An American in Forncett


In 1903, the daughter of William Grieve Wilson, a former rector of Forncett St Peter, wrote that the residents of Forncett "looked upon dwellers in the next county as aliens and foreigners". So, it's not hard to imagine what they might have made of a young American woman from a wealthy family in Connecticut, who visited the village in 1896! Nevertheless, a now-classic book, "The Economic Development of a Norfolk Manor", which documents the history of the manor of Forncett from 1086 to 1565, was written by just such a visitor, one Frances Gardiner Davenport.

Frances was born in 1870 and was fascinated by history and economics. In 1891 she entered Radcliffe College in Harvard and during her studies in Harvard Library, Frances came across some of the manorial records of Moulton in Norfolk.

In the summer of 1896, Frances travelled to England, and it was here that the rector of Moulton advised her that the most complete set of manorial records was actually that of Forncett, and they were in the care of a solicitor (almost certainly John Furness) in the village of Long Stratton. Frances later wrote "Never shall I forget the thrill that I experienced when this gentleman pointed to a great box, some six feet long and three feet in depth and in width, and said that it contained the records of Forncett from the 13th century to the present time."

With the agreement of the owner of Forncett Manor, the records were moved to the library of Cambridge University, where they remain to this day. Frances worked there on the records between 1897 and 1903, and her work served as her Ph.D. Thesis at the University of Chicago in 1904. Her book was subsequently published by Cambridge University Press in 1906.

Sadly, Frances didn't write about her own impressions of Forncett in 1896, though she did write of her visit to Norfolk "We put up at one of the oldest inns in England, almost under the shadow of Norwich cathedral. It seems a pity that Norwich is omitted from the itinerary of so many traveling Americans".

With particular thanks to Marilyn Tolhurst who provided much of the source material for this article.