Fisher: first female grammarian
Esther Rodríguez Gil
21 October 2002; published: November 2002 (HSL/SHL 2)
One of the most popular
English grammars published in the eighteenth century was Ann Fisher’s A New
Grammar (17502 [1745?]). Though no copy of the first edition has
come down to us,1 Alston (1965: 25-30)
lists more than thirty-one numbered editions of the book in the period ranging
from 1750 to 1800, plus eight unnumbered editions that were pirated and six more
entitled Fisher’s Grammar Improved, all printed, save one, at the
beginning of the nineteenth century. (These
improved versions, together with some editions of A New Grammar, are not
found in Alston’s bibliography I have therefore listed them in Appendix 1.) This makes her into the fourth most popular
grammar of the period, following Murray (1795) with at least 65 editions
published in Britain alone, Ash (1760) with 50 editions and reprints and Lowth
(1762) with 47 (see Alston 1965). It is significant that Fisher’s grammar was
published in Newcastle and London, where most publishing activity in the field
was taking place, as well as in Penrith, Gainsborough, Leeds and York, in its
Fisher’s work is valuable
in the context of eighteenth-century school texts for her concern with
methodology, which made her write on the education of children in general and
more specifically on the teaching of English (Rodriguez Gil 2002). Her interest
in this field took her to devise a new type of English exercise that became the
second most popular type of school exercise during the eighteenth century and
the beginning of the nineteenth (Michael 1987: 325). This type of exercise is
known as “examples of bad English” and was introduced in the second edition
of Fisher’s A New Grammar (1750). In fact, the relevance of this
English grammar must have been recognised at the time, because it was pirated
eight times, and plagiarised by John Kirkby in The Practice of Speaking and
Writing English (1746) (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1992: 167; 2000) as well as
by Thomas Spence in his Grand Repository of the English language (1775).
All this indicates that Fisher’s work did not go unnoticed in her own time, a
fact she was well aware of herself, when she wrote that “all the best English
school masters in the kingdom consider mine as the quickest and most effectual
mode of inculcating the knowledge of the English language” (Fisher 1788: iv).
However, despite the
popularity of Fisher’s work and, mainly, of her grammar, her importance has
been much neglected. Thus she was squeezed, for example, into the list of
English grammarians in the Lexicon grammaticorum with only half a column,
compared to other contemporary male authors such as Kirkby, whose grammar,
though only published once, has been conferred two columns in the Lexicon (Tieken-Boon
van Ostade 2000). In order to remedy this situation and to provide more insight
into the character of this outstanding lady, I will provide some information
about her life, as well as about the relevance and originality of her English
Ann Fisher was born in 1719
and, though the exact date of her birth is unknown, it was probably not long
before her baptism on 9 December 1719. She was the daughter of Henry Fisher,
yeoman, of Oldscale in the parish of Lorton, Cumberland (Hodgson 1920: 147-148). Unfortunately, there is no further information about her life until her
marriage with Thomas Slack (1723-1784),2
with whom she got married by licence, aged thirty-two, on 15 December 1751,
in the parish of Longbenton, Yorkshire (Parish Registers: 150). However,
in all her publications even those dating after her marriage, Mrs Slack
continued to use her maiden name, A. Fisher, as her pen name,3
very likely to avoid revealing the fact that she was a woman or else to keep her
independence as such. At the time, women were considered intellectually inferior
to men, and this was reflected in their education, which aimed at teaching them
the typical female accomplishments such as embroidery, cooking, and housewifery,
rather than the typical male subjects such as the classical languages (Goldsmith
1979: 316). Consequently, “female erudition [was] still regarded with
suspicion in many quarters” (Gardiner 1929: 361).
Thomas and Ann Slack had nine
children, all girls: Mary (1752-1825),
and Margaret (1768, who died in infancy) (Hodgson 1920: 152). Of
these, only Mary, Ann, Elizabeth, Sarah and Hannah outlived Ann, her daughters
Jane, Frances, and both Margarets all dying before her. Mrs Slack herself
died on 25 April 1778, aged 58, from asthma. She was buried together with her
daughters in the family burial place at St. John’s Church, Newcastle, and she
was followed by her husband on 13 January 1784. Two contemporary obituaries have
come down to us commemorating Ann Slack’s death. The first appeared in the Newcastle
Chronicle on 2 May 1778, the Saturday following her death and, though scarce
of words, it highlights the fortitude of her character and regrets her loss:
Mrs Slack, wife of Mr Slack, printer, in this town, of a tedious asthmatic
complaint, which she bore with great fortitude: Her character thro’ life, in
her family as well as social connections, is so well known, as need not to be
enlarged upon here; and the loss sustained by her death to all her relations
and connections will be long and deeply felt. (Newcastle Chronicle, 2
The second obituary is, in
fact, a letter addressed to Mr. Slack and signed by “J. Teasdale”,
presumably one of his friends, who after reading the obituary in the Newcastle
Chronicle quoted above wrote the following, which gives us an idea of how
well esteemed Mrs Slack was in her time:
End, 5th May, 1778.
was with real Concern and Grief that I read the disagreeable
Intelligence of Mrs Slack’s Death, in your last Week’s
Paper. That celebrated and venerable Lady, to whom I had such particular
and singular Obligations, stood deservedly high in my Estimation; and
you will easily believe that I was far from receiving the fatal News
with the Coldness of a Stoic. […] It is not in the lesser Circle of
her domestic Connections, only, that the Death of Mrs
Slack will be severely felt and lamented. In her, the literary
Republic has lost one of its highest female Ornaments; and will
assuredly pay the Tribute of unfeigned Sorrow,
on the melancholy Event. Her distinguished Character will be revered and
held sacred by all the Sons and Daughters of Science; and she shall be
respectfully mentioned to all succeeding Generations.
When Kings and Heroes
Alike their Names and Memories forgot;
Her sweet Memorial shall be
And light the Furs shall rest upon her
Head! (“The Hodgson Family”)
Her death must have been
relevant enough to be included in the local records of important events of
26 - Died, in Newgate Street, Newcastle, Mrs Slack. Wife of Mr Slack, printer
and publisher of the Newcastle Chronicle. To her literary abilities the
public were indebted for several valuable publications (Fisher’s Grammar
and Tutor, the Pleasing Instructor, &c.) adapted to the use of
schools, as well as private instruction, which will remain lasting monuments
to her memory. (Sykes 1866: 312)
All these comments highlight
that Mrs Slack was “an accomplished woman”, “with literary abilities”,
one of the “highest female ornaments”, a “distinguished character” and
characterised “with fortitude”. Therefore, it is clear that she did not
resign herself to an elementary education,
but aspired to be a learned woman. It is also clear that she was successful in
friends and connections
In order to know who Ann
Fisher’s, or Mrs Slack’s, friends were, I have analysed mainly two sources.
One is Myer’s Literary Guide (1997) and the second, and most important
one, is a collection compiled by Sarah Hodgson, daughter of Ann Slack. This
collection consists of a manuscript and a small number of letters addressed to
Mrs Slack and letters by her to one of her friends, the northern pastoral poet
John Cunningham (1729-1773).
This volume has remained in the family until it was bequeathed to the Newcastle
City Library in 1867 (Hodgson 1921a: 84).
Four of Ann Fisher’s
friends were prominent figures, all related to the world of arts, in
eighteenth-century Newcastle. These are Mr.
Robertson, Robert Carr, Thomas Bewick and Gilbert Gray. Mr. Robertson,
author of Poems by Nobody (Hodgson 1921a: 84-85),
was a constant visitor to the Slacks’ house and made their daughters “fond
of him” as he was “all fun and merriment” (Hodgson 1921a: 84-85).
Robert Carr was a man of great abilities, as he was both a talented poet and a
songwriter, taking daily events as the topics of his songs; Carr wrote under the
penname Primrose (Hodgson 1921a: 88). Thomas Bewick (1753-1828)
was a famous Newcastle engraver and his relationship with Ann Slack took him to
describe her as “a woman of uncommon abilities and great goodness of heart”
(Myer 1997: 84). Gilbert Gray joined the Slacks’ printing press and became Ann
Slack’s right-hand man. He was the owner of a local newspaper, The
Independent Whig, and author of several books (Mackenzie 1827: 577).
Two other names appear in the
manuscripts collected by Sarah Hodgson (Hodgson 1921a) which are worth
mentioning in more detail. One of them is John Cunningham, the pastoral poet,
who, though born in Dublin, was greatly attached to Newcastle, which he
considered his home (“John Cunningham” 1887: 277). The relationship between
Cunningham and the Slacks started as a business acquaintance, since he was a
frequent contributor to the Newcastle Chronicle – propriety of the
Slacks – and because the Slacks printed his small volumes of poems. But this
business relationship soon developed into a close friendship, making him a
frequent visitor of their house. On the occasion of his visits, Mrs Slack took
the liberty of scolding him, providing him with “necessaries” and cheering
him up in the process:
likewise remember my mother used to scold Cunningham whenever he came because
he was always so bare of necessaries; every time he left the house she made a
point of providing him with shirts, stockings, &c., &c., sufficient to
serve him till his return. […] I also remember she took a great deal of
pains with him, to give his mind the right bias: as nature had made him a poet
she wished him to cultivate this talent. (Hodgson 1921a: 84-5)
Mrs Slack’s generosity to
Cunningham is also portrayed in two personal letters addressed to him. In the
first letter she encourages him to be careful with his money and to write a new
volume of poems. He must have followed her advice because in the second letter
Mrs Slack tells him that he should take care of the money of his new edition,
which was the second edition of his Poems, chiefly Pastoral published in
1771, because he had received in advance, as an act of friendship, more than he
have nothing to do but take care of your money, you’ll get it fast enough by
your publications, if you would renew and get another volume. (Newcastle Sep.
17th 1771, in Hodgson 1921a: 95)
you will mind not to give any books away; but remember that you have received
more money than all ye edition will come to, which may not be all sold off
this many years, many of the damaged ones never at all perhaps, so mind &
get yourself trim’d up & come & stay with us awhile, before you go
to Durham if you possibly can. (Newcastle March 3rd 1772, in
Hodgson 1921a: 97)
Another piece of advice that
Mrs Slack gave Cunningham when he had a low morale reads:
pray, good Sir, what are you hipping4 at? What’s the matter with your
spirits? Such a provident hand as Master Smollet, or such economists as many
of y r Scots scribbellers are, would make a fortune of Genius far
inferior to yours, & roll about in their coaches, while you are desponding
for spirits to support you upon your humble stumps! Let us hear no more of
your whining: God helps y m most who strive to help themselves. (Newcastle
Sep t 17th 1771, in Hodgson 1921a: 95)
This extract shows that her
character must have been rather cheerful and that she had a determined mind
against “hipping” and whining. She must have been rather perseverant if she
did what she preached: “God helps y m most who strive to help
themselves”. As a matter of fact, she very likely followed her own advice,
since she combined her rather busy family life with various activities,
commercial and literary.
The second friend that may be
discussed is the well-known Bluestocking Mrs Montague (1720-1800),
who is mentioned by Sarah Hodgson in her recollections as “a particular friend
of my mother’s” (Hodgson 1921a: 86). Though Mrs Montague lived in London
most of the time, she also frequented Denton, which was close to Newcastle, and
this may have contributed to the friendship between her and Mrs Slack (Hodgson
1921a: 86, footnote). There are several references to this lady. The first
occurs in a letter by Cunningham addressed to Robert Carr, in which the poet
acknowledges Mrs Slack’s help in promoting his books to this outstanding lady:
“I have sent Mrs Montague’s elegant letter that ye may all see
it. It honours me too much. I shall thank Mrs Slack, I hop, in person”
(Sunderland 15th May 1771, in Hodgson 1921a: 93).
Mrs Montague must have asked
the poet for more books of the second edition of his Poems, chiefly Pastoral
(1771), for this fact is mentioned in two letters written by Mrs Slack to
Cunningham. In the first one she says: “I shall get Mrs
Montague’s books bound and sent soon” (N’Castle Oct. ye 25th
/71, in Hodgson 1921a: 95). In the second letter Mrs Slack says:
Montague is not yet come to her house in London but will be in town by the
time the books get up. We send Messrs. Robinson & Co. their’s this week
& shall send Mr White at the same time. I have two binding in
the most elegant taste for Mrs Montague which I shall take a
opportunity to send by some passengers going in the fly & wou’d have you
send a letter to enclose along with them, or you may write her directly &
say yt you have given me such an order & that she will receive
the books in a few days; & mind to hint her yt if any more be
wanting for her friends she’ll please to send to either yourself or me with
the orders. (Newcastle, Nov. 5th, 1771, in Hodgson 1921a: 96)
The relationship between Mrs
Slack and Mrs Montague was similar to that between Mrs Slack and John Cunningham.
Whereas the correspondence with the latter reveals a closer and more familiar
tone – he was “scolded”, his physical appearance was attended to by Mrs
Slack and his morale was very frequently cheered up by her –
the relationship with
Mrs. Montague was based on respect and admiration, since Mrs Slack acknowledged
the importance and fame of this lady in the literary world. The relationship
between these two ladies was also a mercenary one, as Mrs Montague would very
likely be able to find new buyers for the poet’s books.
4. Fisher as entrepreneur
Slacks ran different businesses: a
ladies’ school, a library, a printing
office and a local newspaper. From these four, only the first one was managed by
Ann Fisher alone -
Ann Fisher instead of Mrs Slack, because this school was opened and, apparently,
closed before she got married. The other businesses were started and supervised
by the couple jointly.5 I will deal with each business in the order in which they
were set up.
There is not much information
about Ann Fisher’s school other than the fact that it was a school for ladies
and the subjects which she taught. The scarcity of information about it is
probably due to the fact that it was opened before she got married, and little
is known about her life before that time. Fisher’s school was advertised twice,
to my knowledge, in the local press. The first time was on 29 June 1745:
the End of DENTON CHAIR, opposite to the Pant in Westgate, on Monday next, the
A SCHOOL will be Open’d, where
READING, according to the best Spelling-books, and Grammar extant, WRITING,
fine and plain SEWING, will be taught, by ANN FISHER.
will be no more advertised] (Newcastle Journal, 29 June 1745)
Although it does not
specifically say so, it is rather obvious that her school was designed for
ladies just by looking at the subjects offered: reading, writing and sewing,
which were some of the basic skill usually included in the curriculum taught to
young ladies (Hill 1993: 45). The second time this advertisement appeared was on
28 April 1750, though this time it was much more detailed:
LADIES who chuse to learn the ENGLISH GRAMMAR, Yet cannot conveniently attend
on SCHOOL HOURS, may At Mrs FISHER’s School, in St. Nicholas’s Church Yard, NEWCASTLE, betwixt the hours of Five and Eight at Night, Be
instructed under the following HEADS, viz.
peculiar SOUNDS of the several LETTERS. To spell and divide by Rule.
exact and proper METHOD of READING according to the Points, Cadence, and
critical Knowledge of the various Kinds of WORDS, and Parts of SPEECH to which
each Word particularly belongs; with the comparing of Qualities, forming of
Verbs, stating of Pronouns, &c.
concord and connect Words in a Sentence or Sentences together, consistent with
the Manner of the best English Writers.
YOUNG LADY, of a tolerable Capacity, who can read pretty well, and write a
legible Hand, may, in a few Months, be completed in this Way, at a reasonable
may be pretended, or whatever Pains taken by rote, it is presumed that no
continuing Certainty, or perfect Correctness in Spelling, no regular or just
Manner of Accenting, no pathetic or strictly intelligible Method of Reading or
Speaking, or even a tolerable Judgement in any kind of Writing, can be
acquired by an English Scholar, without a thorough Knowledge of Grammar in all
its Parts. (Newcastle Journal, 28 April 1750)
This time Fisher explicitly
stated that her school was, indeed, for young ladies, at the same time
elaborating upon the different subjects that would be taught at her school: the
sounds of the letters, spelling, reading, the kinds of words and the parts of
speech, and to
“concord” and connect sentences. Particularly interesting is the final
remark Fisher made in order to emphasise the importance of learning grammar, no
doubt to promote her own school. In fact, Fisher’s advertisement seems to be
addressed to young working ladies, as the hours offered suggest that they cannot
attend the normal school hours. Besides, the subjects offered were rather simple
and were much needed to get any kind of job since, as Percy (2002) has shown, a
knowledge of English grammar, reading and writing was required in many
advertisements asking for house service. Thus, Fisher’s prospective pupils
probably belonged to the lower social classes, which may be one of the reasons
why she did not write a grammar in which a knowledge of Latin was necessary.
This idea is reinforced when we read in her advertisement that the lessons could
“in a few Months, be completed in this Way, at a reasonable rate”
(Newcastle Journal, 28 April 1750).”
Due to the scarcity of information about her
school – I have only found these two advertisements – I cannot determine how
successful the school was, though it is not unlikely that her academy was
popular since she did not need to advertise it any more for the next five years.
The Slacks’ shop, known as
the Printing Press, was the first of the prosperous adventures undertaken
by them. The opening of their shop in May 1763 was advertised in a local
week will be opened.
By T. SLACK, at the
The Head of
the Middle Street, opposite the High Bridge, a Commodious NEW SHOP,
where will be SOLD, on reasonable Term. – All Sorts of Books in divinity, history, Mathematics, &c. – Also Maps, Perspective Views, and Mezzotinto Prints, colour’d
or plain. – School Books,
the best Editions, in Greek, Latin, French or English. – Likewise Writing Paper of several Sorts, and mathematical
Instruments with a great Variety of Articles in the Stationary Way, as
Spectacles, Prospect glasses,6 Letter
cases, Sealing-wax, Pens, Ink, &c.
Those who please me with
their Custom may be assured my best Endeavours will be exerted to serve
them well, and execute their Orders punctually; and Obligations
conferred upon me be gratefully remembered, by
Their most humble Servant,
THO. SLACK (Newcastle
Courant, 30 April
This shop was important not
only because of the service it gave to customers with the variety of products
available there, it was also well-known because it became a club, a meeting
point where artist, writers, actors or even politicians gathered to discuss
current topics and which had an important influence in their contemporary local
society (“The ‘Newcastle Chronicle’” 1890: 223). Some of the
people attending this club may well have been their friends mentioned above,
Gray, Bewick, Cunningham, Carr and Robertson. Nevertheless, whoever met at the Printing
Press, this shop contributed to the development of cultural life in
eighteenth-century Newcastle, and all this was possible due to the “public
spirit and generosity of the proprietors” (Horsley 1971: 192).
In the same year the Slacks
opened up this shop, in 1763, they started another business, a printing office,
for in this year the first two books published in his office appeared, which
were both religious (Welford 1907: 77-78).
They published many kinds of books in their printing house, but especially their
own – related to business and education – which they later sold in their shop.
The Slacks are said to have produced “by far the most successful series of
schoolbooks written in the north in the eighteenth century” (Robinson 1972:
335). The importance of their printing office and of their contribution to
Newcastle typography is acknowledged in the quotation below:
printing of books formed a large part of their flourishing business. The
Slacks contributed handsomely to the eight hundred books printed in Newcastle
upon Tyne in the course of the eighteenth century. They served private buyers
and the circulating libraries, which began to spring up in the town in the
1780’s. (Horsley 1971: 191)
An important feature of their
printing office is that the Slacks published some of their books both in
Newcastle and in London, thus securing a larger profit. Having a business
relationship with a London publisher seems to have been rather common for
provincial publishers, as such a connection offered attractive prospects:
were obvious advantages in securing a London publisher; advertisement to the
larger population of the capital was likely to produce initially a wider
subscription, if such was called for, and later a wider sales market;
the connections maintained by a flourishing London bookseller, as most of the publishers were,
would be on a national scale, and should therefore spread circulation to areas
to which a local publication would have no entrée. At the same time local
sales could be easily covered by the co-operation of a local publisher. This
form of arrangement became increasingly common in the eighteenth century. The
second edition of L.
Rudiments was printed by Saint for J. Wilkie of London in 1771, the third
edition of Story’s Grammar was printed for T. Longman and T. Evans by T.
Angus; above all others Slack and his successor Hodgson followed this practise
(Robinson 1972: 337)
Ann and Thomas Slack were
well aware of all these advantages and made the most of them. This is also
obvious when we look at some of the editions of Fisher’s English grammar, such
as her sixth edition entitled A Practical New Grammar, with Exercises of Bad
English that was “printed for C. Hitch and L. Hawes, and J. Richardson, in
Pater Noster-Row; and Thomas Slack, in Newcastle” (Fisher 1759: title-page);
and the 8th edition of the same book, which was printed at London for
J. Richardson, L. Hawes, and T. Slack (Fisher 1763: title-page). Besides her
grammar, some editions of her other works were also published in London:
“New English Tutor”, published in 1762, was printed for J. Richardson in
Paternoster Row and T. Slack in Newcastle. London publishers were also used
for her “Spelling Dictionary” and “Pleasing Instructor” in some
editions. (Robinson 1972: 338)
But something else was
printed in this printing office that was probably its most important issue: the Newcastle
Chronicle. Not even a year after they started the printing office, the
Slacks took up the challenge of a more difficult task, i.e. to publish a local
newspaper, its first number being published on 24 March 1764 (Hodgson 1921b:
179). It is said that Mrs Slack “was probably instrumental in urging her
husband to establish his own paper” (Horsley 1971: 190). This is not strange
if we think that they saw in the newspaper “an excellent instrument for
advertising their publications” (Horsley 1971: 191), for in the first number
of this paper they clearly stated their intentions:
this paper will be exhibited news, foreign and domestic, the prices of grain,
stocks, et cetera, and to render it a magazine of entertainment as well as a
paper of intelligence, there will frequently he inserted characters of, and
extracts from, new books, with other select and original literary articles in
prose and verse. (as quoted by Horsley 1971: 191-2)
That the Slacks advertised
new books in their local newspaper is beyond any doubt for
facsimile of the first number shows that three-fourths of the paper is filled
with advertisements, of which, besides the announcements of Mr Slack’s own
publications, more than two columns relate the books that might be had at his
printing shop in union Street, adjoining his printing office in Middle Street,
where now stands the Town Hall. (Welford 1896)
The importance of the Newcastle
Chronicle, however, was not reduced to a mere advertising of books to be had
in their shop. In fact, this local newspaper remained a family business after
the Slacks’ death, since Solomon Hodgson continued it on behalf of the family
until he married Sarah Slack in 1785, one of the daughters of the Slacks. The
Hodgsons successfully managed their business (Barnes & Cook 1961) and, after
them, it was taken over by their sons, who ran the family business until 1850,
when they sold the Newcastle Chronicle to Mark William Lambert who, in
turn, sold it to Joseph Cowen in 1862 (Isaac 1999: 157). It is said that during
the time that the newspaper remained in the family it became “the leading
Liberal organ of Newcastle for more than seventy years” (“The Hodgson Family”).
5. Fisher’s role in the
Although I have stated that
the family business was run by the couple, it might be difficult to believe that
Mrs Slack (née Fisher) performed an important part in their management due to
the prejudices against women’s education and participation in public life in
the eighteenth century. But one
thing is certain, namely that Mrs Slack decided to break with the social
conventions of the period in which she lived. She was ready to take the
initiative and she did.
To start with, she showed her
enterprising spirit when she opened up her own ladies’ school, before her
marriage, between 1745 and 1750. The couple started their joint business in
1763, first with the Printing Press that became a kind of literary club
“created by the public spirit and generosity of the proprietors” (Horsley
1971: 192, emphasis added). Then, in the same year they set up a printing press
in which Mrs Slack participated actively, as is clear from the continuous
references to the printing press in the letters addressed to her friend
Cunningham. These references even suggest that she actually ran this business:
are glad you are coming to this neighbourhood when I hope we shall be able,
& you’ll be ready, to go on with another edition of your poems. We have
writ to London to urge it & purpose to take half those they
hand if required, to have them at once into a better selling size. (Newcastle
Novbr ye 24th 1769, in Hodgson 1921a: 90)
Slack is at London, & has been for some time, on which account I have been
too much hurried with business to be so punctual in my correspondence as I
cou’d have wished. (Newcastle, Sept 17th 1771, in
Hodgson 1921a: 94)
shall dry your title sheets directly to be ready to send a few books to you in
a week’s time, if you choose it, & advise how we are to send them &
to what quarter, as you talk of removing from Scarborough. (Newcastle, Sept
17th, 1771, in Hodgson 1921a: 94)
Montague is not yet come to her house in London but will be in town by the
time the books get up. We send Messrs. Robinson & Co. their’s this week
& shall send Mr White his at the same time. […] & mind to
hint to her [Mrs. Montague] yt if
any more be wanting for her friends she’ll please to send to either yourself
or me with her orders. If she sends to Robertson & Roberts they will
expect a bookseller's profit upon them, we’ll not desire it, we have no
other motive than to serve you in the publication. (Newcastle Nov. 5th
1771, in Hodgson 1921a: 96-7)
Finally, the origin of the
even more daring adventure of the publication of the Newcastle Chronicle
was to a great extent due to Mrs Slack, too, who encouraged her husband to
publish their own paper. It is evident that Fisher had an enterprising spirit,
as she saw in this publication a great opportunity to promote her own books.
It has been observed that
Thomas Slack “found in his wife an admirable supporter, shrewd and active in
prospering their respective ventures” (Horsley 1971: 190). This is supported
by the comments about the Slacks which refer to the family business as their
business, and not merely as that of the husband’s: “The couple were not
merely printers and booksellers, but they were bookmakers and journalists as
well. Their shop in Union Street was a club as well as a shop” (“The ‘Newcastle
Chronicle’”1890: 224). Another reference to their co-operation at work
is made by Welford (1907: 37): “Thus, working together as authors and
publishers, and probably co-operating in newspaper work, they built up a large
and successful business”. Their business must have been successful indeed, for
when they died they left behind a considerable estate as Thomas Slack’s will
shows: five houses, a ship, a freehold estate in Wreary, a shop, a printing
office ... (Hodgson 1920: 149-50).
6. Ann Fisher’s A New
As said, Ann Fisher is the
author of several educational books aimed both at schools and the general
public, mentioning young ladies among them, as she acknowledges in the preface
to her most successful book, A New Grammar:
humbly recommend … the Book in general, to the Consideration of all those
Gentlemen, &c. who are honoured with the Care and Education of Youth, as
well as to the Perusal of such Young Ladies and other as are desirous of
improving themselves, at their leisure Hours, in Spelling and Reading.7
(Fisher 1754: iv)
books must have been used at local schools because, for instance, in the list of
books donated after 1757 to the grammar school at Bampton, which was considered
“one of the most successful schools of the north”, were mentioned “ten
Arithmetic books, of which six were of Banson’s Arithmetic” and several
English textbooks, among which seven by Ann Fisher (Robinson 1972: 111). But we
not only find references to her grammar in England: according to Kevyn
Arthur (personal communication with Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade), it
was also known on the other side of the Atlantic. The grammar was referred to on
27 November 1784 in the Barbados Mercury, an eighteenth-century Caribbean
newspaper, in a passage recommending “the careful perusal of Fisher’s
English Grammar, and particularly that division which treats of pointing”.
the following books: A New Grammar
The Pleasing Instructor
(1756), The New English
Exercise Book (1770), An Accurate New Spelling Dictionary
(1773), The New English Tutor
(1774), and The Young
Scholar’s Delight (1802).Most
of them dealt with the English language, its grammar and its spelling, though
the author also ventured to write a compendium of moral tales, an ambitious work
that discussed geography and astronomy. She also wrote a Memorandum Book that was extremely
popular. The number of editions of some of these books, for instance A New
Grammar, with more than forty editions, The Pleasing Instructor, with
twenty-nine editions, and the New English Tutor, with thirteen editions,
reveal the popularity and success of this prolific writer in her own time. But
no doubt Fisher is best known by A New Grammar.
The importance of her English
grammar is not only due to its numerous editions. As
regards A New Grammar, the first editions were printed by I.
Thompson. Thomas Slack worked for him for a few years before starting his
own press. The editions printed in Thompson’s office were the ones of 1750,
1751 and 1754. From then onwards, the 1757 edition tbeing he first one, it was
Thomas Slack who printed the grammar. It is not a coincidence that this happened
after his marriage. Ann Fisher was the first female
English grammarian and, after her, six more women grammarians followed in the
course of the eighteenth century, thus possibly starting a trend (Tieken-Boon
van Ostade 2000). Besides, her approach to English grammar was far removed from
the main Latinate tradition that inspired contemporary grammarians when writing
their books. Fisher decided to depart from the weight of this tradition, and to
portray her native tongue after the observation and description of its own
nature, becoming thus the only female grammarian, and one of the earliest
grammarians to begin with, of the movement of reform described by Michael (1985:
Nor did Fisher strictly follow the main eighteenth-century approach to grammar,
which set out to prescribe rules for English grammar and to proscribe usage
considered to be incorrect. Here again, her grammar book was different, as it
conveyed a blend of prescriptive and descriptive language analysis (Rodriguez
her grammar, any reader will be struck by its stated anti-Latinity; indeed, this
is one of its most outstanding features. Fisher deliberately chose to make a
fourfold division of the grammatical categories: names (“nouns”), qualities
(“adjectives”), verbs and particles. By so doing, she rejected the more
Latinate systems which organised the parts of speech in a range of six to ten
different categories, the most numerous group being those systems which included
eight word classes: noun, article, pronoun, verb, adverb, conjunction,
preposition, interjection (Michael 1985: 214-36).
Besides, she uses a terminology that departed from more conventional terms, and
which aimed to anglicise the terms or make them sound more vernacular, with
words such as “quality” for “adjective” and “name” for “noun”,
or “helping verb” for “auxiliary verb”. In Table 1, I reproduce a list
of conventional and innovative terms used in Fisher’s grammar:
1. Terminology used by Fisher in A New Grammar.
two characteristics – the fourfold division of the parts of speech and the
vernacular terminology – make her part of “the reforming grammarians”
designated as such by Michael (1970: 509) in his classification of the English
grammars dating from before 1800. But her repudiation of Latinate grammar is
also evident when she openly defends the superiority of the English language
over any other language, thus dismissing the contemporary belief in the
inferiority of the English language due to its lack of inflections. To give one
example, she is a great upholder of the simple use of prepositions against the
tedious use of inflectional cases:
in English we have but this one Case, we express the Circumstances,
Properties, or Affections of Things to one another by the Help of
little Words called Prepositions, such are of, to, with, from, by,
&c. whereby we are freed from the great Trouble that is found in other
Languages of expressing the Circumstances, &c. of Names in twelve Cases,
and five or six different Declensions: So, likewise our having no Difference
of Gender in our Names, is an Advantage as great as the former,
and which no other Language antient or modern enjoys, except the
Chinese. (Fisher 1754: 70, footnote)
Ann Fisher was
a lively woman full of energy. She
surrounded herself with friends who shared her interest in the world of arts and
literature. She had run her own ladies’ school, played an important role in
the various family businesses, even managing them directly, and was a prolific
contributor to the printing press as the author of several school books. In
addition, she was no doubt a devoted mother, wife and author, and a helpful
partner to her husband.
Grammar was the most important work
written by this lady in terms of popularity and innovations it brought to the
grammatical tradition. Just the consideration of her departure from the
classical tradition should be enough to trigger more interest on the side of
today’s linguists. I hope that the present account of her life and grammar
awakens, at least, the curiosity and study of such an important
eighteenth-century English grammarian, since, “one cannot but admire the
energy and enthusiasm she must have spent on all her multifarious occupations as
wife, mother, hostess, writer, printer and bookseller” (Horsley 1971: 196).
As for the first edition of A New Grammar, according to Alston, “Wells
conjectures a first edition published anonymously under the title An Easy
Guide, Newcastle, 1748. No such grammar appears to have survived” (Alston
1965: 25). However, a first edition of A New Grammar must have been
published in 1745, as an advertisement in the Newcastle Journal says
that “This day is published, pr. 1 s. A New Grammar and Spelling Book:
being the most easy Guide to Speaking and Writing English Properly and
Correctly” (Newcastle Journal, 29 June 1745). It is not
a coincidence that this advertisement appeared on the same day that Ann
Fisher's ladies’ school was first advertised. Unfortunately, this first
edition has not been located and, therefore, the first extant edition is the
second one which was published in Newcastle upon Tyne by J. Gooding for I.
Thompson in 1750. Like this second edition, most of the editions of this
grammar book were published in Newcastle, but the author also ventured to
enlarge the scope of this grammar since there were some editions that were
printed both in Newcastle and London, such as the editions published in 1759
(6th ed.), 1767 (10th ed.) or 1779 (18th
ed.); and some were printed only in London, for instance the editions
published in 1753 (3rd ed.), 1762 (7th ed.) and 1775
Thomas Slack, was “the eldest son of Joseph Slack (1701-1752?),
of Wreay, near Carlisle, and his wife Mary (née Stephenson), whom he
married on 12 May 1722 at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle” (Isaac 1999:
There is some confusion on the authorship of Fisher’s grammar due to the
fact that the author of the first two editions was said to be “D. Fisher
and others”. This ‘D. Fisher’ stands for Daniel Fisher. It is very
likely that Daniel and Ann Fisher knew each other before 1751; both lived in
Newcastle, and they might well be relatives. By this time, Daniel Fisher had
already written a book, The Christian Education (1743) (see Robinson
1972: Appendix I, vol. II, s.v. “Daniel Fisher”), which had been
favourably received. Probably this fact together with their very likely
acquaintance made Ann Fisher borrow his name or ask for his co-operation in
publishing her grammar. Thus, the first two editions of A New Grammar
were published under the name of a learned man, which shows she was well
aware that she was writing in a male-dominated academic world in which
learned women were regarded suspiciously and considered inferior. When Ann
Fisher was convinced that her grammar had been accepted by her male peers
and that she had achieved “some sort of academic authority with male
grammarians” (Mitchell 1988), she dared to publish the 1753 edition with
her own name as the only author. Interestingly enough this was the first
edition published after her marriage to Thomas Slack, on 15 December 1751.
Apart from this change, this edition also saw other changes, for instance
the title changed to A New English Grammar with Exercises of Bad English,
and the section on methodology was now called “a practical method of
teaching English grammatically”. In publishing it, the author took the
safe side as she decided to try first, in 1753, the London market, away from
home where she was known, to see how her grammar would be received when it
had her own name on it. And it seems that she was satisfied, because the
next year she ventured to publish the fourth edition in Newcastle, and from
then onwards she signed her books with her maiden name “A. Fisher”.
Hipping, according to Joan Beal (personal
communication), “is a verb formed from hips, which in turn is a
clipping of hypochondria. Hips was a popular slang term,
and one of the words (along with mob) which Swift objected to in his
Thomas Slack was an employee of Isaac Thompson’s local newspaper, the Newcastle
Journal, for a number of years, probably from 1751 until 1762, when a
rivalry in business broke down their professional relationship. After
leaving Thompson’s office, Thomas and Ann Slack started their own
business, beginning with the shop.
They sold prospect glasses “doubtless to counteract the effects of
eyestrain caused by the small type so often favoured by contemporary
printers, including the Slacks themselves” (Horsley 1971: 191).
That her grammar book was for young ladies “at their leisure Hours”
connects with her advertisement of her own ladies’ school, which ran in
the evenings so that young ladies could attend. In fact, Fisher’s
advertisement seems to be addressed to young working ladies, as the hours
offered suggest that they could not attend the normal school hours. Besides,
the subjects offered were rather simple and were much needed to get any job
since, as Percy (2002) has showed, a knowledge of English grammar, reading
and writing was required in many advertisements asking for house service.
Thus, Fisher’s school was meant to attract pupils belonging to the lower
social classes, which may be one of the reasons why she did not write a
grammar in which a knowledge of Latin was necessary. This idea is reinforced
when we read in her advertisement that the lessons could “in a few Months,
be completed in this Way, at a reasonable rate” (Newcastle Journal,
28 April 1750).
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(1745?). A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad English: or, and easy Guide
to Speaking and Writing the English Language Properly and Correctly.
Newcastle upon Tyne: printed for I. Thompson and Co. by J. Gooding.
Fisher, Ann. 17544 (1745?). A New Grammar with Exercises of Bad
English: or, and easy Guide to Speaking and Writing the English Language
Properly and Correctly. Newcastle upon Tyne: I. Thompson.
Fisher, Ann. 17596
(1745?), A Practical New Grammar, with Exercises of Bad English,
London: printed for C. Hitch and L. Hawes, and J. Richardson, in
Pater-Noster Row; and Tho. Slack, in Newcastle.
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London: printed for J. Richardson, L. Hawes and T. Slack.
Fisher, Ann. 17886
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Language. Containing a much larger Collection of Modern Words than any Book
of the Kind and Price extant […] to which is added, an entire new
Dictionary of all the heathen gods and Goddesses […] to the whole is
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to the copies of Ann Fisher's grammar located by Alston (1965: 25-30):
Newcastle University Library: Robinson Library
Ncl Newcastle City Library
For further additions, please contact
María Rodríguez Gil.
Ann Fisher. A Practical New Grammar, with Exercises of Bad English; or, an Easy
Guide to Speaking and Writing the English Language Properly and Correctly.
Sixth edition, London, C. Hitch and L. Hawes, [et al] and Thomas
Slack [Newcastle], 1759.
2. _________ Twenty-third
edition, Newcastle, S. Hodgson, 1787.
3. ________ London,
A. Millar, W. Law and R. Carter; and Wilson and Spence [York], 1789.
4. _______ A new
edition, London, Osborne & Griffin, Mozley & Co. [Gainsborough],
5. _______ A new
edition, London, J. Batty, W. Clarkson, [et
6. ________ A new edition, London, John
Grammar Improved, thirty-second edition, Newcastle, 1801. (by a near
Relation of the late A. Fisher)
Grammar Improved, a new edition, Penrith, A. Soulby, 1806.
9. Fisher’s Grammar
Improved, fourth edition, Macclesfield, J. Wilson, 1808.
10. Fisher’s Grammar
Improved, fifth edition, Macclesfield, J. Wilson, 1812.