Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Fortune of a Dying Miser

by David Godson

The true-life story described in Courtoy’s Complaint occurred in early 19th century London during the period June 1817 to July 1822. It concerns a man known as John Courtoy who was born Nicolas Jacquinet in the town of Jussey, France, in the year 1729. In 1751 Nicolas, then aged twenty-two, travelled to England to settle in London. At some point on his travels he adopted the name John Courtoy. Shortly after his arrival, this was the name he used when setting up in business as a perruquier or wig-maker. Twenty years or so later John formed a relationship with a woman named Mary Ann Woolley. Mary, who was twenty years his junior, reportedly bore John five children, of which three survived; William, George and Louisa. Each child was baptised with the Courtoy name. Although John’s relationship with Mary Woolley eventually came to an end, he retained a clear affinity with his former family for many years afterwards.

Nearly fifty years after first coming to England John Courtoy, now seventy-one years of age and with the reputation for being a notorious miser, could be counted among the richest men in England. It was at this point in his life that he came to employ a housekeeper by the name of Hannah Peters. Hannah left home in 1799 to escape a drunken and often abusive father. With help from her sister Ann, she first found employment as a scullion working for Charles ‘Prince’ Boothby, a renowned rake and chronic gambler. When in 1800 under the weight of overwhelming debt Boothby committed suicide, Hannah was forced to seek alternative employment. She worked first in a tavern, then as a housekeeper for John Courtoy. She was barely twenty years of age when she took up her post in John Courtoy’s home. Within the space of six years she gave birth to three daughters; Mary, Elizabeth and Susannah. Each was baptised with the Courtoy name.

Public records reveal some interesting facts about John Courtoy, including the considerable wealth he accumulated during his lifetime. My own research in the archives of the various banks and financial institutions where he held accounts show he amassed a fortune of over £250,000, equivalent to approximately £19,000,000 in today’s money. During the two centuries following his death in 1818, the ultimate destination of this fortune has attracted a great deal of interest, not least from the present day descendants of Mary Ann Woolley. This centres on the legitimacy of his Last Will and Testament made in 1814. In 1810, having given his name to the three daughters of Hannah Peters, John Courtoy made a Will leaving the bulk of his estate to his former partner Mary Ann Woolley and her children. In 1814 a second Will was made, effectively reversing his previous bequests, with Hannah and her children now emerging as the principal beneficiaries. This caused many to question why, in the space of only four years, John Courtoy had changed his mind so dramatically.

The reason for my interest in John Courtoy’s life initially developed after learning of the marriage of Susannah Courtoy, who was Hannah Peters’s youngest daughter, to a distant relative of my family named Septimus Holmes Godson. When I learnt that prior to eloping with Septimus, Susannah had inherited a considerable fortune from John Courtoy and was destined through the terms of the Will to eventually inherit virtually all of his bequeathed estate, my attention was focussed on establishing the true extent of his wealth.

Initially with the help of Ron Courtoy, a descendant of the relationship between John Courtoy and Mary Ann Woolley, over a period of four years I was able to photograph or transcribe all of his transactions held in the archives of the Bank of England, British Library (East India Company), Barclays Bank, Manchester (Goslings) and The Royal Bank of Scotland, London (Drummonds). These transactions covered the period from the mid-1750s, until his death in 1818. Analysing these accounts I realised there was an interesting story to tell about this remarkable man, primarily concerning the various methods he used to acquire his wealth.

Although I knew of reports, claims and counter-claims, concerning the validity of his Last Will and Testament of 1814, at the time none of these conjectures engaged my direct interest or attention. My focus changed dramatically in 2010 when quite by chance I met Annette Clavaret at The National Archives in Kew, London. She was in the possession of a set of journals written by her great-great-great-grandmother Maureen Sayers, including those compiled during a short period of employment in the Courtoy household. It was not until I read Maureen’s journals containing details of her employment with the Courtoy family that I realised the rumours were possibly more well-founded than I had ever imagined. It appeared there may have been a conspiracy to supersede the Will of 1810 with the Will made in 1814 when, according to the journals, John Courtoy was in all probability suffering from a form of dementia.

A number of details about John Courtoy’s life and the destiny of his immense fortune following his death can be established from original sources held in various archives, mostly in England. In addition to these records, many of which are openly available to public scrutiny, I am able to draw on the journals written by Maureen Sayers who briefly cared for John Courtoy from the latter part of July 1817 until the end of January 1818. As a result I believe a significantly new picture of his legacy emerges.

In 1818, the year of his death, the person writing John Courtoy’s obituary would have faced a challenge of epic proportions. His acquaintances among members of the nobility, goldsmiths, merchants and businessmen of London, would have known him to be a prodigious accumulator of wealth. Those within his circle of financial friends, frequently encountered at the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange or the offices of the East India Company, would have observed a shrewd trader and wily investor. Throughout his life anecdotal evidence suggests his more casual encounters in the taverns, coffee houses or frequently among the company of the cyprian ladies of Covent Garden would have known him to be of a wholly cantankerous disposition. Anyone meeting him for the first time would observe his threadbare coat, scruffy three-cocked hat and well-worn cane, and consider him to be the epitome of Captain Queernabs.

A great deal of credit for the story about to unfold must go to Judy Jerkins from Australia whose curiosity was first aroused in 1993 and who continues to question what occurred all those years ago. Although we have corresponded for a number of years, I first had the privilege of meeting Judy in the summer of 2013, when she visited Europe to continue her quest for the truth about John Courtoy’s legacy. Nursing two beers in the Wig and Quill Pub in Salisbury, it was easy to see how Judy’s enthusiasm for unearthing the mystery behind John Courtoy’s life and death had inspired so many people around the world, not least me. We discussed not only the possible role of Hannah Peters in the emergence of the 1814 Will, but of John Courtoy’s attorney William Giles, the person ultimately responsible for drawing it up. Even today, we are still debating what occurred all those years ago.

We both agree that while William Giles emerges from the journals as a self-obsessed individual, by comparison Hannah Peters initially appears quite innocuous. Only when the reason for Hannah’s close association with William Giles is eventually revealed do we learn of her true Machiavellian nature.

The journals also have much to say about Francis Grosso and his son Robert, particularly the latter. They reveal both were close friends of Hannah Peters and how, in the most unpredictable ways, they were inexorably embroiled in the controversy that emerged following John Courtoy’s death. The role of Rowland Edward Williams, one of the Will’s Executors, is also revealed. If Maureen’s account is to be believed, he had more to lose than most if the truth behind the making of the 1814 Will were to come to light. A number of other characters also emerge, each with their part to play in the story uncovered by Maureen.

I offer no excuses for devoting a substantial part of this book to Maureen Sayers. Without her journals, I do not believe the story she unwittingly revealed would have seen the light of day. Although Judy Jerkins is unquestionably the inspiration for the book, the central facets of the story are contained in the events recorded by Maureen who died in 1868 at the age of seventy-four. During the time she helped care for John Courtoy he was living in St. Martins Street, close to Leicester Square. Throughout this period and for some years afterwards, the Courtoy name featured in her journals. The relationship she formed with John Courtoy was as much a voyage of discovery for her, as was the journey she undertook from Ireland to England.

These edited extracts from Maureen’s journals tell of her experiences during the five years after she left County Mayo to live in London in 1817. The earliest entry is dated 8th May 1817, which provides useful background information to the circumstances existing prior to her departure. It reveals that she was born the illegitimate daughter of a schoolmistress by the name of Mary Sayers, who briefly lived in London from 1793 to 1794.

In these initial entries Maureen reflects on the passing of her mother from pneumonia in the winter of 1816. This year became known as, ‘the year without a summer’. The weather was abnormally harsh with prolonged rainfall and persistently low temperatures, not only in Ireland, but across virtually the whole of the northern hemisphere. The resultant crop failures led to significant food shortages in the following winter. Maureen not only experienced the wretched misery of these depressing times first-hand, she also needed to cope with the loss of her mother. Now a twenty-three year old young woman with no immediate family, other than a stepfather of barely five years acquaintance, Maureen was required to consider her future. Like many before her she came to the decision that the time was right to secure a better life by moving to England, specifically to its capital, London.

Unlike many of those crossing the Irish Sea in the early 19th century, she was a young woman of modest independent means, and for this reason believed she could make a success of her new life. When she arrived in the capital, she first worked as a milliner’s assistant in a shop near the Haymarket. She was then employed as a helper in the Courtoy household in St. Martins Street, before setting up her own business as a milliner.

Her discoveries when she assisted in the care of John Courtoy and her observations throughout the period after she left, particularly during the later proceedings in the Court of Chancery, offer new insights into what took place all those years ago. As her story unfolds, it is clear her fascination with John Courtoy and how he accumulated his fortune was one of her abiding interests. Under the conditions existing at the time, the fact John Courtoy’s wealth was so immense was almost guaranteed to occupy an inquisitive mind. When he died, the controversial circumstances surrounding his Last Will and Testament of 1814 only served to heighten her curiosity. Although in many ways a subsidiary issue to the main story, her discovery of two hundred and sixty Louis d’Or gold coins secreted in John Courtoy’s cellar has generated a mystery regarding the hoard’s present whereabouts.

I sincerely hope the reader will enjoy this account of John Courtoy’s last days and the controversy surrounding the validity of his Last Will and Testament of 1814. You may even wish to attempt a solution to Hannah’s cryptic passage, taken from the letter she passed to Maureen, concerning the present whereabouts of his hoard of Louis d’Or gold coins.


David Godson holds a Batchelor of Arts degree in philosophy from the Open University, together with a Master of Science degree in social administration, from the University of Southampton. David has worked both in the public and private sectors in England, occupying senior positions in each area of employment. He was Assistant Chief Value Analyst for British Leyland at Longbridge in Birmingham, and later became Chief Information and Research Officer in the National Probation Service, based in Hampshire. During the last years of his working life he headed GM Associates, a criminology conference provider, contracted to the Home Office in London.

Although he has published a number of articles in the field of criminology, Courtoy's Complaint is David’s first book. He is currently researching a second book about the history of a lock-house on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.

Since retiring, in addition to his historical research interests, David spends his time developing inventions and designs. His most recent patent application is for a modular bird-feeder. His other main interest is sponsorship of the ‘David Godson Disability Award’ for the Open University, which provides funding grants for undergraduates with disabilities.

He lives with his wife Carol on the outskirts of a quiet village in Hampshire, England, enjoying the benefits of retirement.

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