"There probably never was a property in the country, the title to which has given rise to such obstinate disputes or has been the source of so much litigation and crime"
Lord Justice Thesiger said those words in a summing up at Norwich in 1878, when the last local claim to what have become known as the "Jermy Millions" was thrown out of court. His decision meant that the Jermy family, once one of the most notable families, was destined to remain in the relative obscurity to which the passage of centuries had brought it.
There are many Jermys living in Norfolk now; honest men engaged in honest toil and giving little thought (if indeed they are aware at all) that their forebears were soldiers and statesmen, sea captains and knights. The proudest pages of their history ended when the legend of the "Jermy Millions" began.
Now the history of the family which Norfolk forgot is being written, ironically enough, by a Londoner, who although a Jermy by descent is not even a Jermy in name. Mr Stewart Valdar, of Hampstead, like others of his line, bears an alien name because, during the period of illogical public prejudice during the first World War, its corruption to "Germany" proved embarrassing.
Through personal contacts and others established by letters to local papers, including the "Eastern Daily Press", and by searching among the archives of the British Museum, the Public Record Office and elsewhere, and with the help of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, he has identified 334 Jermys, and, almost incidently, traced the full story of the "Jermy Millions" , the value of which was probably a myth but the claim to which split Norfolk from time to time for over a century.
Mr Valdar is an amateur historian, not a fortune-hunter. If his family had a claim to the indisputably large estate of William Jermy, former High Sheriff of Norfolk, who died in 1752, it is far to late to make it now. But the story nevertheless could start the controversy all again when he has finished his book.
There was a Sir William Jermy alive in 1221. His son married a daughter of the Earl Marshall. Sir John Jermy was at Agincourt and Sir Reginald de Jermeny (of the same family, despite the difference in spelling) was sent to Holland to contract a Royal marriage for the daughter of Edward I. There was Col. Robert Jermy of Bayfield, supreme authority for Norfolk under Cromwell, and Capt, Seth Jermy who fought a heroic sea action against the French in the mouth of the Thames in 1707.
The Jermy wealth an estates prospered, even if they were later over-estimated, and when William Jermy died his will must have been eagerly awaited. He married a Miss Frances Preston and they had no children. After her death the estate was entailed to her nephew and then her brother, both of whom were childless, and then "to the use of such male persons of the name Jermy as should be the nearest related to the testator in blood."
Here the Prestons, in Mr Valdar's estimation, behaved very shrewdly. They bought off the two Jermys who were nearest in blood to William. One, the real heir, was a illiterate day labourer at Yarmouth called John. The other, less explicably, was Francis, a lawyer, of North Walsham. For £20 apiece they signed away their claim to the estate, and Jermys for the next 150 years were to curse the lure of that easy money.
No one seems to have questioned the business at the time. The new owners later changed their name to Jermy and assumed the arms of the family - still to be seen at Standfield Hall, the moated seat of the Jermys - under the terms of William's will. It was not until 87 years later, in 1838, that the country heard of the disputed fortune.
In August of that year a man named Larner (a distant relative of the Yarmouth labourer) and a London lawyer named Wingfield travelled to Norfolk to press the claim of the disinherited Jermys. They badgered the then occupier of Stanfield Hall, Isaac Preston, Recorder of Norwich, who had just inherited and assumed the surname Jermy.
Eventually, on October 3rd, Larner and Wingfield, with a force of 80 labourers and small traders they had aroused in surrounding villages, captured Stanfield Hall. They held out all day until dislodged by a detachment of the 4th Norfolk Dragoon Guards, summoned from Norwich.
Their trial at Norwich Assizes was an astonishing event. Recorder Jermy-Preston made an eloquent pleas for clemency for the whole 82 who had dispossessed him temporarily, and they received trifling sentences.
The Recorder's actions, for a magistrate who had a reputation for harshness, can only be explained , says Mr Valdar, by the fact that he did not wish his right to the Jermy fortune to be put to the test.
The rival claims to the fortune were openly discussed in the Norfolk Press, but excitement gradually died down until ten years later, when on November 28th 1848, Stanfield Hall became the scene of one of the most celebrated of that or any other century.
James Blomfield Rush, a disgruntled tenant farmer on the estate, ran wild with a shotgun. He killed the Recorder in his porch, and also his son. His son's wife and a servant were severely injured. Rush, remembering the capture of the house ten years before, tried to make the attack look like the revenge of the Jermys. He even dropped a leaflet near the bodies purporting to be signed by "Thomas Jermy, the owner", who had returned to claim the estate.
The subterfuge was seen through. Rush was convicted and eventually hanged at Norwich Castle. But the trial revived interest in the "Jermy Millions." Another legal claim was made 30 years later by a poor Dovercourt railway guard. He was represented by a Q.C., but it did him no good. It led to Lord Justice Thesiger's judgement which is quoted above. Still later claims were made, but only in newspapers. The last was in 1920 by John Larner, a descendant of the 1838 claimant. But the mystery remains - as Mr Valdar frankly admits - and so does the riddle of the Jermy family records.
Families such as the Jermys once were, have portraits painted and silver monogrammed. They have documents and family heirlooms. Yet apart from one painting of an unknown woman, neither Mr Valdar nor any of those with whom he has been in touch has ever owned them or heard of them. They remain unidentified, in Norfolk, in some antique shop, museum or country home.
Or did the Prestons, when they took over, make a clean sweep of four centuries of history and try to start from scratch?
Ref: Eastern Daily Press, 15 April 1955