More about The Fenner Family dynamic

A Bit More about the Fenner family dynamic..
Posted on July 19, 2013 by Victoria Fenner
I was just down to Essex County a couple of weeks ago. I did some more exploring for my documentary. Mostly about life during the time period 1850 to 1870. I’m getting more of a sense of what life was like in the middle of the county even though this time period is not well documented. Lots of reading between the lines still needs to be done.

One of the significant things I learned (or more accurately, realized) has been in front of my nose for the last year. One of the people who has me mystified is my great great grandma Fenner’s eldest son, William Henry Fenner, who was her son, but not my great great grandfather’s son. It is acknowledged in family records and in my great Grandfather’s obituary that they were half brothers. Even though records clearly show that my great great grandparents (Mary Elizabeth Dietrich and Adam Fenner) were married at the time.

I’ve posted about this before but just so nobody has to refer back to a previous post … Mary Elizabeth and Adam were married prior to 1858. I know this from Mary Elizabeth’s medical records because she had been hospitalized for most of 40 years and the medical records are quite comprehensive. William Henry’s birth records are vague but through obituaries, census etc, it would appear that he was born in 1862.

What I have always found compelling is that Great Great Grandpa raised William Henry along with the family. He was acknowledged as part of the family. This seems to be contrary to what we know about Victorian Canada .. specifically, that a woman who has a child with a man who she is not married to was scorned, branded as a loose woman and was deemed an outcast of society. And presumably, the families of such loose women would also be deemed social outcasts.

There is some vagueness about William Henry’s birth in the census etc .. the most notable being that he was born in Germany. I believe this to be not true for various reasons I’ve gone into in previous posts.)

What I like about this story is that it doesn’t follow the usual script we are told — that children born “out of wedlock” were all social outcasts, and the families associated with them are stigmatized. It is good to see that all of the children managed to marry into established families, so despite their compromised circumstances, they were not stigmatized to the extent that I would have thought. (Especially since Great Great Grandma Fenner was in a mental hospital for most of the last 60 years of her life. Everybody would have known it and yet we don’t appear to have been stigmatized and sent packing to the margins of society. And the fact that I grew up in this same small village with a lot of the original families and nobody ever breathed a word of this. And small towns have long memories …)

The surprising thing which I discovered and referred to in the lead paragraph — my great great grandfather’s will contained a proviso that a part of the farm he was buying was to be left to William Helliweg Dietrich. (the deal was in progress when his will was drawn up, so the conclusion is not clear in the will). I have wondered, ever since I found the will, who William Helliweg Dietrich was. I assumed he must have been a brother of Adam’s wife (whose last name was Dietrich). No way to prove this, but I now believe that William Helliweg Dietrich was William Henry Fenner. This seems to make sense, considering that my great great grandfather never acknowledged William Henry as his son so it makes sense he would not give him his last name in the will. Even though William Henry and his siblings all called him Fenner.

I had another look at the land records for the family farm and see that William Helliweg Dietrich did take possession of the west 50 acres of the farm which my grandfather had been successful in purchasing. That parcel of land was eventually sold to our next door neighbours, so it didn’t stay in the family as the original farm has.

The reason why I am so happy with this new piece of information is that it supports the idea that my great great grandfather was a very decent man. With my great great grandmother’s mental illness, it was a lot to deal with, especially in the latter half of the 1800s. I still think it is remarkable that he raised William Henry with his own children, and went a step further by leaving him an equal piece of land to my great grandfather’s. When all was said and done, he treated William Henry, his son by another man, almost as an equal with his own children. (Except for the name … it appears clear that great great grandpa did not let everyone believe William Henry was his. That is interesting in itself .. it would have been much easier for him just to pretend).

I have a whole pack of cousins out there who are descendents of William Henry Fenner. I feel bad writing about this is in a way, since there is now a missing branch on their family tree. They’ll likely never know who their great great grandfather was, because their father was not a Fenner as they thought. It’s all a mystery … but obviously our ancestors wanted William Henry in spirit, even if they all didn’t agree he should be a Fenner in name.


Posted on July 19, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. wow! good thinking! another thought might be that William Henry was a nephew through his wife who was then adopted into family…perhaps his parents died enroute…

  2. Marcia Davis Adamski

    Do you have any information on a Joseph Bennett or a Stephen Collins in Maidstone circa 1835?

    • Hi Marcia .. I took a look and haven`t found anything so far. My grandmother`s books are mostly focused on Woodslee and Ruscomb. There is a historical museum in Maidstone, and also I think there was a book published recently on Maidstone history. You might be able to find out about it either through the Maidstone Museum or the Essex and Community Historical Research Society on Gordon Avenue in Essex.


    Hi Madeline,
    I’m not sure if you have used this newspaper site already but I came across Fenner name while researching the Hedricks.

    • thanks! I`d be interested in reading that. Do you have a date and some keywords for that particular entry .. I tried to do a search and couldn`t find the article you referred to … or if you could summarize what it said, that would be great.

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