The turn of a new century would prove to be somewhat more than a symbolic harbinger of change in the life of Mr. Roger Jenyns, Esq. In little more than two years from 1700 this gent would: gain a knighthood, acquire a country house and estate, lose one wife (their three children having all previously died in infancy), and marry another. The estate was at Bottisham, seven mile east of Cambridge, a place which, precisely one hundred years on, would welcome a son for whom life was to unfold in altogether more sedate fashion.
The Rev. Leonard Jenyns lived all but seven years of the C19. His first post after university saw him venture north from Bottisham Hall .. about 800 yards north, to the adjacent parish of Swaffham Bulbeck which he would serve for the next thirty years. ‘I have never been abroad,’ he declared¹ in his 89th year, a lack of adventurousness not – as we shall see – without…
… its own historical significance but which was untypical of the spirit which had first brought the Jenyns family to this place, and where they remain to this day.
On the morning of May 30, 1649, at a house in London’s Temple Bar, nine gentlemen gathered in a mood of businesslike self-congratulation, the previous day having seen the passing of a private parliamentary Act ‘for draining the Great Level of the Fens‘. Senior among those assembled was the 5th Earl of Bedford (later 1st Duke thereof) who was spearheading the revival of his late father’s ambitious scheme, a project interrupted by the Civil War but now given fair wind by Fenlander Oliver Cromwell. This epic undertaking was to be bankrolled by private investors, termed ‘Adventurers’, in return for rights in much of the land reclaimed.
Also present that morning was one Thomas Jenyns, younger son of Hertfordshire squire Sir John Jenyns and at this time a leaseholder of land in Hayes, Middlesex. Despite the many tribulations of the Fens enterprise, the family’s investment was plainly fruitful. In 1677 Thomas’s son, Roger, would acquire the manor of Hayes, having been one of twenty-seven Adventurers who constituted the original board of the Bedford Level Corporation. Subsequent generations ‘filled many of the most responsible offices of the Corporation’ until well into the nineteenth century.²
Roger Jenyns served ‘successively as conservator, bailiff, and surveyor general of Fens till his death in 1693’ whereupon he was succeeded as surveyor by his eldest son, John (also MP for Cambridgeshire 1701-17). They are among many Jenyns interred in Hayes church but Roger’s namesake younger son would be strikingly memorialised in Cambridgeshire having relocated closer to the heart of the action.
Behind a screen in Holy Trinity church, Bottisham, life-size effigies of Sir Roger Jenyns and his second wife, Elizabeth Soame, sit reposed in night attire, a composition which raised eyebrows in the first half of the C18. Knighted in recognition of his Fenland endeavours, Sir Roger had purchased the old estate of the Alington family at Bottisham, on the edge the Fens.
At the heart of this property was the C15 moated manor house which ‘shortly after 1700 Jenyns remodelled (r), refacing it in red brick and converted the moat into a ‘canal”. And so it would remain thoughout the long lifetime of Sir Roger’s son and heir, save for the installing of a ‘large library’ as might befit…
… the lively mind of one of the eighteenth century’s more impish men of letters.
For Soame Jenyns (1704-87) life was rarely dull. Leaving Cambridge University without taking his degree, Soame promptly entered into a marriage – contrived by his father – with his first cousin Mary Soame, a young heiress (‘of between 20 and £30,000‘) of whom Sir Roger was guardian. In summer the three lived ‘tolerably well together’ at Bottisham but in winter Soame preferred the diversions of London, ‘his mind by some means warped aside to the paths of infidelity’.
A sparkling conversationalist, Soame’s urbane charm compensated for an unfortunate physical appearance. ‘Jenyns was so ugly that when [the playwright] Richard Sheridan’s sister met him at a reading party she judged him “the most hideous mortal” she had ever beheld’.³ A dandyish sartorial style went only so far in distracting from various facial tumours, broken teeth and ‘a laugh scarcely human’. Horace Walpole held Soame’s portrait by Reynolds (r) to be veritable ‘proof of Sir Joshua’s art’.³
But from an (initially) anonymous debut verse, The art of dancing, Soame fancied himself at home in the rarified company of such sharp wordsmiths, becoming a prolific, whimsically provocative poet and pamphleteer on matters topical and philosophical. One particular work, A free inquiry into the nature and origins of evil, would be remembered by posterity but, alas, more for the celebrated critique it attracted from Dr Samuel Johnson who decided that its author needed ‘to be thrashed in full view of the public’.4
While he received hate mail, ‘letters charged with great acrimony [and] much abuse’, the lofty barbs from the editor of The Literary Magazine were perhaps more wounding. Suggesting a more fitting subject for Jenyns’ next disquisition, Johnson wrote: ‘I should wish that he would solve this question, Why he that has nothing to write, should desire to be a writer.’ Twenty years after his death it would be said of Soame, ‘He wrote verses upon dancing, and prose upon the origin of evil; yet he was a very indifferent metaphysician, and a worse dancer’.
Matters were no less turbulent on the home front. Soon after old Sir Roger died Jenyns’s wife eloped with the MP for Nottinghamshire, notorious philanderer William Levinz (itself ‘extraordinary [as] she was noways inviting’). But Soame did not have to look far for a replacement, marrying another cousin, the importunate Elizabeth Grey, who had been taken in at Bottisham Hall several years previously.
As productive as his long life was (being also a dilligent MP, mostly for Cambridge, and public administrator over 35 years) at his death in 1787 Soame had no direct heir. So Bottisham now passed to his uncle’s great-grandson, the Rev. George Leonard Jenyns, who proceeded to sell off the contents of the old Hall which was then demolished in favour of a new house built just yards away (r).
‘We are well into the Neo-Classical period, and – in Cambridgeshire especially – the accompanying rejection of the great house type in favour of more compact, villa-like plans.’ Fashioned from the characteristic white bricks of the chalky Cambridgeshire Gault, Bottisham Hall is ‘an attractive and gratifying intact house of two tall storeys in the Wyatt manner’5…
… initially on a square plan (an L-shaped service wing being added later). The semi-circular central bay fronts an oval entrance hall; further in, ‘the main staircase rises around three sides of the ‘D’-shaped stairhall and returns to a landing [featuring] a screen of two Ionic columns’.6 ‘Much of the furniture acquired c.1800 remains in the house.’
Over the next two decades Rev. Jenyns would also greatly expand the parkland around the house creating the present 140-acre private domain – as one 2016 visitor noted, ‘many locals told us this was the first time they had entered the Hall’s grounds’ – of which his youngest son would be especially appreciative. ‘Cambridgeshire being open country, the gardens and plantations were like an oasis in the desert,’ recalled Rev. Leonard Jenyns (1800-93) reflecting upon a lifetime of scholarly local fieldwork which would see him become ‘an eminent, much respected naturalist’.7
Somewhat regretful that his father, ‘while quite a young man, came into possession of all of the Bottisham Hall property .. leading him to abandon ways and habits suitable to a clergyman’, Leonard’s studious inclinations flowed from his mother and her immediate family.¹ Mary Heberden was the daughter and sister of distinguished physicians (her portrait being painted for his doctor by a grateful Thomas Gainsborough). But his father, being canon of Ely Cathedral, did have his uses…
… young Leonard being appointed curate at the church closest to the Hall directly upon ordination allowing continued study of the local flora and fauna, often in the company of his ex-Cambridge friends.
“I shall never forget, as long as I may live, the happy hours I spent with you at Bottisham,” wrote Charles Darwin, whose later renown Jenyns would inadvertently assist. For in 1831 Captain FitzRoy had offered Jenyns the berth as naturalist aboard HMS Beagle ahead of his five-year expedition to South America. Citing parish responsibilities and uncertain health Leonard would decline the invitation recommending instead his young friend, Darwin. The rest is (natural) history.
On this day two years ago a pair of windows commemorating Rev. Jenyns were unveiled in the porch of Swaffham Bulbeck church by the present owner of Bottisham Hall. Leonard’s father was himself vicar (for over fifty years) of Swaffham Prior just a mile or so further up the lane. The land between these two villages is principally occupied by the parkland of Swaffham Prior House. It was here in 1901 that the prolific bestselling novelist H. Rider Haggard was put up by squire Charles Allix as he travelled about taking the pulse of post-depression Rural England for the Daily Express.
As Mr. Allix and his near neighbour, Roger Jenyns of Bottisham Hall (1858-1936), explained to the writer, ‘Some of the old Cambridgeshire families still remain but during the last score of years most of them have melted away, their place filled by an influx of millionaires’. In the 1980s Swaffham Prior House was itself sold to a local millionaire who would be knighted for his commitment to the region, as Sir Roger Jenyns had been three centuries before. But at the latter’s Bottisham estate, presently the home of his namesake (right), change continues to remain a relative stranger…