Eliza Fenwick

Elizabeth Jaco Fenwick (1764-1840) was born on 1 February 1764 and christened on 21 February at the cathedral at Lichfield. Her father, Peter Jaco (1729-81), served as a Methodist preacher for John Wesley from 1753 to his death in 1781, although his preaching appears to have ended around 1780 due to his declining health. Jaco’s biographical letter to Wesley (dated 4 October 1778) appeared, with his portrait, in the November 1778 issue of Wesley’s Arminian Magazine. He served initially in Bristol (1755), followed by a stint in Ireland (1758) and then in London and Canterbury through 1763 before being installed by Wesley as itinerant preacher for the Manchester Circuit in 1764, a massive circuit that included Cheshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, part of Yorkshire, and Staffordshire. After a year in Sheffield, he returned to the Manchester Circuit in 1766 before moving to London in 1767-68, Canterbury (1769), Newcastle (1770-71), Dublin (1772-73), before settling in London in 1774, preaching often at the New Chapel in City Road through 1778. By that time his health was in decline, and his death was recorded in the books for the Methodist cemetery at City Road on 6 July 1781, his final residence listed as St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch.

Peter Jaco met Elizabeth Hawkesworth (1727-94) in 1760, most likely on a visit to Bristol, where she was a class leader among the Methodists there. They were married in May 1763 and nine months later, on 1 February 1764, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, either at Bristol, where she would have been attended to by Jaco’s relations, or at Bristol, where her old friends among the Methodists there would have attended to her. Peter Jaco was not present at the birth of his daughter is unlikely, for he had already returned to the Manchester Circuit many months prior to her birth. It appears that his wife had returned to either Penzance or Bristol for a visit and discovered while she was there that she was pregnant. He may have visited her during her pregnancy but by December he was hard at work in his Circuit, according to a letter from Jaco to George Merryweather at Yarm, Yorkshire, on 26 February 1764. He informs him of how he met her and his high estimation of her qualities, of their marriage at the beginning of May the previous year, and that she had expressed uneasiness over being separated from him during her pregnancy. She gave birth on 1 February and at the time of his writing the letter was on her way to meet him, though he does not mention that she was bringing the baby Eliza with her. Along the way she stopped at the Cathedral at Lichfield where Eliza was christened on 21 February, five days before Jaco’s letter (see her birth entry below). He would not have known about that event yet and would most likely have wished to have been there, but given the journey that lay before her from Lichfield to Dewsbury (where he was ministering to next, according to his postscript), she must have felt the need to have the ceremony performed at the usual time of three weeks after the child’s birth. She would only have been a two days ride on the coach away from Dewsbury but may have stayed with friends in Lichfield for a few days prior to departing for Dewsbury. It seems likely she would already have been there when Jaco addressed his letter to Merryweather and would have reunited with his wife and newborn child shortly thereafter. That September he is ministering in Birstal, where he has just recovered from a bout with St. Anthony’s Fire. During his illness young Elizabeth contracted smallpox. “Her affliction so affected her mother,” he writes to Merryweather on 12 September, “who was obliged to attend her night and day, that she had a bad time, so that our house has been an Infirmary. Blessed be the Father of Mercies we are all at present in a hopeful way, and trustg that a few weeks will set us on our Legs again.” He writes again to Merryweather on 12 December, preaching still working out of Birstal, near Leeds, and informs his friend that his “little Family are much better thro’ mercy.” He mentions his “little family” once again in a letter to Richard Rodda from London on 24 October 1779, a clear indication that Eliza was the only child of Peter and Elizabeth Jaco. These letters and the lack of any other birth records of children belonging to Peter and Elizabeth Jaco undercut the odd statement by Eliza Fenwick shortly before her death in a letter to her friend, Rueben Moffatt of Terry Town, NY, on 26 May 1840, in which she suggests that from her infancy she was “the only remaining one of 16 I had no brothers or sisters to struggle with me for supremacy ^of affection,^ nor yet to check my grasping self love by the requirement of mutual sacrifices.” There is no evidence to support the claim that she was the last of 16 children and even her next statement is somewhat misleading: “Losing my father while very young & continuing a spoiled child of prosperity I still had sense enough to see the beauties of family one union….”

She was 17 when her father died, and there is no indication that he had acquired any substantial wealth as a Methodist minister. According to Jaco's 1779 letter to Rodda, Eliza (at that time 15) and her mother were engaged in a business that would support the family and his ministry in his final years. It appears they were working as hosiers and living in St. Leonard's, Shoreditch, information found in the burial record for Peter Jaco in the Methodist City Road Burials, 1779-89, Acc. 285.25, London Metropolitan Archives. Jaco writers to Rodda, Had the Business that Betsey [Eliza Fenwick] & her mother are in answerd according to expectation, I should perhaps have been too happy in this line, as it was always my ambition to preach the Gospel without charge. But the Lords will be done. Hitherto we had not lacked; and he is still omnipotent. In Him may I always trust; & then I shall never be confounded. He remained active into 1780 before his illness led to his final decline. One thing is clear: Eliza Fenwick's youth was enmeshed in Methodism, living as an only child in a home in which both parents remained devoutly orthodox to their deaths. Her movement out of Methodism and evangelicalism clearly occurred after her father's death, and probably came as a result of her introduction to and subsequent marriage to John Fenwick.

After her father’s death in 1781, Eliza and her mother remained in London and it is there most likely that she met John Fenwick (1757-1823), the son of John Fenwick, Sr (1730-87), another Methodist itinerant preacher who was set apart for the ministry alongside Peter Jaco by John Wesley on 8 May 1754. According to John Lenton, the elder Fenwick served the Methodists in London from 1783 through 1786, helping Wesley with his press, though he was briefly expelled for drunkenness in 1785. Most likely it was during this time that Eliza met and married his son, probably in 1787 or early 1788, just after the death of Fenwick's father n 1787 and a year before they appear as the Fenwicks in William Godwin's diary and a year before the birth of Eliza, Jr., in 1789.

The Fenwicks began moving in a circle that included such literary and radical figures as William Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, and the Unitarian bookseller/publisher, Joseph Johnson. John Fenwick is mentioned 622 times in Godwin’s diary between 1788 and 1823; Eliza 395 times; young Eliza 49 times; Thomas Fenwick (John’s brother) 5 times; and Orlando Fenwick 19 times. By the mid-1790s, Eliza Fenwick had become friends with Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Elizabeth Inchbald, Mary Robinson (Eliza and her children lived for a time with Robinson at her Surrey home in 1800), Charlotte Smith, and later other writers, such as Elizabeth Benger and a young Henry Crabb Robinson. Fenwick achieved some notice with her Jacobin novel, Secresy, or, The Ruin of the Rock in 1795, and her politics, like that of her husband (he had been active in the London Corresponding Society) were decidedly for parliamentary reform, abolition, and individual rights, especially for women. The Fenwicks had two children, Eliza (1789-1828) and Orlando (1798-1816) (his birth was entered in the Dissenters' Books at Dr. Williams's Library on 11 December 1807). John Fenwick was a writer himself, publishing Memoirs of General Dumouriez, a translation, in 1794. His literary abilities were noted by many of the Romantic writers, especially his friend Charles Lamb, who contributed essays to one of Fenwick's last literary ventures, the short-lived paper, The Albion (1801). He struggled to maintain a consistent means of income, and, when combined with his worsening alcoholism, eventually produced a separation between himself and Eliza in the first decade of the 19th century. She spent the remainder of her life in a valiant struggle to provide for her children: she worked in her brother-in-law’s drapery shop in Penzance; served as a governess and school mistress (her first effort in this regard began in London in 1799); wrote for young and adolescent readers (she published some 10 works of this kind between 1804 and 1813, though sometimes under a nom de plume); and briefly managed Godwin's Juvenile Library in 1807. After a stint in Belfast as her daughter's chaperone during the latter's first significant acting venture in 1809, Eliza Fenwick became governess for the Moses Mocatta family, first in Wyck Street and then in Tavistock Square, London, from July 1810 to April 1812. She then removed (with Orlando) to an estate near Cork, Ireland, where she served the Robert Honnor family, brother of a close friend of the Mocattas, and experienced financial security for the first time since her marriage. Prior to her removal, Fenwick’s daughter Eliza joined an acting troupe in Barbados in 1811 and shortly thereafter married a fellow actor, William Rutherford (1783-1829), thus establishing a connection in the Western Hemisphere that would ultimately determine the final 25 years of Fenwick's life. In early summer 1814 Eliza left Ireland, returned to London for a few months (the last time she would see Hays and England) and then set sail with her son, Orlando, for Barbados, where she and her daughter and son-in-law established a boarding school in Freetown. Orlando died of yellow fever in November 1816, and William Rutherford deserted the family for England in July 1818, leaving Eliza and her daughter to care for the children and take care of a large school. In 1822 the hope for better prospects eventually led Fenwick and her family to establish schools in America, first in New Haven, Connecticut, and then in New York (where they primarily operated an upscale boarding house on Fifth Avenue). In 1829, the year after her daughter's death, she took her four grandchildren with her to Niagara, Upper Canada, and York, what would become Toronto in 1834. Her two grandsons, William and Thomas, died there by drowning on 12 April 1834. In 1838 she removed to Providence, Rhode Island, to live with the Duncan family; her retirement from labor and care was short-lived however, for she died there in 1840. The letters that passed between Fenwick and Hays between 1798 and 1828 and Eliza Ann Fenwick to her mother after her departure to Barbados in 1811, along with other materials, including letters by Fenwick to her friends, the Moffats in New York City, can be found in the Fenwick Family Papers, 1798-1855, New York Historical Library, New York City. These letters formed the basis of A. F. Wedd's Fate of the Fenwicks in 1927, and were eventually returned to surviving members of Fenwick's family in America after Wedd's publication. For a biographical account of Fenwick, see Isobel Grundy's "Introduction" to her edition of Fenwick's Secresy (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1998), 7-35. The first complete biography of Fenwick is forthcoming by Lissa Paul, Eliza Fenwick: Early Modern Feminist (University of Delaware Press, 2019); see also Lissa Paul, "A Place to Call Home: Journeys of Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840)." Book 2.0 8, 1 & 2 (Fall 2018), 35-47. See also John Lenton, John Wesley’s Preachers: a Social and Statistical Analysis of the British and Irish Preachers who Entered the Methodist Itinerancy before 1791 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 342.


For Eliza Fenwick's letters to Mary Hays, click here.

For Peter Jaco's Letters, click here.



Some important primary sources related to Eliza Fenwick and her father, Peter Jaco:

Elizabeth Fenwick Christening Record, 21 February 1764, Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, Church Records, 1538-1944 (Courtesy of Family Search Records, D20/1/3.], under “Feb. 1764.”:

Bapt. Elizabeth daug. of Peter Jaco. 21 [February]

Orlando Fenwick’s Birth Entry, England & Wales, Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial Registers, 1567-1970, RG5/36: Birth Certificates, Protestant Dissenters Birth Registry, 1801-1810, Piece 36: Certificate nos: D 1251-1500 (1807 Oct 29-1808 Mar 17), 11 December 1807, entry no. 1335, p. 86. [Italics are words in manuscript.]


These are to certify, That Orlando Fenwick Son of John Fenwick and Elizabeth his Wife, who was Daughter of Peter and Elizth Jaco was Born in Great Newport Street in the Parish of Saint Anns, Soho in the County of Middlesex on the third Day of May in the Year one thousand seven hundred and ninety eight at whose Birth we were present.



Mary Hays.

Henrietta Braddock.


Registered at Dr Williams’s Library, Redcross-Street, near Cripplegate, London.



Decr 11th 1807 Thos Morgan Register.

Peter Jaco Letters to Peter Merryweather, Methodist Archives, John Rylands University Library of Manchester, and PLP 60.27.1 [transcribed by Mrs. Naylor, of York, daughter of Peter Merryweather, as noted by James Everett, who signed and dated the note from Manchester on 17 September 1829]. See also Peter Jaco Autograph Letters (2) to Richard Rodda, 1779-80, PLP 60.27.2.


Image to right is a portion of Jaco's letter to Merryweather, 24 February 1764, just after the christening at Lichfield of Eliza.