Ann Fisher (17191778)



  • Author
  • Grammarian


  • Ann Fisher
  • Ann Slack

Carol Percy, University of Toronto
June 2023

Anne Fisher was baptized in northwestern England in what was then the county of Cumberland in December 1719 as “Anne daughter of Henry Fisher of Old Scale in Wythop yeoman” (Lorton parish register). Where, when, and how she got her education is not known. She opened a school in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1745. Her full name appeared in a Newcastle Journal advertisement for the school 29 June 1745, where “READING, according to the best Spelling-books, and Grammars extant, WRITING, fine and plain SEWING will be Taught, by ANNE FISHER.” The New Grammar and Spelling-Book advertised on the same page of the newspaper has no explicit author and no known surviving copies, but later editions eventually became explicitly identified with Fisher. In 1750, the grammar’s second edition and “Mrs FISHER’s School” were once again advertised together in the Newcastle Journal (28 April 1750). The grammar was aimed at both sexes, while the school was open “Betwixt the Hours of Five and Eight at Night” for “YOUNG LADIES / Who chuse to learn the ENGLISH GRAMMAR, / Yet cannot conveniently attend on SCHOOL HOURS.” From 1753, the third (London) edition of A New Grammar, with Exercises of Bad English was explicitly written by “A. Fisher.” At her death an obituary in the Newcastle Journal, 2 May 1778, identifies her as “well known in the literary world for her several ingenious publications in the grammatical walk.” In Newcastle upon Tyne she was also well known as both the wife and the partner of Thomas Slack—author, printer, bookseller, and (along with his wife) publisher of the Newcastle Chronicle. By the end of her life, for instance in business correspondence and on the family tombstone, her first name was spelled Ann; I will therefore use this spelling. Her first name and her sex were hidden in her gender-neutral pen name, A. Fisher. The gender of a name or noun or pronoun does not necessarily correspond with the sex of the person it denotes. Indeed, the grammar’s lost first 1745 edition was possibly the first English grammar to codify that rule of concord for the masculine pronoun: “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, Any Person who knows what he says.” John Kirkby might have copied this into The Practice of Speaking and Writing English (1746), the earliest surviving record of this grammar rule, as Tieken-Boon van Ostade discovered.

Though always a resident of northern England, A. Fisher/Ann Slack’s extensive publications and connections penetrated London and Grub Street; she has been much studied by educational and linguistic as well as by printing historians, and by a twentieth-century descendant James Hodgson, who owned and reproduced a portrait of her. A. Fisher’s grammar epitomized the expansion of authorship as well as readership: by the third edition (1751: iii), it is advertised as “containing such Rules and Directions as are necessary to qualify an English Scholar to write as correctly, as if for the Press, and that independent of the Knowledge of any other Tongue” (Newcastle General Magazine). The grammar itself was popular: through “her lifetime, A. Fisher published 17 editions of the grammar, and her husband Thomas—and later her daughter, Sarah—published 14 more after her death” (Cajka 2011). Rodríguez-Gil (2002) calculates that Fisher’s grammar was “the fourth most popular grammar of the period,” according to entries in Alston’s Bibliography of the English Language. The grammar promised to teach correct English: the innovative exercises of bad English had been adapted from Latin teaching, and they were quickly and extensively imitated. In other respects, the grammar ostentatiously rejected Latin: English had “Prepositions” rather than “Declensions,” but (as Ian Michael observed) its author had also joined the “reforming” grammarians who abandoned the classical classification of the parts of speech for a fourfold system that used more transparent terminology: prepositions were included among ”Particles,” pronouns were “Persons,” and nouns were “Names.” Cajka observes that with her sometimes ostentatious learning, Fisher creates anxiety in her readers that she simultaneously alleviates. By rejecting Latin, the textbook emphasized the accessibility of grammatical and correct English. She had published this text at a particularly auspicious time for codifying linguistic correctness (Shapiro).

The grammar’s earliest attributions hint at Fisher’s evident ambition as well as her diffidence—and at possible family connections. The second edition was “By the Author of The Child’s Christian Education, and others” (1750); the third edition “By D. Fisher, and others” (1751). The author of The Child’s Christian Education [1743] is not identified in early advertisements, e.g. for its second edition in the Newcastle Journal 8 September 1744. By 1759, the title page of The Child’s Christian Education (CCE) explicitly identifies its author as “the Reverend Mr FISHER, (Late of Whickham) Now Master of the Grammar School in Cockermouth” (Alston); this seems to have been Daniel Fisher (1718–99) (Robinson). In 1745, the Newcastle Journal often featured two or more of the grammar, the CCE, and another text, Easy Lessons for Little Children and Beginners, “a proper Introduction to” the CCE which “may be had” from the same London, Edinburgh, and northern booksellers; one of these was Isaac Thompson, also the newspaper’s owner (e.g. 5 January 1745; 29 June 1745; 13 July 1745). This marketing strategy used one book to create a demand for another one: indeed, at the same time, the publisher John Newbery’s A Sett of Fifty-six Squares prepared children to read A Little Pretty Pocket Book (Newcastle Courant 22–29 September 1744). Like Newbery, A. Fisher exploited the connections between teaching, authorship, and advertising throughout her lifetime, reaching markets well beyond her home in Newcastle upon Tyne. But “A. Fisher” claimed sole authorship and copyright of the grammar only starting with the London edition of 1753.

Ann Fisher had married Thomas Slack in 1751. Slack was an employee of Isaac Thompson, who had published the second (1750) edition of the grammar and printed a third (1751) edition, both from Newcastle upon Tyne. Published before Fisher’s marriage, these editions were attributed (respectively) to the author of the Child’s Christian Education (1750), to D. Fisher (1751)—"and others.” Eighteenth-century Newcastle would have been a fine market for educational textbooks: in a study of grammar printing, Yáñez-Bouza identifies the provinces generally and Newcastle particularly as a popular area for school grammars. And Ann and Thomas Slack were ambitious. “A. Fisher” assumed the authorship and the copyright for a third edition of 1753, printed “for the Author” and published in London, like its first edition; perhaps the capital was a safer place for A. Fisher to claim authorship, and a potentially profitable place. Fisher’s next publication was a reading anthology, The Pleasing Instructor: or, Entertaining Moralist (1756). An essay “On Idleness” from the Spectator headed the table of contents; the poetry included an “Ode to Spring” initially sourced to the Gentleman’s Magazine but by 1763 attributed to “Miss Carter,” Fisher’s near-contemporary Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806), a classicist and a translator as well as a poet. Fisher’s prefatory “Thoughts on Education” associated good taste in reading with a background in grammar, which would help writers and speakers (and readers) appreciate the “Connections and Dependencies” of words with one another. And as a savvy educator and bookseller, Fisher promoted nurture over nature: women’s stereotypical attraction to romance and fiction reflected not female nature but flawed education (The Pleasing Instructor, 1756, viii-ix), so could be redirected by teaching reading and grammar as well as sewing:

None can ever display their Talents to much Advantage, either in Writing or Conversation, unless they have a Taste for the Beauty and Propriety of their Mother Tongue; and which they can never have, without learning it, so as to know the Nature and Kinds of Words with their Connections and Dependencies upon one another. That many Women read much and yet not to Edification is, chiefly, because they are ignorant of these Connections and Dependencies[.]

The title page of The Pleasing Instructor targeted “the Youth of both Sexes” and its earliest editions show characteristically ambitious plans for distribution: the first Newcastle upon Tyne edition was printed for Thomas Slack, while the contemporaneous London edition was printed for C. Hitch and L. Hawes in London: C. Hitch was a shared connection with Daniel Fisher—and (along with Hawes) with the consortium that had published Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755. By 1763 there was a fourth edition of the anthology, published in London and printed for Slack in Newcastle as well as for M. Richardson in London’s Paternoster Row. For Crosbie, Fisher’s works exemplify “the mutually-beneficial marriage between printers and pedagogues.”

The Slacks expanded their activities after Thomas left Isaac Thompson in 1763. Thomas published new editions of Ann’s grammar and anthology, along with her New English Tutor (1762), New English Exercise Book (1770), and, eventually, an Accurate New Spelling Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language (1773 [1771?]). In her dissertation, Cajka infers that the Slacks printed the grammar’s London editions in Newcastle, with distribution networks that also reached northwards to Scotland; the Slacks undoubtedly contributed to the status of Newcastle an exception for the “general tendency for provincial towns to distribute rather than to produce books” (Williams). Initially advertised in the Newcastle Courant 30 April 1763, their Printing Press evidently became an informal cultural centre in the city. Their Newcastle Chronicle (1764–present) was intended to complement news with literary works; indexes to essays, poems, and historical events in the first volume (1764–65) aim to “render it a Miscellany worthy of being preserved.” Ann was demonstrably involved in the printing, publishing, and bookselling, as well as raising the Slacks’ nine daughters, five of whom outlived her and one of whom took over the family business. As reported by Williams, her letters and her daughter’s memories show how she mentored the local poet John Cunningham, combining her literary, managerial, and technical skills seeing his Poems, Chiefly Pastoral (1766, 1771) into print—as well as in the Chronicle. According to the Slacks’ daughter Sarah, Ann supplied Cunningham with shirts and stockings and “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.” Like parents, educators, booksellers, and their clients were invested in the power of culture to shape nature. Her educational works were initially written in a masculine voice and addressed to an audience of both sexes. In the Preface to the fourth edition of The Pleasing Instructor, for instance, “the Editor” explains that “he has made considerable Additions and Amendments” in this “connected Plan of Morality for the Instruction of the Youth of both Sexes.”

Later in her life, Ann unfolded a plan of female education as “A Lady” in the prefaces to her annual Lady’s Own Memorandum-Book. Memorandum or pocket books, popularized by Robert Dodsley with his New Memorandum Book (1748) and imitated by such publishers as John Newbery with his Ladies Compleat Pocket-Book (1753) and Thomas Slack with his Newcastle Memorandum-Book (1755), record socioeconomic activity by juxtaposing financial and cultural information, and testify to publishers’ awareness of their purchasers’ desire to improve: it was in a memorandum book that Newbery recorded his personal schemes of self-improvement. In her detailed study of Fisher’s Memorandum-Book, Williams reports that it was first advertised at the end of 1763. Newspaper advertisements help modern scholars, since no copies survive before the volume for 1766: the 1765 product features ”a frontispiece of a Lady, dressed in the Fashion of the present Year” and contents ranging from “Fundamental Rules in Painting” to interest tables and Portuguese exchange rates (Newcastle Chronicle 29 December 1764, p.3). By 1766, the pocket-book was being published by Robinson of London and advertised as the only ladies’ diary to be edited by a lady. From 1769, Williams reports that Fisher’s memorandum book became even more literary thanks to an overflow of poetry and puzzles from “our Paper,” the Chronicle co-published by the Slacks; their newspaper must also have furnished the summaries of the previous year’s important events. And in 1771, a “New Plan of Education … By a Mother” appears on the title page; she had marketed the diary as the only one edited by a woman and now explicitly writes in a female voice. As contextualized by Cajka (2011), the plan began with tips for raising infants (1771) and in later volumes of the Memorandum-Book expanded to include the study of grammar (1773) and proper reading (1775); in 1776, her brief response to a correspondent’s letter hints at Ann’s failing health and heralds her death in 1778. By containing puzzles and poetry as well as the plan, volumes of the Memorandum-Book invite and model women’s intellectual activity. Indeed, some of the poetry was perhaps written by Fisher herself, as well as Cunningham. Ann also promoted some of Cunningham’s poems by offering them to the London publishers Robinson & Roberts for their Lady’s Magazine, although Cunningham had intended them for Ann’s annual (Cajka 2003). Typically, Fisher was also involved in the distribution of the Memorandum-Book in Scotland; in London, it had appeared under George Robinson’s brand   by 1766 (Williams).

In the early 1770s, A. Fisher was accused of plagiarizing a competitor’s dictionary. The evidence for this appears in her own draft correspondence, as presented by Rodríguez-Álvarez & Rodríguez-Gil. The dictionary in question was subsequently suppressed: we assume that it was the first edition of what would appear as the second edition of her Accurate New Spelling Dictionary (1773). The controversy underscores some of the complexities of compiling reference books in eighteenth-century Britain. One of the accusers, John Entick, might not even have written “his’” New Spelling Dictionary (1765): Fisher reports that he had contracted the job to a loose-lipped ghost-writer, the Rev’d Mr Fawkes (Cajka 2003). And the principal instigator seems to have been her own London publisher, G. Robinson. The estrangement between the Slacks and Robinson likely reflects their resentment at his financial control of their London distribution. The controversy over “Entick’s” dictionary reflects the inevitability of imitation in the production of dictionaries. Many of the entries in both Fisher and Entick are identical not only to each others’, but to earlier dictionaries: Rodríguez-Álvarez & Rodríguez-Gil extend the comparison from Fisher and Entick to Bailey (1721), A Pocket Dictionary (1753), Buchanan (1757), and Ash (1775). The lawsuit against the Slacks by Entick and his publishers might have been an effort to establish the authenticity of Entick’s. The plaintiffs were unsuccessful: Fisher was ultimately absolved—and much pirated herself, as Cajka and Rodríguez-Gil and others have demonstrated.

As a woman based in Newcastle upon Tyne whose works penetrated the London market, A. Fisher is an exceptional example of a successful print professional. Her contributions to linguistic and printing history have been well attested but sometimes been kept separate. Her English grammar was far more successful than the writings of many now-canonical women writers of the period, as Cajka observes—and than most of the grammars written by contemporary men. Fisher made her grammar commercially successful by innovatively importing methods from Latin teaching and by ostentatiously rejecting the more Latinate elements of grammar, such as inflections and technical terminology. Like many educators and print professionals, she simultaneously satisfied and sparked readers’ desire for self-improvement, cleverly suggesting that the extension of literacy would raise rather than dilute cultural standards. She marketed new books as adding and deriving value from existing ones: what became her Practical New Grammar would permit women not only to read but to enjoy The Pleasing Instructor. This educator’s marriage to the print professional Thomas Slack, and the Slacks’ Newcastle Chronicle, illustrates the complex networks that generated as well as disseminated content. The Slacks’ connections with Scotland and north-west England as well as London put or at least kept Newcastle upon Tyne as a site of print innovation and production as well as consumption. Their success at penetrating London ultimately disrupted some of those networks in ways that also illustrate the fine lines between compilation and copying in the production of dictionaries and of reference books more generally.



Alston, R. C. 1965. A Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to the Year 1800. Volume One: English Grammars Written in English and English Grammars Written in Latin by Native Speakers. Leeds: Printed for the author by E. J. Arnold & Son.

Cajka, Karen. 2003. “The Forgotten Women Grammarians of Eighteenth-Century England.” Ph.D., University of Connecticut.

———. 2011. “Ann Fisher: Reforming Education for ‘the Mere English Scholar.’” European Romantic Review 22 (5): 581–600.

Crosbie, Barbara. 2014. “Anne Fisher’s New Grammar: Textbooks and Teaching in Eighteenth-Century Newcastle upon Tyne.” Publishing History 74: 49-65.

Hodgson, James. 1921. “John Cunningham, Pastoral Poet, 1729–1773: Recollections and Some Original Letters.” Archaeologia Aeliana series 3, 18: 83–100.

Michael, Ian. 1970. English Grammatical Categories and the Tradition to 1800. London: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, F. J. G. (Francis John Gibson). 1972. “Trends in Education in Northern England during the Eighteenth Century: A Biographical Study.” Ph.D., Newcastle upon Tyne: University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Rodríguez Gil, María Esther. 2002. “Ann Fisher: First Female Grammarian.” Historical Sociolinguistics and Sociohistorical Linguistics 2 (November).

———. 2008. “Ann Fisher’s A New Grammar, or Was It Daniel Fisher’s Work?” In Grammars, Grammarians, and Grammar-Writing in Eighteenth-Century England, edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 149–76. Berlin ; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Rodríguez-Álvarez, Alicia, and María Esther Rodríguez-Gil. 2006. “John Entick’s and Ann Fisher’s Dictionaries: An Eighteenth-Century Case of (Cons)Piracy?” International Journal of Lexicography 19 (3): 287–319.

Shapiro, Rebecca. 2023. “Women and the Eighteenth-Century Print Trade.” In The Edinburgh History of the British and Irish Press. Volume 1: Beginnings and Consolidation 1640-1800, edited by Nicholas Brownlees, 1:406–22. Edinburgh University Press.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid Tieken-Boon. 1992. “John Kirkby and The Practice of Speaking and Writing English: Identification of a Manuscript.” Leeds Studies in English n.s. 23: 157–79.

Williams, Helen. 2022. “Printing, Publishing, and Pocket Book Compiling: Ann Fisher’s Hidden Labour in the Newcastle Book Trade.” In Print Culture, Agency, and Regionality in the Hand Press Period, edited by Rachel Stenner, Kaley Kramer, and Adam James Smith, 93–116. Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Yáñez-Bouza, Nuria. 2012. “Grammar Writing and Provincial Grammar Printing in the Eighteenth-Century British Isles1.” Transactions of the Philological Society 110 (1): 34–63.