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Saturday, 8 February 2014


The first thing I found out about my 3x great uncle William Collins Jennings was that he bought a ship, the sloop Somersetshire in 1835. This article was going to be about that vessel; about the cargo of grain which the ship probably gathered for William, a corn merchant in Bristol; about Captain William Williams who was the ship’s master when Jennings and his partner James Smith bought it from John Jones and William Roberts, two merchants on the far shore of the Severn in Chepstow.

Typical early 19th century single-masted sloop (this one 37 tons, 41 feet long) – the Somersetshire was 48 tons, 47’ 8” long, 15’ 4” wide, and drew 7’ 6”

Unfortunately I haven’t found any further information about the Somersetshire, or about Jennings’ trade with her; so all that will have to be left to the imagination. In 1836 a schooner Somerset appears in the Lloyds Register of Shipping, based at Dartmouth and sailing between there and Wales, having been built in Bristol in 1827. Is it the same ship? It’s owned by then by Clift & Co, and C. Clift is its master. But with a coppered hull and at 83 tons it has either had a lot of work done to it or is a different vessel.

However in the course of not finding much more about the Somersetshire, I have built up a small picture of the life of William Collins Jennings which makes his purchase of the Somersetshire seem a surprising and reckless gamble. 

Born in 1808, married to Mary Ann Thomas in 1832, William was 27 when he bought the Somersetshire. Two years earlier in 1833, only a year after his wedding, he had been declared bankrupt. Two years after buying his ship, in 1837, he was declared bankrupt again. And on the 9th August 1843 he filed for bankruptcy once more. He had lost his job, as a clerk with the Great Western Railway, six days earlier; and in 1843 there was no safety net of a welfare state.

The train shed of the Great Western Railway at Bristol Temple Meads station, in an engraving by John Cooke Bourne of 1843 – the railway company was founded ten years earlier

The railway job had lasted three years and followed a three-year period of unemployment since the 1837 bankruptcy. In those six years, the 1843 notice of bankruptcy announced, he lived at eleven different addresses, some for only a few weeks. It was a graphic illustration of the fragility of his economic situation.

For the record, his addresses were:

58 Queen’s Square, Bristol (1 Jan 1837 to 29 Mar 1839)
Aust, Henbury, Gloucs (29 Mar 1839 to 12 Jul 1839)
Redwick, Henbury, Gloucs (12 Jul 1839 to 22 Oct 1839)
14 Wine Street, Bristol (22 Oct 1839 to 11 Nov 1839)
Doctors’ Commons, London (11 Nov 1839 to 30 May 1840)
14 Wine Street, Bristol (30 May 1840 to 24 May 1841)
Weston super Mare, Somerset (24 May 1841 to 8 Aug 1841)
9 Queen’s Square, Bristol (8 Aug 1841 to 1st Jun 1842)
Belmont House, Bedminster, Bristol (1 June 1842 to 1st Jan 1843)
Laura Place, Bedminster, Bristol (from 1 Jan 1843)

Queen’s Square, today the elegant heart of Bristol

These addresses raise some questions. From August 1840 the frequent moves could be explained by postings in his work for the GWR. Queen’s Square is today a very elegant address, although it has probably been renumbered since William’s time: the present no. 58 is the Customs House! But the square is also the location of the Sailors’ Refuge, and in 1837 it may have been much less des res following the destruction of much of it in the riots of 1831. Wine Street was also grand – completely destroyed in the blitz of the Second World War, it was in the 1930s a street of fine shops second only to London’s Regent Street in value. 

Wine Street, Bristol, from a magazine article of 1878 about “Old Bristol”

His time at Doctors’ Commons is intriguing. He was still out of work. What could have taken him for six months to London, and to the place where the proceedings of the civil law courts were held? Doctors’ Commons functioned for lawyers specializing in civil law in the same way that the Inns of Court do for practitioners of common law, housing offices and living quarters for its members. Already active in the 16th century the society was largely obsolete by the 19th, described by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield as a “cosey, dosey, old-fashioned, time-forgotten, sleepy-headed little family party.” It finally fell asleep in 1865, and the buildings in which Jennings seems to have lived were demolished in 1867.

Doctors’ Commons, in an engraving of 1808 by Augustus Pugin Senior and Thomas Rowlandson

William Jennings struggled on. At the census in 1851 he was living with his family in St Martin’s on the island of Guernsey, describing himself himself a “retired” merchant. His wife has no declared profession; so with three children under the age of 15, how was the family getting by? Perhaps Mary Ann had a private source of income. She died before William, who spent his last days in poverty in Hackney. At the time of his death his worldly goods were valued at less than £20, which wouldn’t buy you much of the Somersetshire or any other sloop.

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