Friday, November 14, 2014

The Great Jennens Case

Two wealthy men named Robert Jennens died in London in 1725. They both had sons named William Jennens. One William died in 1803 and the other William in 1798. The latter William died unmarried and intestate.

And left one of the largest fortunes in all of England, which created considerable interest in the United Kingdom and her current and former colonies.

To this day there are Jennings descendants who believe they could claim a portion of that fortune. Others were more skeptical. In fact, one of my grand aunts was contacted by an attorney, who told her she was entitled to millions from a "lost inheritance in England" and wanted her to sign something before her death in 1959. She never would.

Who got the money and what relationship to the decedent did they claim? By 1821 Lady Mary Andover had became the administrator of the estate and received most of the personal property. She claimed to be the grand daughter of William Jennens' aunt Ann, daughter of Humphrey Jennens. Lord Curzon, later made Earl Howe, received the bulk of the real property, including Acton Hall. Earl Howe claimed to be the great great grandson of William Jennens' uncle, Charles, also a son of Humphrey Jennens. That would make Humphrey the grandfather of the William, the richest common in the country.

Acton Hall; drawing from The Great Jennens Case

But were they really? Or were they actually related to the William Jennens, who died in 1803?

The Great Jennens Case: Being an Epitome of the History of the Jennens Family, which was compiled by Messrs. Harrison & Wills on behalf of the Jennens family, certainly didn't think they were the rightful heirs. In their 1879 book, they made a compelling case, citing baptismal records, burial records, marriage records, manuscripts and wills to prove that Lady Andover and Lord Howe should not have received anything from William Jennens estate.

Their position was Lady Andover and Lord Howe were ancestors of the William Jennens, who died 1803. But the William Jennens, who died with all the money in 1798 was the grandson of Robert Jennens, not Humphrey Jennens.

Are you confused yet? I certainly was when I first read this old book until I started building the family tree. (If you are an member, you may find it here.)

Partial Jennens family tree showing the two Roberts
and two Williams. John Jennings (d 1653) was the son
of William Jennens, son of Robert Jennens of Shottle

The genealogy that is not in dispute is the Jennens family is of very ancient origin. Presumed to be of Danish extraction, a captain came to England with Canute, King of Denmark. He was given land as a reward for his services to Canute's father. Little more is known about the family until the reign of Henry the VIII. A Robert Jennens appeared in court and was presumably a favorite of the king. In 1545 Henry VIII promoted him to act as chief deerstalker and ranger and sent him to Shottle in the parish in Duffield in Derbyshire. He married Ellen Beard and had a son named William, who went to Birmingham, and married Joanna Elliott. They had a son named John, who became the great ironmonger of Birmingham. He married twice...and created all the problems.

John Jennens Birmingham Town House, 1653;
drawing from The Great Jennens Case

John's first wife was Mary Jennens, a cousin. They had one son also named John, who I call John Jennens II. John then married Joyce Weaman, whose father William, was a noted solicitor. The compilers of the The Great Jennens Case believe the William Jennens who left the great fortune descends from John and Mary Jennens' son, John II.

John Jennens, the ironmonger of Birmingham's will showed definite partiality to the children of his second wife, Joyce Weamon. His will was prepared by Joyce's father. Perhaps something nefarious was going on or perhaps not. After John Jennens II married Jane Ambrose, he left the country for 28 years. Perhaps his father thought he was dead. We just don't know.

But if you are game, have some spare cash for attorneys fees, and can prove your ancestor is John Jennens II through his son Roger, you may have a case!

John Jennens II and Jane Ambrose had four children:

  • Jane Jennens, died unmarried in 1663
  • William Jennens, line was known in 1879 to be extinct
  • Robert Jennens, born on 9 July 1644 at Mobourne Mill; entered at Middle Temple in 1649; married Jane Truelock at Aldworth in Berkshire in 1669; had issue: one son, Robert and one daughter, Martha, who died in infancy. Son Robert born in 1672; married Anne Guidott in 1700; had issue: one child only, the late William Jennens of Acton Place, Suffolk, who died in 1798 a bachelor and intestate
  • Roger Jennens, his descendants are the alleged true legal claimants
Descendants of Roger Jennens, alleged true claimants to the fortune of
William Jennens; from The Great Jennens Case


  1. Sometimes I am really happy that I haven't been able to trace any of my American lines across the pond to England. Seems so complicated but then interesting as well!

    1. I haven't been able to connect my known new world Jennings to William Jennens or another other Jennings in England. But many, many of my Jennings ancestors thought they were entitled to a portion of the fortune and created some unique genealogies to prove it.

  2. In your research, did you happen to find out to whom Robert Jennings (son of Humphrey Jennings) was married? I am a descendent of this line and I am having trouble parsing out the facts. Your blog entry on the Jennings Case was quite helpful.

    1. The secondary sources I used for this post and a few others about William Jennens' fortune, indicate Humphrey's son, Robert (1671-1725) married Ann Guidotte, daughter of Carew Guidotte, Esq.

      A book by Beatrice Mackey Doughtie entitled Documented Notes on Jennings and Allied Families, in part had this to say about William Jennens' parents: “…son of Robert Jennens, Esq., Aide-de-camp to the great duke of Marlborough (by Anne, his wife and daughter and heir of Carew Guidotte, Esq., lineally descended from Sir Anthony Guidotte, Knight, a Noble Florentine, employed on sundry embassies by King Edward VI)…”

      I have stored the book on Google Drive. If you email me, I can send you a link. psd11719 @ (without spaces)

      Hope this helps.

    2. Then your Ancestry graphic at the beginning is wrong. You have Ann being married to Robert Jennens, son of Robert Jennens. NOT Humphrey Jennens. Which is what your quote supports. But the beginning of your comment says it was Humphreys son, not Roberts like the quote and the chart.

  3. My mother and Grandmother were Jennings. I can trace my line back to Richard Jennings born 1692 Acton place, Suffolk. Then stumbled onto Jennens Case. I have a death record for Richard 1692 in Acton but no birth record. Could Acton be false as place of birth, because of Jennens case?

  4. My mother in law Helena Jennings was born in 1917. She was an extremely honest person and one day she told me that an ancestor of hers had written the words for Handels Messiah. I didn’t feel that she was joking at the time. Did any of Williams descendants come to Ireland?

    1. I have not researched the genealogy of Charles Jennens so I don't know if he was related to the William Jennens, who died in 1798 and was the richest commoner in England at the time of his death. Have you researched your grandmother's ancestors? I would need to know more about her in order to begin.

  5. William the miser is my 6th great uncle, sister of my 6th great grandmother Sarah Jennings Becket (first generation American). Sarah and William are the children of Robert Jennings and Anna Guidotte Jennings. My family tree connects them to Samuel Carter and Elizabeth Beckett Carter (Sarah Jennings is her grandmother). My maternal grandmother is Beatrice Carter. So am I entitled to the infamous estate of William the miser?!?

    1. Perhaps on paper but the estate was distributed by the court a couple of hundred years ago.

  6. Is Sarah Jennings Beckett the daughter of Anna Guidotti Jennings? Who is also William Jenning’s mother?

    1. The mother of the William Jennens, who left the fortune was Ann Guidotte. I do not know if he had siblings or, if so, who they might have been. It's possible he had none, which was why the question of who his heirs were was such a mess to answer.

  7. Sarah Jennings Beckett (1704-1765) has been listed in some publications as Williams' sister but I have not seen documented proof. She is my 6th great grandmother. Rumor has it that she left for America without claiming her rightful inheritance. Sarah settled in Rapaupo NJ in the mid 1700's.

  8. Using Ancestry. I think I may actually be related, on my paternal grandmother's side. Very interesting!