Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics

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Ann Fisher: first female grammarian

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María Esther Rodríguez Gil (email)

(University of Las Palmas)

Submitted: 21 October 2002; published: November 2002 (HSL/SHL 2)

 1. Introduction

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 pirated editions.

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 grammar.


2. Background

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), Ann (1754-1784), Jane (1755-1776), Elizabeth (1758-1789), Sarah (1760-1822), Frances (1762-1765), Hanah (1764-1855), Margaret (1766-1768), 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: 

Saturday last, 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 May 1778)

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:

Moor End, 5th May, 1778.

Dear Sir,

It 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 undistinguished rot,

Alike their Names and Memories forgot;

Her sweet Memorial shall be always read,

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 Newcastle:

April 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 her aspirations.


3. Fisher’s 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:

I 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 should:

You 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)

Now 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:

Mrs 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

The 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:

At the End of DENTON CHAIR, opposite to the Pant in Westgate, on Monday next, the 30th instant,

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.

[This 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:

YOUNG 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.

THE peculiar SOUNDS of the several LETTERS. To spell and divide by Rule.

An exact and proper METHOD of READING according to the Points, Cadence, and Emphasis.

A 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.

AND LIKEWISE,          

To concord and connect Words in a Sentence or Sentences together, consistent with the Manner of the best English Writers.

Any 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 Rate.

***Whatever 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 newspaper:

Next week will be opened.

By T. SLACK, at the Printing Press,

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 1763)

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:

The 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:

There 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. Metcalfe’s 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 [sic]. (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:

Her “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:

In 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

a 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 family business

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:

We 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 haveupon hand if required, to have them at once into a better selling size. (Newcastle Novbr ye 24th 1769, in Hodgson 1921a: 90)

Mr 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)

We 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)

Mrs 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 Grammar

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:

And 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)

Her 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”.

Fisher wrote the following books: A New Grammar (1750), 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: 509). 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 Gil 2001).

Upon reading 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:

Traditional terminology New terminology
substantive/noun name  
pronoun relative name
nominative case of pronoun leading state
objective case of pronoun following state  
adjective quality  


auxiliary helping verb

Table 1. Terminology used by Fisher in A New Grammar.

These 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:

As 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)


7. Conclusion

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.

A New 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).




1. 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 (15th ed.).

2 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: 153).

3 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”.

4. 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 famous Isaac Bickerstaff’ letter”.

5. 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.

6 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).

7 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).





a. Primary sources

Ash, John. 17634 (1760). Grammatical Institutes: or, an Easy Introduction to Dr. Lowth’s English Grammar. London: E. & C. Cilly. R.C. Alston (ed.). English Linguistics 1500-1800. EL London: the Scolar Press. 1972. 

Fisher, Ann. 17502 (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.

Fisher, Ann. 17638 (1745?). A Practical New Grammar, with Exercises of Bad English. London: printed for J. Richardson, L. Hawes and T. Slack.

Fisher, Ann. 17886 (1774). An Accurate New Spelling Dictionary, and Expositor of the English 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 prefixed, a Compendious, Practical Grammar of the English Language. London: printed for the Author.

“The Hodgson Family”. Tyne & Wear Archives Service. Accession no. 13. Newcastle upon Tyne. Reference 13/11/4.

Kirkby, John. 1746. A New English Grammar. London: printed for R. Manby and H.S. Cox. R.C. Alston (ed.). English Linguistics 1500-1800. London: the Scolar Press. 1972.

Lowth, Robert. 1762. A Short Introduction to English Grammar. London: printed by J. Hughs for A. Millar and R. & J. Dodsley. A Scolar Press Facsimile. Menston, England: The Scolar Press. 1967.

Mackenzie, E. 1827. Historical and Descriptive Account of the Town and County of Newcastle upon Tyne, including the Borough of Gateshead. 2 vols. Vol. 2. Newcastle upon Tyne: Mackenzie and Dent.

Murray, Lindley. 17984 (1795). English Grammar, adapted to the Different Classes of Learners, with an Appendix, Containing Rules and Observations, for Assisting the more Advanced Students to Write with Perspicuity and Accuracy. York: Wilson, Spence and Mawman.

Newcastle Chronicle, 2 May 1778.

Newcastle Courant, 30 April 1763.

Newcastle Journal, 29 June 1745.  

Newcastle Journal, 28 April 1750.

Parish Registers of Long Benton, Northumberland. 5 vols. Vol. II. Newcastle City Library.

Spence, Thomas. 1775. The Grand Repository of the English Language. Newcastle upon Tyne: T. Saint. R.C. Alston (ed.). English Linguistics 1500-1800. London: the Scolar Press. 1972.

Sykes, John. 1866. Local Records; or Historical Register of Remarkable Events, 2 vols. Vol.1. Newcastle upon Tyne: John Sykes.  


b. Secondary sources

Alston, R. C. 1965. A Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to the Year 1800; A systematic record of writings on English and other languages in English, based on collections of the principal libraries of the world. Vol. I. Leeds: E.J. Arnold.

Barnes, Margaret and Michael Cook. 1961. Deposited Papers: James Hodgson, Newcastle upon Tyne City Archives. City Archives Office.

Gardiner, Dorothy. 1929. English Girlhood at School; A Study of Women’s Education through Twelve Centuries. London: Oxford University Press.

Goldsmith, Peter L. 1979. “Ambivalence towards women’s education in the eighteenth century: the thoughts of Vicesimus Knox II”. Paedagogia-Historica 19: 315-27.

Hill, Bridget. 1993. Eighteenth-Century Women: an Anthology. London and New York: Routledge.

Hodgson, James. 1920. “Thomas Slack of Newcastle, printer, 1723-1784, founder of the “Newcastle Chronicle”. In Robert Blair (ed.). Archaeologia Aeliana. 3rd series. vol. XVII. Kendal: printed for the Society [of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne] by Titus Wilson, 179-182.

Hodgson, James. 1921a. “John Cunningham, pastoral poet, 1729-1773: recollections and some original letters” in Robert Blair (ed.). Archaelogia Aeliana. 3rd series. vol. XVIII. Newcastle upon Tyne: Society [of Antiquaries of Newcastle-upon-Tyne] by Titus Wilson, 83-100.

Hodgson, James. 1921b. “Thomas Slack, Newcastle printer”. In Robert Blair (ed.). Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities of Newcastle upon Tyne. 3rd series. vol. IX. Kendal: Titus Wilson & son, 179-182.

Honeyman, H.L. and Wake, T. 1932. “The cathedral church of St. Nicholas, Newcastle upon Tyne”. In Robert Blair (ed.). Archaelogia Aeliana. 4th series. vol. IX. Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumberland Press.

Horsley, P.M. 1971. Eighteenth Century Newcastle. Newcastle upon Tyne: Oriel Press.

Isaac, Peter. 1999. “The earliest proprietors of the Newcastle Chronicle”. In P. Isaac (ed.). Newspapers in the Northeast; the Fourth Estate, at Work in Northumberland & Durham. Newcastle: printed for the Contributors, 153-162.

“John Cunningham”. 1887. in The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend. 5 vols. Vol. 1. Newcastle upon Tyne: Walter Scott, for the proprietors of the “Newcastle Chronicle”, 277-280.

Michael, Ian. 1970. English Grammatical Categories and the Tradition to 1800 [repr. 1985], Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Michael, Ian. 1987. The Teaching of English from the Sixteenth Century to 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mitchell, Linda C. 1988. “Anne Fisher and rhetorical education and 18th-century language texts”. Paper read at the Rhetoric Society of America.

Myer, Alan C. 19972. Myer’s Literary Guide, the North East. [n.p.] [n.pub.]

“The ‘Newcastle Chronicle ”. 1890. In The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend. 5 vols. Vol. 4. Newcastle upon Tyne: Walter Scott, for the proprietors of the “Newcastle Chronicle”, 223-226.

Percy, Carol. 2002. “Linguistic prescriptivism in London print culture: some eighteenth-century intersections”. Paper read at the 12th ICEHL, Glasgow.

Robinson, F.J.G. 1972. “Trends in Education in Northern England during the Eighteenth Century: A Biographical Study”. unpublished doctoral thesis. 3 vols. Vols. I and, II. University of Newcastle.

Rodríguez Gil, María E. 2001. “Ann Fisher, prescriptive or descriptive grammarian?”, paper read at the Late Modern English Conference, Edinburgh.

Rodríguez Gil, María E. 2002. “Ann Fisher and the teaching of English”, paper read at the 12th ICEHL, Glasgow.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 1992. “John Kirkby and The Practice of Speaking and Writing English: identification of a manuscript”. Leeds Studies in English 23: 157-179.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2000. Female grammarians of the eighteenth century”. Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics. (http://www.let.leidenuniv.nl/hsl_shl/ 13/09/00).

Welford, Richard. October 1896. “Newcastle printers in the eighteenth century”. Paper read to the Newcastle Typographia by Richard Welford extracted from the Newcastle Chronicle.

Welford, Richard. 1907. “Early Newcastle typography. 1639-1800” in Robert BLAIR (ed.). Archaeologia Aeliana. 3rd series. Vol. III. Newcastle upon Tyne: Andrew Reid, 1-134.  



Additions to the copies of Ann Fisher's grammar located by Alston (1965: 25-30):


BL    British Library
Nrl    Newcastle University Library: Robinson Library

Ncl    Newcastle City Library


For further additions, please contact María Rodríguez Gil.


1.  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.

    BL, Nrl.

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], 1794.


5. _______ A new edition, London, J. Batty, W. Clarkson, [et al], 1797.


6. ________ A new edition, London, John Binns, 1801.


7.  Fisher’s Grammar Improved, thirty-second edition, Newcastle, 1801. (by a near Relation of the late A. Fisher)


8.  Fisher’s Grammar Improved, a new edition, Penrith, A. Soulby, 1806.

    BL, Nrl.

9. Fisher’s Grammar Improved, fourth edition, Macclesfield, J. Wilson, 1808.


10. Fisher’s Grammar Improved, fifth edition, Macclesfield, J. Wilson, 1812.