Bleak House & Intestacy “prolonging the agony of all parties”

Jarndyce v Jarndyce is a fictitious court case created by Charles Dickens in Bleak House that concerns the fate of a large inheritance. Dickens wrote that

“the case had droned on for so long that a little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce v Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.”

Jarndyce v Jarndyce is satirical, and although criticised by the legal profession helped support a judicial reform movement, which lead to the enactment of the Judicature Acts in the 1870s which reformed the English Judicial system.

It has been suggested that Jarndyce v Jarndyce was based upon Jennens v Jennens. William Jennens, a reclusive financier described as the “richest commoner in England” with a fortune in excess of £200 million today died in 1798 unmarried with

“A will … 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.”

 A further complication was that William’s grandfather, Robert, had married twice and named boys from each marriage after himself, leading to difficulty in tracing heirs to the estate. Proceedings in the Courts of Chancery began in 1798 when those believing themselves relatives of William Jennens came forward to claim the inheritance.

 William was a loan shark; who died intestate. British gambling at the time was stratified with the rich playing high-stake games of cards and dice in clubs and casinos; betting on horses at clubs or betting houses which had become commercial affairs that developed the games taking a percentage of the amount wagered.

William’s  business included lending to gamblers in the casinos.

The establishment of gaming houses meant the ruling classes lost much of their wealth and estates to those not born to inherit it, whilst working people lost their wages leading to damaging social effects. In a move to discourage betting by making wagers unenforceable as contracts  legislation such as The Gaming Act of 1664 made gambling debts of £100 unenforceable, the Gaming Act of 1710 made debts of £10 unenforceable and the Gaming Act of 1854 finally made all debts unenforceable.

These Acts helped defend the wealth of people like Roger Brograve, who inherited money and estates and in 1813 due to his impecunious nature he lost ₤10,000 on one race and shot himself two days later ; or Sir John Bland who “by his extravagant and idle behaviour” squandered immense estates—the whole of Manchester and its environs—and left little more at his death than the family House and lands.

Jennens vs Jennens, was abandoned in 1915 (117 years after it was commenced) when the legal fees had exhausted the estate of funds.


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