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The sad case of Joseph Crew Jennings.

On the 23rd March John Martin’s world was shaken to the core,


Joseph Crew Jennings was the eldest son of John Jennings; he had taken over his father’s business as a solicitor, was on the boards of a number of turnpike trusts, was a churchwarden and had rebuilt St Osmund’s church. John Martin knew him intimately, dined with him frequently and would have called him his friend, but Martin’s initial shock and sympathy rapidly turned to indignation, when he realised that he had been defrauded, as he saw it, of £15 for across the page is another part to the entry,


Not perhaps the most charitable or Christian response we might have expected but John Martin took money seriously. The problem appears to have stemmed from the fact that John Martin had paid Crew Jennings £16 17s 6d a couple of weeks earlier to pay various insurances that were due [1] and that these had not been credited to his account.Crew Jennings was buried the next week and it is not clear if John attended or not or whether the killing of a pig was planned or a celebration,

At Home – Mr Crew Jennings was Buried at Evershot – Killed a pig 10s[tone] 16lb




When Joseph’s father John, died he left £18,000 to his widow Ann and his two surviving daughters, Elizabeth and Ellen. After Anne’s death in March 1859 the residue went to the two girls one of whom, Elizabeth, had meantime married one William Holgate. Whilst this was a considerable amount, £1.5m in today’s terms it was but personal property; the true wealth of any family resided in the “real” property, it owned, that is to say land and that in the case of the Jennings’s was considerable.

This he left to his two sons, Thomas and Joseph Crew but unfortunately Thomas “met with an accident which brought on paralysis, and the result was that he became an imbecile and had to be placed in a private lunatic asylum, where he died.”[2] Thomas had previously bequeathed his lands to his brother, Joseph Crew Jennings, who remained living in Evershot “with his mother, the testatrix, who kept his house for him. She was an exceedingly affectionate mother and he was an attached son, and they lived together until his death”.

His death as we know occurred in 1854 and, not unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, the story was reported in the newspapers, the Worcestershire Chronicle wedging it between the report of a 21 yr old woman who had killed herself after being seduced and abandoned, and a man boiled to death in London in a vat of boiling soap. Suicide being anathema to a Christian burial it was reported that he “put an end to his existence…whilst suffering from temporary derangement”.

Such an event occurring in a small community must have come as a shock to all and it was not until five years later that the full story came to public notice. The Dorset County Chronicle of 27th December 1860 takes up the story: “he [Joseph Crew Jennings] had formed a connection with a young woman called Chamberlain who lived in his mothers establishment. He removed her from Evershot and she went to live at Walworth, where she was frequently visited by Mr Jennings.”

The young woman concerned was Charlotte Chamberlain born in 1814 in Evershot and in the baptismal records for that year her mother is named as Ann Chamberlain but no father is named and the word ‘illegitimate’ has been written in.

After taking up with Charlotte the inevitable happened and a son, Charles Chamberlain, was born. Now an air of mystery enters the story. The 1841 census shows Charlotte and Charles[aged 1] living in Melcombe Regis now a part of Weymouth, Dorset. The newspaper account of his suicide recites that Crew Jennings had “removed her from Evershot and she went to live at Walworth” which is in South London near the Elephant and Castle. It was then in the county of Surrey, then as now, it was a poor area. The account relates that he regularly visited her and indeed married her.

Some parts of this story do not add up. Firstly there is no record of a Charles Chamberlain [or Jennings] being baptised at Walworth and it is unlikely that Joseph would have housed her there except on a temporary basis. Moreover the only record of a Charles Chamberlain, son of Charlotte Chamberlain, is in a baptismal record for Shepton Mallet in May 1840. The baptismal record notes that the child was born on 3rd September 1839. The mother is given as Charlotte Chamberlain and a father is named – Charles. Their abode is given as 54 Margaret Street London, which at the time was in Middlesex.

Since I first posted this article I have been contacted by another researcher, Gavin Bacon who confirms that Charlotte was indeed living in Walworth as Joseph Crew names her in his will as living there. My thanks to Gavin for this information.

This is and was, a much nicer area than Walworth. As we will see in another section the Jennings family owned a substantial number of properties in London and it is not inconceivable that Margaret Street was one of these. It should not be forgotten that Joseph undoubtedly loved Charlotte and had the means to provide for her and the child, unstintingly. My suspicion is that Joseph deliberately arranged for the child to be baptised in a parish where they were not known but yet close enough to his home for Joseph to get away readily and then moved mother and child to London. He may well have assumed another name in order to avoid the boy suffering the opprobrium of bastardy.

There is of course no evidence for this.

What is known is that Charlotte and Joseph got married on 26th July 1845 at St Dunstan in the West. This was no obscure or out of the way church it was famous in its own right and was situated in the heart of London. The original registry entry is visible to see on Ancestry and clearly shows the date to be the 26th and merely states that both parties were ‘of age’. Oddly another record on Ancestry give the date as the 25th and states Charlotte’s name incorrectly as 21 presumably on the basis that this was the legal age of consent. In fact the legal age for girls to be married was twelve and boys, fourteen. On the marriage register her father is named as Isaac Chamberlain who cannot be traced and was by this time dead.

Joseph kept the marriage a complete secret, presumably for fear of upsetting his mother but then, in 1854, he went to London to see a legal colleague, Mr Basket, who was the London agent for the Evershot firm. At this meeting he told Basket of the marriage and his desire to support Charles, who was now 14 yr’s old. he requested that a will be made leaving Charles, a part of his estate, sufficient in fact to yield an income equivalent to about £10,000. The remainder of his estate he left to his own mother, Anne Jennings.

It is possible that Crew Jennings, fearing the reaction of his family and friends, had already decided on the path to his own destruction, for at the same time he made Mr Basket a highly unusual offer; he suggested that Mr Basket leave his office in London and assume the running of the Jennings’ law firm in Evershot. It was, Crew Jennings said his desire to retire. Mr Basket agreed to this proposal. On 20th March Mr Baskett and his family came to Evershot, took up the practice and three days after arrival Joseph killed himself.

It fell to the hapless Mr Baskett to break the news to Joseph’s mother about the marriage and “she expressed a great desire to see her grandson and his mother, and she went to Southampton where they were then staying and introduced herself to them. She was pleased with the boy, became much attached to him and invited him to Evershot.” Further acquaintance with the boy led her to make a new will in which effectively she left him the bulk of her estate leaving him “substantially in the same position as if he had been legitimate”. It must be appreciated that children who were considered illegitimate had no legal rights [unless expressly granted] to any share in their parents estate.

The new financial arrangements did not go down well with Anne’s two daughters who, when she died in 1860, challenged the will in court, alleging that Anne had been unduly influenced by Mr Baskett when making the will. The situation was complicated because William Jennings [Jnr.], who had also just died, had left equal shares in his estate to Joseph, Joseph’s brother Thomas, the two daughters, Edwin Jennings Martin and Arthur Martin. By now of course Thomas and Joseph were dead and it appears that in making her will Anne Jennings had attempted to even out the monies from the various estates to ensure that all the residual parties [including Charles] were treated equally. In the event the court held that the will was good and Mr Baskett was exonerated from any charge of wrong doing. He continued to practice in Evershot and remained the solicitor to John Martin.

One can imagine from Joseph’s point of view that things looked desperate. He had in effect been living a lie for almost fifteen years. This was clearly no seduction by a dastardly villain who having had his wicked way discarded the girl to her fate. It is clear he loved her but having been brought up as a strict Christian, who served as a Churchwarden, who belonged to a profession that demanded probity in all matters, and who was steward to a Peer of the realm the pressure upon him was immense. This was not a society that tolerated such things and yet, the tragedy for him was that he would never know that his mother, when it did come to it not only tolerated the situation but actively welcomed the boy into her family. Had Joseph not committed suicide things might have worked out differently perhaps; his mother might not have been so accepting – we will never know. In the event it might be said he made the ultimate sacrifice for his son and certainly secured his financial future. In the 1861 census Charles, by now 21 yr’s old and, having assumed the Jennings surname, owned a farm at Eling in Hampshire. It was a substantial land holding of some two hundred acres and he employed several men and boys. His mother is living with him but he is now the head of the household, and I shall leave the story there.

1 Crew Jennings was the local agent of the Salamander Fire Insurance Company.

2 Dorset County Chronicle and Somersetshire Gazette December 27th 1860

Categories: In Depth

Ned Elliott