James's father wanted no contact with him and his mother was not allowed to bring him up. He was raised by a non-Quaker nurse in a village near Bristol until he was ten when he was sent to London as an apprentice to John Fry, a cheese dealer. At first James was ignorant of any family connection but eventually his master's brother told him, 'We are both thy kindred, being nearly related to thy father.' Later his master's father, another John Fry, called him nephew, a name that James received 'with surprise and pleasure'.
|High Flatts Meeting house|
discovered family by making every effort to please them. He began to attend Quaker meetings and his master sent him to school, first in London and then for three years boarding at High Flatts in Yorkshire, an isolated place which James described as ‘a desolate area of rough moorland about fourteen miles long and seven in width’. After this limited education James was bound apprentice in 1768 to Hannah Jesup, a widow in the grocery trade at Woodbridge in Suffolk. When after three years Hannah married an Irish Quaker, Robert Dudley, James went with them to Clonmel in Ireland.
In Clonmel James blossomed. He became an ironmonger, made friends with other young Quaker men including Robert Dudley's son from his first marriage, began to read more widely and started a common-place book. It was in Ireland too that James joined the Society of Friends and he always judged Quakers against the standard of what he found there. Although Irish Friends rigidly enforced ruled of dress and conduct, because they were a small and isolated community they also cared personally for one another. In Ireland young Quakers like James were welcomed, consulted and made to feel important whereas in England James was not allowed to be more than an observer of the Quaker scene.
James's financial position was not helped by the fact that he had taken on family responsibilities. He married the Irish Quaker Elizabeth, or Betsy, Lamb in 1780 without a dowry but with the promise of a substantial legacy from her father Benjamin which never materialised. on top of this Betsy suffered from ill-health for twenty years, her various complaints exacerbated by almost constant childbearing. She suffered thirteen miscarriages and bore ten children of whom seven died young, leaving three sons who survived into adulthood and died in 1806 at the age of 47.
James's prosperity improved in 1795 when he was employed by his uncle John Fry's stock brokerage
firm after Joel Cadbury, who had a prior claim as a son-in-law, withdrew because he could not cope with the chaos and uncertainty of the market. Although many Quakers disapproved of dealing in stocks, seeing it as a form of gambling, James discovered that he had a talent for it and became a prosperous broker. In 1819 he retired to Folkestone and left his flourishing business to his sons. Unfortunately they did not inherit his ability and within five years they went bankrupt and were disowned by Friends.
James Jenkins left little behind him financially but his great legacy is a manuscript, Records and Recollections which he left for safe-keeping to a fellow-Quaker who made sure that it was preserved and passed down from generation to generation until it was deposited in Friends House Library in 1918 and eventually published in a scholarly edition in 1984.
James had kept a diary for many years and used it to compose the story of his own life and to comment on the state of the Society of Friends as he saw it. His own history had brought home to him the hypocrisy that could be part of Quakerism in his time and he was concerned to be an objective observer and tell the truth. He therefore wrote 'alternative testimonies' on Quakers he knew when they died as an antidote to the bland hagiographies which were approved by the British Quaker establishment. He described their physical appearance, their idiosyncrasies of speech and behaviour, their good points and their failings. James retained a respect and love for Quakerism while still pointing out what he saw as abuses. His writings give us another view of 18th century Friends, showing them as fallible individuals rather than impossibly good role models, and James thereby does both us and them an invaluable service.