c.1622 - 1704
It is not every schoolmaster who can retire to great wealth and a landed estate, but Robert Jennings, Master of Abingdon School from 1657 to 1683, did so. Born about 1622, he was the second son of John Jennings, a prominent Reading mercer. John Jennings was Mayor of Reading in 1630-40, but his name disappears from the corporation records after the taking of the town by the parliamentarians in the Civil War. This suggests a strong royalist allegiance, which was shared by his son.
Robert studied at St John’s College in Oxford, matriculating in 1639/40. A fellowship of that college had been the launch pad for the ascent of William Laud, a Reading man, to the archbishopric of Canterbury, and the relationship between Reading and St John’s was close. Robert chose to remain in Oxford throughout the war while it was the royalist capital, taking his MA in 1647/8. But in the purges that followed the parliamentarian victory he was expelled from the university on the grounds that ‘he had borne arms for the king’. He moved to London and in 1649 was in residence at the Middle Temple, but it is not clear that he ever seriously studied or practised law. His activities in the next several years are obscure.
In 1655 there were vacancies at the schools of both Reading and Abingdon. Robert had support from such worthies as Bulstrode Whitelocke, High Steward of Reading, former recorder of Abingdon and now a senior figure in the protectorate government, and from the prominent Laudian Peter Heylin, expelled from Oxford and now resident in Abingdon. He opted at first for Reading, but this turned out badly. The ruling élite of the town was deeply split, and Robert was the candidate of only one faction. The others preferred a St John’s graduate of the post-war generation untainted by royalism, and were able to get an order from the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, in his favour. Robert was dismissed. At Michaelmas 1657, he took over at Abingdon School.
The salary was an ungenerous £30 per year, but Robert seems to have had access to capital. Where this came from is uncertain. As a second son, he would not have inherited his family’s fortune. Nothing is known of his marriage, but it seems likely that it was an advantageous one. The school was at that time located in the area in front of the present Guildhall, with the schoolmaster’s house on the south side of the courtyard. Robert repaired the house and refurbished the school library. He built over a part of the courtyard to accommodate boarders as a profit-earning venture. There were repeated negotiations with the Corporation over money, and by 1678 he was able to make a loan of £400 towards the building of the County Hall.
There is little information on his performance as a schoolmaster, but if, as seems likely, the future Lord Chief Justice, John Holt, was one of his pupils, it must have been at least competent. Modern historians have drawn disapproving attention to his expulsion in 1671 of ten boys from families of religious dissenters, but it was a time of deep religious division. Royalism went together with hostility to dissent. There will have been pressure from other parents and from the Corporation. In fact, the boys may well have been better taught at Henry Langley’s dissenting academy at Tubney. Such schools educated boys for commerce rather than the church, and the curriculum will have been stronger in mathematics and modern languages than in the classics that Jennings would have been teaching.
Robert Jennings retired in 1683. In 1687 or 8, as an Oxfordshire magistrate, he was included in the great survey made by James II on attitudes to granting toleration to Protestant Dissenters and Catholics. His opinions had not changed. His answers were strongly against what the king wanted, and he was removed from the bench.
In 1688 came the revolution that swept James II from the throne, and many English Catholics sold up to join him in exile at St Germain. Among these were the Plowden family of Shiplake Court near Henley. Jennings was able to buy the estate for £5800 plus a £60 per year payment to a Plowden grandmother for the remainder of her life. In 1694, he was pricked High Sheriff of Oxfordshire, but because of his age he arranged for the duties to be carried out by his son James. He died in 1704.
Robert’s son James Jennings (?1670-1739) maintained his connection with Abingdon. He was its MP from 1710 to 1713, and again from 1715 to 1722. Although a Tory, he opposed and defeated the unimpressive son of Simon Harcourt in 1715. He stood unsuccessfully in 1722 and 1734, being defeated on each occasion by a Whig. He died rich enough to leave £4000 in cash to each of his two surviving daughters, as well as the Shiplake estate to his son.
© AAAHS and contributors 2017