Friday, April 22, 2016

Who Got the Great Jennens Fortune?

In almost every Jennings genealogy written in any country, there is a section about the Great Jennens Fortune, which was left by William Jennens who died intestate at the age of 97 in 1798. His death set off a multi-continent legal free-for-all that was the basis for Charles Dickens' book, Bleak House.

William Jennens, who was described as a "crusty old bachelor," had his unsigned will in his pocket and was on his way to his solicitor but forgot his spectacles, started home to retrieve them, and died. This part of the tale does not seem to be in dispute. Every source that discusses William and his fortune mentions it. Where the story differs is the beneficiaries.

I thought I had solved who finally got William's fortune when I wrote this blog post, which indicated Mary (Finch) Howard, Viscountess of Andover, and Richard William Penn Curzon, later made Earl Howe, received the bulk of the fortune. A book[1] prepared in 1879 for a Jennings family association in England interested in pursuing what they believed was their rightful portion of the fortune listed the peers as the beneficiaries and provided their genealogies. The book was written by genealogists hired by the association and so the book also "proved" how the courts in England had erred. These genealogists believed Lady Andover and Lord Curzon were really related to the William Jennens who died in 1803. An earlier report[2] written in 1863 for a Jennings association in the United States said the fortune had been distributed by 1821. It then went on to indicate the errors of this dispersal.

Partial family tree of John Jennens, the "Ironmonger of Birmingham," created
using Microsoft Powerpoint

But not so fast...I found another book[3] about the Jennings family on the HathiTrust website which also tells the story of the great Jennens fortune. It indicated a different beneficiary and said the decision wasn't made until about 1852:

"...we noticed that the Court of Chancery, after 54 years of deliberation, had recently come to a decision as to the appropriation of the immense property comprised in this estate. The heir-at-law proves to be a person named Martin, a descendant of Jennens' sister. He is now 90 years of age, and his daughter is the wife of a person named Langham, at this time in the employ of Mr. Hawes of Maldon, plumer and glazier. Martin was originally connected with the trading craft, in the Maldon river, but of late has been in low circumstances. The 12th of June next is fixed for the transfer of the funded property in the Court of Chancery, and the estates are expected to follow."
-- Benjamin Gibbs Mitchell, Consanguinity of the Families of Gibbs and Mitchell

Snippet from Documented Notes on Jennings and Allied Families by Beatrice
Mackey Doughtie; courtesy of HathiTrust

This is a much different and more heartwarming end to the tale of the richest commoner in England who died intestate than two peers receiving yet more money and property. So who really did get the money? According to Wikipedia, the lawsuits dragged on for over a hundred years and eventually exhausted the fortune. The only way I can think to resolve these conflicting reports, is to think the Viscountess of Andover and Lord Howe received the estate first but legal challenges continued. In one of those suits, the Court of Chancery ruled against the peers, and the case drug on until the money was gone.

Many public trees indicate my four times great grandfather Benjamin Jennings was a descendant of the John Jennens (died 1653), known as the "Ironmonger of Birmingham," and the great grandfather of the William Jennens who left the fortune. Wouldn't that be nice?

Unfortunately, the first documented record for "my" Benjamin Jennings is a 9 September 1776 payroll record from the Virginia Militia company commanded by Capt. Thomas Gaddis. He was selected by Col. Morgan in 1777 as a sharpshooter in Morgan's Rifles. After the war he owned land in Powhatan County, Virginia, where he appeared on several tax lists. His will was probated on 19 July 1815.

Even though he has caused me no end of grief trying to cross the pond with my Jennings ancestors, I've grown quite fond of curmudgeonly old William Jennens, often called the richest commoner in England.

[1] Harrison and Willis (Compilers). The Great Jennens Case: Being an Epitome of the History of the Jennens Family, (Sheffield: Pawson and Brailsford, 1879), pages 85-89, 98, 101, 113-114
[2]Smith, Columbus and Fisher, C. M. (Compilers). Report to the Jennings Association, U.S.A., (Rutland, VT: Tuttle & Gay, Printers, 1863), pages 11-12
[3] Doughtie, Beatrice Mackey. Documented Notes on Jennings and Allied Families, (Decatur, GA: Bowen Press, Inc., 1961), pages 1-6.

The Great Jennens Case
There's One Born Every Minute: Scamming the Greedy
A Forcible Act of Possession
Dickens' Bleak House Is about My Family

To read more about the details, T. Mark James has written an article entitled The Humphrey Jennings Estate Fraud that is worth reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment