Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome local historian Martin to tell us of two most interesting though vastly different tales from Acton's past, which had the near 40 audience enthralled throughout.
Martin introduced us to two wealthy men named Robert Jennens who died in London in 1725, both descended from one man, John Jennens, though from different women. Both had sons named William Jennens, one dying in 1803 with the other in 1798, unmarried and intestate, and who also left a huge fortune.
Upon his death in 1798, William Jennens (colloquially Jennens the Rich or Jennens the Miser) was described as the richest man in England, given more to penuriousness than hospitality, and clearly hailing from the landed gentry as his obituary at the time made clear:
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, 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.
So much for being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, apparently the King gave the baby a silver ewer on his birth, which corresponds with his father Robert having been married in Westminster Abbey, in 1700. Rich William was brought up in a town house in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair, which was as fashionable then as now, until his father (another Robert) bought Acton Place in 1708, continuously remodeling it in the Palladian style until his own death in 1725.
Martin then told us that in his younger days, William was reputed to have frequented London's gambling clubs, not to bet but to lend money to punters at exorbitant rates of interest, before inheriting significant money from two uncles. Upon the death of Robert, William abandoned all building work to live in unfurnished rooms in the basement, along with his servants and dogs, thereby acquiring the now familiar moniker of ‘the Miser of Acton'.
Following his death at the ripe old age of 97, which Martin told us made him one of the oldest people in Suffolk at the time, the ‘Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle' reported:
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.
No one really believes this story, and as Martin noted: surely his solicitor could have read the will out loud to him, and if all was good, got him to sign the relevant parts. Either way, this brought the intestacy laws into operation, which by all accounts were more complicated then than now. As was usual at the time, families typically reused names, giving them to their children and grandchildren, so three Roberts and two Williams (see chart below) were involved; additionally no one could prove the baptism of father Robert, so this was when ‘all the fun started'.
By every account William was worth some £250 million in today's money, being described as Britain's richest man at the time of his death. His estate was said to be worth over £2 million then, producing an annual income of about £40,000. The Times of 20 July 1798 published a tabulated list of his worth: capital of £432,509 and annual interest of £119,415. This created considerable interest and huge enticement to ‘get rich quick'; coupled with an apparent national pastime of trying to claim your fortune from the wealthy deceased; all manner of unlikely claims went into overdrive, and to this day there are Jennens / Jennings descendants who believe they are due a portion of the fortune.
The courts of chancery declared the heir to William's fortune was George Augustus William Curzon, a descendant of his aunt Hester Jennens, who received the property. Curzon's mother, Sophia Charlotte Howe, administered the estate on his behalf; when he died young she passed it to her second son, Richard William Penn Curzon (1796-1870), later alleged to have been the illegitimate son of a single woman named Ann Oake. William's personal property was allocated 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.
William's uncle William Jennens, 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. 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, and his Virginia descendants contributed large sums; even unrelated individuals named "Jennings" sent money in the hope of sharing the inheritance. According to Martin, in the mid 1880s the Philadelphia Times claimed there were some 85 thousand US descendants (presumably including every possible variant of Jenens / Jennens and Jenings/Jennings etc.), so the scope for confusion was endless.
The Acton name travelled around the world, as whenever a journalist got bored or had spare time, he/she would regularly reprise the affair as ‘an and finally' story - what a game it all was. Jennens (subscription) Societies were established around the world where, for a relatively modest regular sum, you could just possibly hit the jackpot, though of course no one did - the initial court rulings kept William's wealth with the landed gentry, who were not minded to see it given away. Various attempts to gain access to the wealth continued to at least 1929 /30 in New Zealand, more than 130 years after William's death, and setting a world record unlikely ever to be beaten.
The saga is generally, though not exclusively, held to be the catalyst for Dickens' famous
Chancery Court case in Bleak House “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” - a central plot device in the novel, which has now become a byword for seemingly interminable legal proceedings.
To complete the story, Lord Howe demolished Acton Place in 1825, leaving just one servant's wing, nine bays wide with a central three bay pediment. According to an C18th painting the centre of the house was eleven bays wide, four storeys high with a three bay pediment; it was connected to the wings by one-storey quadrant arcades and was clearly a very very large house.
What was left of the manor housed senior US Army 136th Station hospital staff during WWII, in support of the 486th Heavy Bombardment Group based at nearby Chilton airfield. The hospital comprised Nissan huts in the manor grounds, with outbuildings housing hospital staff. After the war the manor building was used by the council, before final demolition in the 1960s, and the site is now an industrial one, home to Quansboro Plastics.
Martin clearly enjoys telling this tale of young love, gruesome murder, inadequate policing, unfair trial and the impact of meddling do-gooders, so if you are ready, here it is:
Catherine Foster, a young bride of just three weeks, became the most infamous woman in Suffolk after she was found guilty of poisoning her husband by lacing his dumplings with arsenic. The reason why 18 the year-old domestic servant of Acton killed her spouse has never been solved, but it took a jury just 15 minutes to decide on her guilt at the Suffolk Assizes trial at the end of March 1847. Three weeks later she was publicly hanged in front of the Bury St Edmunds gaol.
Catherine had been a domestic servant until she married John Foster, an agricultural labourer she had known since childhood, and the only clue to her motives lay in a visit made to an aunt shortly after the wedding. In October 1846 John gave her permission to visit her aunt in Pakenham, near Bury, something which the constraints of domestic service had earlier prohibited. She was away for ten days, but within a few days of her return and exactly three weeks after their marriage, John died following a sudden and violent illness, initially diagnosed as English cholera.
A post-mortem revealed the presence of a large quantity of arsenic in his stomach, whilst traces were also found in the crops of dead chickens that had been seen pecking by the Fosters' yard where John had vomited at the time of his illness. The trial concentrated on forensic evidence and her opportunity to commit the crime, the prosecution claiming she placed poison in a dumpling she prepared for John's supper, causing him to become fatally ill. Testimony of neighbours only hinted at a possible motive; Mary Chinery, living in the adjoining cottage recalled: ‘I heard her tell my grandfather if she had gone to Bury before she married she would not have married at all'.
Newspaper reports at the time said that Catherine ‘looked guilty, cold and calculating', her demeanour in the dock was emphasised, which served to confirm her guilt. As the verdict was delivered she allegedly ‘betrayed no symptoms of emotion' and ‘bore the sentence almost unmoved, merely applying a handkerchief to her eyes at the conclusion'.
Catherine's inability or unwillingness to show emotion through any outward display (of pain or regret - perhaps she was physically unable to do this) removed any shred of moral credibility from her as a woman in the observers eyes; it was also suggested that she was indifferent even to her own fate - she was therefore' a woman who felt no compunction for others'.
After conviction, Catherine was apparently ‘visited unremittingly' by the Chaplain of Bury Gaol, other ministers and many ‘do gooders', all intent on obtaining her confession, which was needed to prove the judicial system had worked properly. Following her trial Catherine's supposedly private confessions were published, whilst it was claimed she retained a deficiency of “natural” feminine feeling and attributes, and that her repentance was always tempered and hollow.
As Catherine awaited execution she prayed frequently, ‘but there was not that appearance of bitter compunction or deep humiliation for her offence which was to be desired' - she parted with her mother ‘without much emotion' and ‘walked with extraordinary firmness' to the scaffold. Throughout the trial and up to the point of death, she is portrayed chillingly calm and composed; although she performs in an outward sense, she remained emotionally bankrupt as a woman.
The Bury and Norwich Post reported a crowd of 10,000 at her execution, also publishing what was purported to be her written confession after her death (very possibly completely fabricated). Her extreme transgression and the public fascination with her were demonstrated by the number of broadsheets which related the story of her trial, confession and execution, which was attended by ‘a vast concourse of persons' of at least 10,000 people - most of whom later became drunk.
Even assuming that she committed the crime, Catherine Foster's decision to kill her husband is not explored for any rational motive. As a ‘secret poisoner', she was seen to violate the home and abuse her position as a wife; her execution was therefore seen as necessary in order to restore ‘moral order and domestic hierarchy' - as evidenced by letters written at the time - below.
After trial and execution, two letters were written by ‘A Norfolk Man in Ireland', published in the Bury and Norwich Post, they referred to ‘the constant recurrence of late of these shocking cases of poisoning', and called upon the clergy and press to exercise their duty as ‘responsible public instructors'. He favourably compared ‘poor Popish Ireland' with ‘Protestant Norfolk and Suffolk', ‘where it is almost as common for women to poison their husbands as to marry', thus implying that the benefits of a more enlightened society (as he perceived), offered no guarantees against such insidious menace. ‘No man', he claims, ‘can be assured of safety', for ‘who is to guard against secret poisoning'? ‘What man can suspect that the woman who eats his daily bread is poisoning his cup'?' The author also suggested a close association between the crime and female sexual deviancy, claiming that: ‘The ordinary cause of this revolting crime is the woman's infidelity. Adultery in a woman is the first step to murder and she who commits a breach of one commandment boggles at the others'. Of course, this could just as easily be applied to men!
Catherine Foster was the last woman executed in Suffolk, though not the last publicly hanged in England, which was Frances Kidder in April 1868, for the murder of her eleven year old step-daughter. Concluding his excellent talk, Martin introduced us to the infamous headless horseman of Acton (we thought and hoped he was joking), before wishing everyone a safe journey home.
Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:
15th November. Gary Edgerton will take us on a walking tour through Colchester and its history, from the Romans to the present day, with slides showing: The Castle, Dutch Quarter, Jumbo, St John's Abbey and St Botolph's Priory; plus an amusing aside on Colchester's houses of ill repute.
13th December. Ian McLachlan will tell stories from the Zeppelin raids on East Anglia 100 years ago, the first casualties in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, and how the brutes were defeated.
Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room.
Andy Sheppard 20th October 2017