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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Major

John Courtoy, hairdresser, investor, miser, and enigma

Updated: Mar 22

Mr Courtoy, who died a few days ago, was a native of France, and, when young, served in the French army. He was by trade a hairdresser, which business he followed for many years in the vicinity of St James’s. He was one of the largest proprietors of Bank and East India Stock in the kingdom, and is said to have left property to the amount of nearly £300,000. During the whole period of his long life, his personal expenses were never known to exceed one guinea per week.[1]

John Courtoy was an assumed name. He was born Nicolas Jacquinet in Jussy, northern France in the late 1720s. Just over twenty years later he travelled to London and reinvented himself. It is said that Courtoy arrived in England with many gold Louis d’or coins, which he invested with the Bank of England. Thereafter, he commenced trading on Oxenden Street as a hairdresser and peruke (wig) maker. His trade took him into the best houses in London and he was soon very well known.


By 1760, Courtoy was operating an early form of an employment register for servants from his hairdressing premises. The would-be servants approached him and, on their behalf, Courtoy placed an advert in the newspapers, taking a commission fee for a successful placement. He was soon vital to the smooth running of the houses of aristocracy and gentry.


WANTS A PLACE out of livery, as valet or butler or English servant, 32 years of age, has been abroad and speaks French sufficient to travel, has been much used to riding Post, with an undeniable character. Please to enquire for I. H. at Mr Courtoy's, Peruke Maker in Oxenden Street, Haymarket.[2]

Wants a place to wait on a single gentleman or in a family as Valet de Chambre or butler, a young man turned of 27, can dress and shave perfectly well, is a foreigner, speaks and writes English very well, has a good character from his last place. No objection to going abroad. Any gentleman or lady this may suit will please direct a line to F.P. at Mr Courtoy's, hair dresser, in Oxenden street near Haymarket.[3]

Soon, Courtoy was amongst the richest people in the UK. Besides being a hairdresser, peruke maker, and owner of the Register Office for Servants, Courtoy also acquired a Burgundian vineyard. He became a money lender to the upper classes and aristocracy. Despite his financial success, Courtoy was widely regarded as a miser.


Image taken from the 'Curious Biographical Sketch of the Life and Habits of John Courtoy, Esq.', 1808


He lived with a woman named Mary Ann Woolley, and they had five children together (three of whom survived infancy) before separating. In his 70s, Courtoy had a further three children, all daughters, with his housekeeper, Hannah Peters.


During the 1790s, at least, John Courtoy became closely connected with another Frenchman, a man young enough to be his son: John Davinière.


Davinière’s chief claim to fame is that, in December 1793, he married Dido Elizabeth Belle. Dido was the natural daughter of a former African enslaved woman and Sir John Lindsay. She was brought up by her great-uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield at Kenwood House and his other homes. The pair are immortalized in the film, Belle (2013), but Davinière was not quite as portrayed. He was either a valet or steward before his wedding, possibly connected somehow with the Earl of Mansfield. It’s possibly a safe bet that wherever he held his position, it was acquired by the agency of John Courtoy who would have known both the 1st and 2nd Earls of Mansfield. (The latter was, in part, responsible for the organization of the marriage.) There seems to have been more than a business relationship between Courtoy and Davinière, however, and they both lived in the St Martin’s area of London.


Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray © Scone Palace


When Davinière and Dido married, John Courtoy was one of the witnesses, signing his name on the marriage register. On 17 April 1793, while still single, Dido invested £457 13s 4d in 5% Navy Annuities (after deductions for commissions and taxes, etc., from an original investment of £500.00). These were sold just short of eight months later, the day before Dido’s wedding, when she withdrew her investment in guineas. (Interestingly, on this Bank of England ledger, Dido’s address is given as Ranelagh Street (now Ebury Street), Pimlico. It is a newly built house that she would share with her husband but, before her marriage, it was in her sole possession.)


Dido's marriage entry from the register of St George, Hanover Square, showing Courtoy's signature. Davinière, who had lived in St-Martin-in-the-Fields up to 6 November 1793, had clearly moved to an address in the same parish as Dido was resident in.


Dido researcher, Etienne Daly, whilst searching within the bank’s archives was able to confirm Courtoy’s signature. It appears in the ledgers of Courtoy’s bank account (Drummond’s) and matches that on the Davinière’s wedding entry.


A View of the Bank of England, 1816 by Daniel Havell (Yale Centre for British Art)


Just over a year later, John Courtoy was caught in a sting operated by a courtesan named Maria Theresa Phipoe and her maid. Having gone to Phipoe’s house, Courtoy was tied up, threatened, and made to sign a promissory note for £2,000. Afterwards, he escaped and alerted the authorities. Phipoe was found guilty of violent theft but escaped death due to a mistake in the indictment. (Two years later, she was convicted of murder, and hung.)


Courtoy lived until December 1818. For many years, he his home was 14 Oxenden Street but he died in nearby St Martin’s Street. He is buried at St Martin-in-the-Fields churchyard. Somewhat predictably, Courtoy left his affairs in a state of chaos. His original will in 1810 gave his fortune to Mary Ann Woolley, ignoring Hannah Peters and her children. This decision was reversed four years later in a second will, leading to legal wrangles. (For the last few months of his life, Courtoy was cared for by an Irishwoman, Maureen Sayers, who left behind a diary detailing her experiences in the Courtoy household.)


Hannah Peters held on to Courtoy’s fortune. She spent some of it on an Egyptian-style mausoleum in Brompton Cemetery. As a bizarre footnote, her tomb is rumoured to be or to contain a working time machine.


Bibliography:

‘The Fortune of a Dying Miser’ by David Godson (author of Courtoy's Complaint: Edited from the Regency Journals of Maureen Sayers, Anthill Press, 2014), ‘English Historical Fiction Authors’ blog.

‘ Curious Biographical Sketch of the Life and Habits of John Courtoy, Esq.’ from The New, Original and Complete, Wonderful Museum and Magazine Extraordinary: Being a Complete Repository of All the Wonders, Curiosities, and Rarities of Nature and Art from the Beginning of the World to the Current Year, vol. VI, 1808.

‘The bloody career of Maria Theresa Phipoe’ by Naomi Clifford (author of Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches, Pen & Sword History, 2017).

With thanks to Etienne Daly, researcher and expert on the history of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

 

Newspaper references:

[1] Lancaster Gazette, 2 January 1819.

[2] Public Advertiser, 14 September 1765.

[3] Public Advertiser, 10 April 1770.

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