Monday, February 25, 2013

Dicken's Bleak House Is About My Family

William Jennings (or Jennens) died at the ripe old age of 97 on 19 Jun 1798. He was the grandson of Humphrey Jennings, who owned Erdington Hall in Birmingham, England in the late 1600s.

Rear view of Erdington Hall; Image from Harrison & Willis 1879 The Great 
Jennens Case from Google Books, a work now in the public domain
Side view of Erdington Hall; image courtesy of the Birmingham History Forum
William was described as a “crusty old bachelor” and a miser, but he had amassed a fortune that some called the largest of any commoner in Britain. And he left no heirs, and no will.  His death touched off a feeding frenzy among lawyers on two continents that lasted 135 years.  The “Great Jennens Case” became such a symbol of legal dissipation and frivolity that Charles Dickens used it as the basis for the “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” case in his 1852 novel Bleak House.

In 1882 The New York Times published an article entitled "A Miserly Monte Cristo. The Enormous Wealth of William Jennings and the Great Interest Many Have Therein" (subscription required). The article describes William Jennings' character:
Hospitality and generous, open-handedness are reported as having been characteristics of the Birmingham branch of his family, but William had no such unthrifty vices. He seemed to live mainly for the purpose of accumulating wealth, remained a bachelor all his life that he might better devote his whole attention to money getting, and died at last without making a will.
The article went on to moralize about his behavior:
Of course if he had ever stopped to reflect about it he probably would have seen that a little carelessness or even mild prodigality would hardly have been likely to bring him to the poor house ... himself taking all the trouble of going over all his household bills rather than going to the expense of hiring a steward, making a row if he discovered a few shillings of extra expenditure.
 According to T. Mark James's research, entitled The Humphrey Jennings Estate Fraud, the estate had essentially been settled by 1821 with the family of Lord Curzon (later made Earl Howe) getting the bulk of the real estate. But that didn't stop several rival groups of Jennings descendants in America from trying to get their hands on the fortune.  My branch of the Jennings clan, from Amelia County, Virginia, started agitating for their portion in 1849.  How these groups of Jennings got swindled by scam-artists and lawyers is a story for another day.

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