William Jennens

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William Jennens (possibly Jennings) (1701–1798), also known as William the Miser, William the Rich, and The Miser of Acton, was a reclusive financier who lived at Acton Place in the village of Acton, Suffolk, England. He was described as the "richest commoner in England" when he died unmarried and intestate with a fortune estimated at £2 million,[1][2][dead link] which became the subject of legal wrangles (Jennens v Jennens) in the Court of Chancery for well over a century until the entire estate had been swallowed by lawyers' fees. This may have been the stimulus for the fictional case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens' serialised novel Bleak House. The Gentleman's Magazine reported in 1798 that "A will was found in his coat-pocket, sealed, but not signed; [owing to] leaving his spectacles at home when he went to his solicitor for the purpose of duly executing it."[3]


William was born in 1701 to Ann(e) (née Guidott 1675, daughter of Carew Guidott(i)) and Robert Jennens (Jennings), who were married in Westminster Abbey in 1700. Robert was aide-de-camp to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.[1][2] William's godfather was King William III.[2]

Robert Jennens bought Acton Place from the Daniels, a recusant Catholic family, in 1708 and continuously remodelled it in the Palladian style until he died in 1725. William abandoned all rebuilding and lived in unfurnished rooms in the basement with his servants and dogs, eschewing visitors and social contact.[2]

William conducted his business in London, including lending to gamblers in the casinos. Thus he acquired his name and reputation as a miser whilst accruing his fortune.[2] Nevertheless, he was a cultured man, serving as governor to an orphanage,[4] serving as a benefactor of the Emmanuel Society, which supported the blind, and subscribing to books, including Jeremiah Seed's Discourses (1743) and James Ogilvie's Sermons (1786).

He was appointed High Sheriff of Suffolk in 1754 (or 1756[1]).

Death and beyond[edit]

William died on 19 June 1798 and his body was interred in the family vault beside his father and mother.[1]

He was described as Britain's richest man at the time of his death.[5] His estate was said to be worth over £2 million (though it was probably closer to £1.1 million), producing an annual income of about £40,000.[5] The Times of 20 July 1798 published a tabulated list of his worth as capital of £432,509 and annual interest of £119,415.[6] He died without leaving a will and the subsequent legal proceedings took well over a century (one source indicates 130 years, although there seems little doubt that the case started in 1798 and ended in 1915, i.e. about 117 years[7]) without reaching a conclusion, the legal costs exhausting the Jennens inheritance in the process.[7]

His obituary read:

Died, 19 June, in his 97th year, Wm. Jennens, of Acton Place, near Long Melford, in the county of Suffolk, and of Grosvenor Square, Esq. He was baptized in September 1701, and was the son of Robert Jennens, Esq., Aide-de-Camp to great Duke of Marlborough (by Anne, his wife, and daughter of Carew Guidott, Esq., lineally descended from Sir Anthony Guidott, Knight, a noble Florentine, employed on sundry embassies by King Edward VI), grandson of Humphrey Jennens of Edington Hall, in the county of Warwick, Esq., Lord of the Manor of Nether Whitacre in that county in 1680 and an eminent ironmaster of Birmingham. King William III was godfather to late Mr. Jennens.[8]

The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle reported in 1798 that:

A will was found in his coat-pocket, sealed, but not signed; which was owing, as his favourite servant says, to his master leaving his spectacles at home when he went to his solicitor for the purpose of duly executing it, and which he afterwards forgot to do.[9]

Court decisions[edit]

Initially the Court of Chancery declared that the heir to his fortune was George Augustus William Curzon, a descendant of his aunt Hester Jennens. Curzon's mother, Sophia Charlotte Howe, administered the estate on his behalf but when he died young she passed it to her second son, Richard William Penn Curzon (1796–1870), who was later alleged to have been the illegitimate son of a single woman named Ann Oake.[10]

The courts allocated William the Miser's personal property between his next of kin, Mary, Lady Andover, a granddaughter of Humphrey Jennens's daughter Ann, and William Lygon, 1st Earl Beauchamp (1747–1816), a grandson of Hester Jennens, and a descendant of Thomas Lygon.[10]

William's uncle William Jennens, (15 November 1676), the youngest son of Humphrey Jennens and Mary Milford, was a British Army officer in the American Indian Wars. If he was the William Jennings who married Mary Jane Pulliam, then many Americans were coheirs, including their famous great-grandson, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Henry Clay (1777-1852). Litigation on behalf of the American descendants commenced around 1850 and every descendant of anybody named "Jennings" was solicited. The accumulation of funds for litigation was initiated in England, but his Virginia descendants contributed large sums and even unrelated individuals named "Jennings" sent money in the hope of sharing the inheritance.[10]

Jennings clubs[edit]

Starting in 1849, the Jennens fortune became so notorious that clubs were formed of people descended from Jennens and Jennings, who would hire agents to do genealogical research and file lawsuits in Britain. Such clubs are known to have existed in Great Barr, Birmingham, UK, Nashville, Tennessee, Walpole, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, and Ireland, among many other places. It has been suggested that more than £100,000 was spent on research and retaining legal counsel. By the time these clubs were formed, the statute of limitations for claiming the fortune had already passed, unless if fraud could be proven.[11]

The last claim failed in 1915. Unofficial claims in the media persisted for some decades thereafter.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens[edit]

Charles Dickens published Bleak House between March 1852 and September 1853, where a key plot device was the ongoing legal case Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has facts similar to this case.


  1. ^ a b c d "1798-1799 Bury and Norwich Post FDLHS newspaper archive". foxearth.org.uk.
  2. ^ a b c d e "The Guidott / Guidotti family, Acton Place, Summary of William Jennens".
  3. ^ "Obituary of Remarkable Persons; with Biographical Anecdotes". The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle. Vol. 68, part 2. 1 July 1798. p. 628. hdl:2027/njp.32101076880176. Retrieved 20 January 2021.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  4. ^ Foundling Hospital (London, England) (1756). You are Desired to Meet the Rest of the Governors and Guardians of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children: On Wednesday, the 12th Day of May, 1756, at the Said Hospital in Lamb's-Conduit-Fields, ... to Hold the Annual General Meeting of this Corporation, ...
  5. ^ a b Polden 2003a, p. 212.
  6. ^ "Mr. JENNEN'S PROPERTY". The Times. No. 4235. London. 20 July 1798. col D, p. 2.
  7. ^ a b Polden 2003a, p. 247.
  8. ^ Jennings Family History
  9. ^ The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, vol. 68 part 2, London, 1798, pp. 627–628, retrieved 9 December 2012
  10. ^ a b c "William Henry Jennings". geni_family_tree.
  11. ^ Polden, Patrick (December 2003). "Stranger Than Fiction? The Jennens Inheritance in Fact and Fiction Part Two: The Business of Fortune Hunting". Common Law World Review. 32 (4): 338–367. doi:10.1350/clwr.32.4.338.19427. S2CID 143880775.


Further reading[edit]