very well’. Eliza Fenwick roamed the coast and countryside in west Cornwall noting that even in winter ‘a fine day here has all the warmth & clearness of Spring’.

Cornwall in 1802-3 did not inspire Eliza Fenwick to work on the second novel which she had considered writing in 1800; from Penzance she wrote to Mary Hays that ‘my barren imagination & still more barren situation, will not furnish any hint towards a second work’. Eliza had companionship but missed her creative friends. She had relations in Mount’s Bay but does not appear to have made new connections in Cornwall through the Fenwicks’ London friends; Charles Valentine le Grice, a schoolfriend of Lamb and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lived in Cornwall from 1796, where he was the tutor at Trereife, but does not appear to have been acquainted with Eliza Fenwick.

In Penzance Eliza Fenwick made friends with Elizabeth and John Vigurs writing to Mary Hays that Elizabeth was ‘An elegant pleasing and accomplished woman’ who had established herself as a ‘Millener’. This was Elizabeth Clansie who opened a milliner’s shop at Penzance in partnership with Grace Davy who was Humphry Davy’s widowed mother; Elizabeth Clansie’s father had been in partnership at Roscoff with the merchant and smuggler John Copinger. John Vigurs was the son of a victualler who kept the Seven Starsin Penzance; Eliza found him to be ‘a tall pleasing young man who reads much, draws well from Nature, & writes agreeable verses but whose parents while they made his dolt of a brother a bookseller & printer made him a tallow Chandler’. Eliza learned that Elizabeth was socially ostracised and attributed this to the Vigurs’ social status; it may also have been due to the fact that the Vigurs’ recent wedding had been celebrated with a Catholic mass at Lanherne following the Anglican ceremony, which was legal within the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1791 but rare in Cornwall at the time. All three spent Sundays taking long country walks and picnics together rather than in church.

Thomas James Fenwick’s shop in Penzance was initially successful. Eliza Fenwick worked in the shop with Thomas and two ‘shop women’; the shop was so busy ‘on Market days’ that she did not eat between ‘an early breakfast till about 7 in the evening’. Nonetheless by June 1803 Thomas James Fenwick was declared bankrupt; his creditors continued to meet and receive dividends for the next two years, and he was eventually able to establish a new business in London.

By the autumn of 1803 Eliza Fenwick was back in London and then established herself as an author of books for children producing ten titles in 1804-12. The Godwins opened a children’s booksellers and publishing house M. J. Godwin & Co, also known as the Juvenile Library, which Eliza Fenwick briefly managed from November 1807. Early in 1808 Eliza Fenwick travelled with her daughter who had an acting engagement in Ireland. The Fenwicks continued to have financial problems and in 1808 Charles Lamb wrote to a friend that ‘Little Fenwick’ was in Fleet prison for debt. When Richard Trevithick demonstrated his steam engine Catch Me Who Canin London the same year Jane Trevithick took tea with Elizabeth Vigurs who was by then living in London; but the Vigurs do not appear to have renewed their friendship with Eliza Fenwick. In 1811 Thomas James Fenwick told Eliza he would pay his brother ‘an income sufficient for his wants’ suggesting that John Fenwick move to live in Cornwall. There were occasional later references to writing and publication plans of Eliza Fenwick, and some of her books for children published later editions including translations, but her last new publication was her English grammar schoolbook in 1812.

Teaching in Ireland, Barbados, America, and Ontario

From 1812 Eliza Fenwick earned her living mostly by teaching in Ireland, Barbados, America, and Canada. For two years from June 1812 Eliza Fenwick was a governess to the Honner family at Lee Mount near Cork in Ireland. In 1814 Eliza Fenwick’s son Orlando travelled with his mother to Barbados where he died two years later, and Eliza Fenwick’s family life then revolved around her daughter and four grandchildren.

In 1811 John and Eliza’s adult daughter Eliza Ann Fenwick who was an actress had moved to Barbados where she met, and in August 1812 married, William Rutherford; he was an actor and the son of a Methodist lay preacher Thomas Rutherford who had known Eliza Ann’s grandfather the elder John Fenwick. In Barbados William Rutherford established a newspaper and opened a reading room while Eliza Ann Rutherford opened a school at which William also initially taught. William and Eliza Ann Rutherford had four children together and in July 1818, on the day that their fourth child Orlando was born, William Rutherford left Barbados for London and never returned to his wife and children.

In August 1814 Eliza Fenwick travelled to Barbados where she helped her married daughter to operate the school that she had opened at Bridgetown. John Fenwick did not see Eliza or either of his two children again, nor did he meet any of his four grandchildren. Initially employing free black servants in Barbados Eliza Fenwick subsequently became a slave owner. In November 1816 Orlando Fenwick died of yellow fever aged 18. Nonetheless Eliza Fenwick continued to live in Barbados where she worked with her daughter and helped to care for her four grandchildren.

Seven years later in September 1822 Eliza Fenwick and Eliza Ann Rutherford moved to New Haven, Connecticut. The school they opened there was not successful and two and a half years later they moved to New York where Eliza Fenwick ran a school and then a boarding house. In March 1827 Eliza Ann Rutherford died at New York and, as William Rutherford was living in London, Eliza Fenwick became the sole guardian of her grandchildren William aged 13, Thomas aged 11, Elizabeth aged 9, and Orlando aged 8.

In 1829 the family relocated to Niagara on the Lake where Eliza Fenwick ran a school with Mary Baldwin Breckinridge; and then in 1833 to York, renamed Toronto in 1834, where Fenwick took charge of one of the boarding houses of Upper Canada College. Tragically her two eldest grandsons William and Thomas Rutherford died in 1834 after taking a canoe out on lake Ontario. In the late 1830s Elizabeth Rutherford was employed as governess to the family of the American Scot and businessman Alexander Duncan; they were friends of Eliza Fenwick who also lived with the Duncan family on the shores of lake Ontario before moving with them to Providence, Rhode Island. Eliza Fenwick died at Providence in December 1840.


Author’s note. Eliza Fenwick’s biography is summarised in the Orlando women’s writing project (Cambridge University Press) online; thanks to Lissa Paul for discussions by email. For Peter Jaco’s short autobiography see Thomas Jackson (ed) The lives of early methodist preachers; and for preachers’ circuits see Samuel Warren and John Stephens Chronicles of Wesleyan Methodism(1827). Searchable transcriptions of the diaries of William Godwin, and the correspondence of Mary Hays are published online. There is further information about eighteenth century Mount’s Bay, and the Eliots of Port Eliot in Charlotte MacKenzie Merchants and smugglers in eighteenth century Cornwall (Cornwall History, 2019).

© Charlotte MacKenzie 2019

Join us next month as Charlotte returns with the concluding article. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook to keep abreast of our upcoming content.


Charlotte MacKenzie lives in Cornwall where she is a freelance historical researcher and writer. Her current research is on women and eighteenth century Cornwall. Charlotte won the 2016 Cardew Rendle prize awarded by the Royal Cornwall Museum and published an article in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall online journal Troze in December 2016. She was previously a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University.

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