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Ellen Fenton Diaries of Travels to Boulogne-sur-Mer

Call Number: MSS 28

Scope and Contents

Illustrated manuscript diaries of Ellen Fenton of Haven Green House, Ealing, which chronicle her summer family vacations to Boulogne-sur-Mer. The volumes consist of a combination of modern laid and wove papers (the 1854 – 1856 volumes bound in marbled wrappers; 1857-1862 in plain beige wrappers). They are written in English, with portions in French, in sepia or black ink, recto and verso. The diaries are interspersed with approximately 173 pages of watercolor drawings. A small number of play bills, receipts, programs, clippings, letters and other ephemera are affixed to select pages.

Fenton’s journal, a record of her time at Boulogne, was intended for the eyes of her friend, Mrs. Ibotson, her daughter Geraldine Ibotson, who accompanies the family in 1860, and her own children: “As this journal is written for my dear children to read, in mature years, I must not forget to tell them, how unfailingly I found a long quiet period, to pray for the blessing we can dare ask, upon our poor paltry lives, for the sake of our Saviour.” (1860, pages 2-3). Fenton and her children typically arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer in August, and stayed for a fortnight to one month. Annual seaside holidays were typical amongst the Victorian middle classes, and the Fentons socialized with several other English families sojourning at Boulogne-sur-Mer, including members of the Emmett family. John Emmett resided at the Chateau du Preville, in the Vallée du Nacre, while Elizabeth Russel (née Emmett) vacationed in Boulogne with her daughters, ‘Minnie,’ ‘Janie,’ and ‘Ada’ in 1857. The annual family holiday allowed unprecedented freedom for Fenton and her children, whose independence might have been perceived as improper in an English environment. She laments on her departure from Boulogne in 1857: “My heart sinks… as I make this passage back to England. I feel I must again tutor myself, for the sobrieties of life... but I have a prevailing sentiment of coming to a land of severe surveillance over cheerful feeling” (Volume 6, 217). Fenton prides herself and her children for being “unconventional,” a quality she more than once expresses as lacking in her husband’s character. Aided by her fluency in French, Fenton blends with all levels of French society; she makes daily trips to the market, weaves in and out of Catholic processions, attends Church services and local award ceremonies, and takes her children on excursions to dungeons, ruins, and monuments.

Fenton’s accounts are most vivid in their account of dress and comportment, which she describes in painstaking detail, sparing no rank of Boulogne society. Actors, dancers, society women, Parisian dandies, military men, the clergy, market women, fish mongers, peasants, and fellow English travelers are characterized with minute scrutiny. Although she ventures outside the milieu of English company, her journals are also a valuable record of the venues of English sociability: the Hotel Folkstone, Hotel du Rhin, Hotel Meurice, Hotel du Nord, The Etablissement, The Tintilleries, and the Protestant church. With the debut of her eldest daughters, Fenton’s descriptions of the Etablissement and Tintilleries Balls grows more attentive, as do her humorous lampooning of potential suitors – both English and French. Despite her willingness to mock all levels of society, Fenton reserved her most caustic critiques for the clergy, and the views of her journal repeatedly express an intolerance of Catholic beliefs and activities, all the while exhibiting a prurient curiosity. As her father was likely the Rev. W.J. Emmett that published Scriptural Doctrines Called Calvinistic in 1835, it is possible that Ellen Fenton was a Calvinistic Methodist. She takes opportunities to preach to the local Boulogne population, denouncing Catholic ritual and extolling the virtues of Protestant belief. She is especially perturbed by groups of English Catholic converts, whom she labels “perverts.” Despite this discriminatory lens, Fenton’s journals nevertheless preserve lively accounts and illustrations of the religious processions, including the annual procession of the Virgin’s statue on the first Monday in August, a tradition which began the year of their visit in 1854.

As her daughters come of age, Fenton becomes increasingly preoccupied with their courtship of potential suitors. She often acts as their proxy, especially in circumstances where language is a barrier (none of her children speak French) or if she takes particular liking to a young man (see “Julian” of 1857). According to Fenton, her eldest daughters were the belles of Boulogne. This claim may not be over-exaggerated, as Rafe Neville Leycester, a young man whose diaries chronicle the trials and tribulations of the London marriage market, seems to be smitten with “Dally Fenton”of Ealing. He also describes a party at which Clara is “one of the swells of the room” (Leycester 19). Fenton is less concerned with the affairs of her eldest boys, ‘Dick’ (Adolphous) and ‘Vivian’ (Francis), who are absent from Boulogne in later volumes. Leycester’s journal provides a glimpse of Fenton’s thoughts on her eldest son, Dick: “Mrs Fenton talked to me a long time about Dick & his affairs, saying that he was naturally of a most sweet & angelic disposition, but that his “father’s persecution” had ruined him… From what I have seen of Dick he does not appear a bad sort of fellow, but considering the position of his affairs lives most extravagantly, travelling always first class, running up bills at Hotels etc.” (Leycester 17).

In addition to their minute description of courtship and custom, Fenton’s journals also capture the changing social and physical geographies of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Fenton’s journals begin as a new spirit of cooperation emerges between the French and British at the outbreak of the Crimean War (1853-1856). During the war, Boulogne-sur-Mer was a strategic military post because of its position on the northern coast of France. Fenton’s 1854 journal is preoccupied with descriptions of the soldiers who assemble at all hours outside their rented house, and she makes note of ‘ambulances’ that carry wounded and dying soldiers to nursing stations. This volume provides an eyewitness account of the official visit of Prince Albert and Emperor Louis Napoleon III to Boulogne, who arrive to inspect the Baltic expeditionary corps before it embarks. While her subsequent journals are written during periods of peace, they sometimes register tension between the English and French vacationers at Boulogne, which is perhaps the result of strained diplomatic relations between the two nations (see Volume 8, 1860). Fenton also witnesses architectural developments such as the construction of the Notre Dame Basilica (built between 1827 and 1875, see Lottin, 307-309), and the addition of a bell to the cathedral.

In 1860 or 1861, the Fentons lost their child, Horace W.R. Fenton, whose memory is invoked in the 1862 journal. It is not certain whether Ellen Fenton returned to Boulogne after 1862, but there is a certain tone of finality in this last journal volume. Florence M.R. Fenton (“May”) passed away in 1866 (England & Wales, FreeBMD Death Index); her illness could account for Fenton’s melancholic disposition in the final volume. By 1879, John Fenton had remarried, as indicated by John Allen Giles, friend of the Fentons: “Ellen and I spent the evening at the house of Mr and Mrs Fenton 55 Grande Rue. We had known him 20 years, and like his former wife, when they were living at Ealing, very much. She was a most clever and agreeable woman…” (565). Based on Giles’s account and the bankruptcy notice, Ellen Fenton either died or divorced John in the period between 1870 and 1878.


  • 1854-1862


Language of Materials

The diaries are in English, with some French.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.


The nine volumes of diaries are in chronological order, followed by two loose diary fragments.


1.5 Linear Feet (10 volumes)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection comprises illustrated manuscript diaries of Ellen Fenton of Haven Green House, Ealing, which chronicle her summer family vacations to Boulogne-sur-Mer, 1854-1862, in nine volumes.

Biographical / Historical

Ellen Fenton was born Ellen Emmett in the Parish of Hillingdon, County of Middlesex, circa 1813. She was baptized July 22, 1813, the youngest daughter of Reverend W.J. (Wiltshire John) Emmett, M.A., fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, and Rector of Latimer, Buckinghamshire and Elizabeth Emmett (née Smith). Reverend W.J. Emmett, only son of John Emmett of St. Albans, was born at Redbourne, Hertforshire in 1770 and was married to Elizabeth Smith (born 1776) of Watford on January 5, 1800. The Emmetts had four children in addition to Ellen: Caroline (born ca. 1804), John (born ca. 1805), Elizabeth (born 1810), Maurice (born ca. 1816). The family moved from Latimer to Hillingdon some time between 1805 and 1810, and later resided at Cran Hill House, near Bath. Caroline married E.H. Green, Esq. and Elizabeth (nicknamed “Lizzie” in Fenton’s journal) married Lieutenant Colonel Russel of the Royal Artillery. John F. Emmett attended Trinity College, Cambridge and authored several publications. One such publication, One Hundred Chess Games Played at Boulogne-sur-mer, may have been co-authored with Fenton’s son, Francis “Vivian” Fenton. John Emmett survived his wife, Caroline, who died at Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1857 at the age of 43. Maurice Emmett became Captain of the Buck Militia and the Northamtonshire Regiment (48th Foot). A large watercolour dating to c. 1841-44 and formerly in the Regimental collection of the Northamtonshire Museum depicts Captain Emmett riding his horse “fireworks”, possibly in Gibraltar, where the company was stationed from 1838-1844. In 1856, he married Jemima Horstman, widow of John Horstman, esq. of Thames Ditton house. Maurice and Jemima Emmett, who was fifteen years his senior, lived at Thames Ditton House until their deaths in 1868, leaving no successors. They were interred in Petersham, Surrey with Reverend W.J. Emmett, who died in 1860, and Elizabeth Emmett, who died in 1865.

The Emmett family may have been related to the Irish rebel Robert Emmet, leader of the United Irishmen who initiated an unsuccessful uprising against the English in 1802. Ellen Fenton herself insinuates the connection in 1860, when she describes meeting a group of Irish steamship passengers: “I said I was an Emmett, when one answered, ‘God bless your holy name, Miss,’ which speech so affected me, I kept it a secret. They both said if Emmett had lived, Ireland would not be what it was” (92). The diarist and friend of the Fentons, John Allen Giles, suggested the same: “She was previously Miss Emmett, of the same Irish family as the young man of that name who was hanged for high treason early in the reign of George III” (565). W.J. Emmett cannot be located within this line of descent, as it was recorded by Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet in The Emmet family, however the name Maurice (or Morrice) Emmet, “His Majesty’s Bricklayer” and wealthy landowner in Middlesex County, dates back to 1687 (152), and the Emmett’s second son was perhaps named after this distant relation.

On May 2, 1839, Ellen Emmett married John Fenton, Esq. at St Swithin’s Parish Church in Walcot, Bath, in the presence of their families (see marriage certificate, vol. 10). They were married by J.L. Wolley, Lieutenant of the 74th regiment, who was likely the father of Ellen Fenton’s childhood friend, “Fanny” Crawford. The Fentons gave birth to their first child, Clara Leycetter (“Cara,” “Care” or “Nell”) ca. 1841 in London. From 1841 to 1854, the Fentons had eight more children: John Adolphus (“Dick”), Francis M. P. (“Vivian” or “Viv”), Evelyn M. (“Dall”), Florence May Revell (“May” or “Mama”), Horace W. R., Anna H. (“Deeny”), Frederick A. R. (“Fred” or “Tinny”), and Henry John Horstman (“Baby,” “Hal” or “Titchet”). The Fenton’s youngest, Henry, became a Cambridge-trained chemist and is remembered as the inventor of “Fenton’s reagent,” used to oxidize and destroy contaminants in waste water.

At some point between 1844 and 1846 the family moved to Kingsteignton, Kent region. By 1851, the family was living in Kensington Town district, registered in the Ecclesiastical parish of St. James (1851 census). This seems to have only been temporary, as the family settled in Ealing, Middlesex (Christchurch Parish) the following year, where they resided for the duration of the journal’s recorded period. Their home, Haven House, was located at Haven Green, at the north end of Ealing village and within close proximity to the developing high street between Ealing Green and Uxbridge Road, opposite Ashton House. When the Fentons settled in Ealing, it was increasingly seen as a place where affluent Londoners could take up suburban residence, although Fenton more than once refers to her “country” lifestyle in England. The house was also close to the Great Western Railway station (opened in 1838), later called Ealing Broadway, which served much of the northern part of the parish and encouraged settlement in the north end of the village. The Fentons led a lifestyle typical of the Victorian middle class. They had two to three servants in their employ in the 1850s and 1860s, usually consisting of a nurse to assist with childrearing and at least one domestic servant to do other household chores. John Fenton is listed as gentry in both Mason’s Court Guide and General Directory of 1853 and Kelly’s Post Office Directory of 1855.

At the time of his marriage, John Fenton (“Appa”) was listed as Gentleman, residing at Hart Street in Bloomsbury Square (parish of St. George). He was a wine merchant based at 35 Crutched Friars from 1836-40. In 1841, he relocated his business, “John Fenton & Co.”, to 79 Mark Lane, where it remained until 1868. On August 27, 1869, John Fenton declared bankruptcy and Ellen Fenton is listed as a Trustee in a deed that arranges to surrender the business to James Wilson Sharp and Robert Henderson. Ellen Fenton was to pay £1,500 to Sharp and Henderson, who maintained the name “John Fenton & Co.” The company name may well have continued into the twentieth century, as two letters from “John Fenton & Co., Wine Merchants, (Fenchurch St, London)” are in the papers of the late Sir Winston Church (Churchill College, Cambridge).


  • “1851 England Census.” (Provo, UT: Operations Inc, 2005). Census Returns of England and Wales, 1851. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public record Office (PRO), 1851. HO107; Piece: 1468; Folio: 572; Page: 60; GSU roll: 87790-87791. [Census record for Ellen Fenton].
  • “1861 England Census.” (Provo, UT: Operations Inc, 2005). Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public record Office (PRO), 1861. RG9; Piece: 777; Folio: 93; Page: 21. GSU roll: 542699. [Census record for Ellen Fenton].
  • Baker, Timothy. A History of Middlesex. Vol. 7. Oxford: Published for the Institute of Historical Research by Oxford UP, 1982.
  • Burke, Bernard. "Emmet of Amberley Castle" Burke's Landed Gentry. London: Burke's Peerage, 1965. 237
  • Certificate of Marriage, John Fenton to Ellen Emmett, 2 May 1839, St. Swithin’s Parish Church, Walcot, Bath. General Register Office, U.K. Copy in possession of Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts.
  • Crisp, Frederick Arthur. Fragmenta Genealogica. Volume VI. Private Press of Frederick Arthur Crisp, 1901. 105.
  • The Churchill Papers : A Catalogue. Cambridge University, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2013.
  • Emmet, Robert. The Trial of Robert Emmet, upon an Indictment for High Treason. Special Commission. London: Sold by J. Badcock, 1803.
  • Emmett, J. Filmer., and Vivian Fenton. One Hundred Chess-games Played between Mr. J.F.E. and Mr. V. Fenton during the Winter of 1864. London, Boulogne-sur-mer [printed: n.p., 1865].
  • Giles, J. A., and David Bromwich. The Diary & Memoirs of John Allen Giles. Taunton, Somerset: Somerset Record Society, 2000.
  • Gill Christopher J. and Gillian C. Gill, “Nightingale in Scutari: Her Legacy Reexamined” Clinical Infectious Diseases, 1799-1805. (2005) 40 (12): 1799-1805.
  • Sumner, Rev. Percy. “The Northamtonshire Regiment (48th and 58th).” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research. Vol. 18 (1939). 184-187. [reproduction of watercolor depicting Capt. Maurice Emmett].
  • Leycester, Rafe Neville. ‘Crawling through Life’: The Diaries of Rafe Neville Leycester, 1859-1865. Online transcription:
  • London Gazette. August 27, 1869. 4825. [Copy of Court of Bankruptcy notice, John Fenton, Number 38,968].
  • Lottin, Allain (ed.), Histoire de Boulogne-sur-mer. Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1983.
  • Mason’s Court Guide and General Directory for Brentford, Kew, Ealing, Isleworth, Twickenham, Teddington, Richmond, Kingston, Hampton, etc. R.H Mason, 1853. 44.
  • Monteith, A. H. A Guide to Boulogne (sur-Mer) and Its Environs. London: S. Gilbert, [184-?].
  • Post Office Directory of Essex, Herts, Kent, Middlesex and Sussex. London: Kelly & Co., 1855. 564.
  • Splingard, René. Quelques pas au hazard dans le passé boulonnais de 1780 à 1939. France : s.n., 1994.
  • “The Royal Meeting at Boulogne,” Illustrated London News. Supplement. Sept 9, 1854. 237.
  • “General Monthly Register of Marriages, Births, and deaths at Home and Abroad,” The Court and Lady’s Magazine, Monthly Critic and Museum. Volume 3. Dobbs and Co., 1839., 663. [marriage announcement under Emmett, Ellen].
Ellen Fenton Diaries of Travels to Boulogne-sur-Mer
compiled by Julia Lum; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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