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Money, Mayhem, and Murder

Banks have been on my mind of late – largely because there isn’t one in my little town. There was – a busy little premises; plenty of customers: from the shops with their daily takings; from the outlying farms; from the famous school with its hundreds of pupils, teachers, and administrative staff. They all needed a bank and so did I.

Not enough footfall, apparently. Footless queues they must have been – the ghostly inhabitants of the town. The very word ‘footfall’ has a ghostly air about it. Almost silent feet in the night, leaving their faint prints in the empty, dusty chambers. Nightfall, rainfall, snowfall, windfall, footfall – there’s poetry in those.

Coutts Bank in London - Stephen McKay - CCBYSA2.0
Coutts Bank in London - Stephen McKay - CCBYSA2.0

However, since my bankers have no imagination, they did not think of those customers to whom the promise of easy on-line banking had no appeal, and whose footfall could be clearly heard marching its way over the threshold and up to the counter where cheques could be cashed and deposited, advice asked for and given, and real money taken out for Christmas shopping and for folding into holly decorated envelopes for deserving children.

Disappearing banks took me back to my novel The Chinese Puzzle in which the retired banker, Cornelius Mornay, disappears. The investigation is fraught with peril for Superintendent Jones – a lot of powerful people have an interest in the case, one of whom is Sir Francis Baring, in real history, First Lord of the Admiralty in Lord John Russell’s cabinet, and connected to Baring’s Bank.

The Chinese Puzzle by J.C. Briggs
The Chinese Puzzle by J.C. Briggs

Downfall – not so poetic. Freefall, more like. Barings went bust in 1995 – practically overnight. Nick Leeson, a Singapore-based trader, overwhelmed the firm with his unauthorised bad trades. Barings had lasted for two hundred and thirty-three years. Cardinal Richelieu called Barings ‘one of the six great powers of Europe’, the other five being England, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia.

However, Dickens banked at Coutts, founded in 1692, at the sign of The Three Crowns in Edinburgh, by John Campbell whose granddaughter married James Coutts. Their descendants Thomas and John Coutts established their bank at 59, The Strand, London. It’s still there, though the number is 440 – in case you wish to open an account.

Thomas Coutts, banker - Wellcome - CC BY 4.0
Thomas Coutts, banker - Wellcome - CC BY 4.0

Queen Victoria banked with Coutts, as does our king. Until relatively recently, Coutts bankers wore frock coats and were required to be clean-shaven – all men, of course then. Bank correspondence was delivered to and from Buckingham Palace by horse-drawn carriage from the Royal Mews.

Plenty of footfall at Coutts: Dickens’s friend, the poet Tennyson banked with them as did Bram Stoker, Chopin, and Berlioz – all upright citizens, but there was another rather infamous customer, John Townshend Saward, known as Barrister Saward who had chambers in Inner Temple, a lucrative law practice, and an even more lucrative criminal life. He was implicated in the Great Bullion Robbery in 1855. The police caught up with him eventually. He admitted that he had made ‘several thousand pounds a year by various sorts of crime. These sums I paid into Coutts Bank.’

Of course, we cannot know the customers of today, but if a Coutts client sent you a cheque – His Majesty, say - the cheque would feature his monogram and a heraldic crown, of course. Coutts is now part of the Nat West group – downfall?

Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts, granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, was the greatest heiress in Great Britain. It was she with whom Dickens established the home for fallen women in Shepherd’s Bush. In 1855, on Dickens’s advice, she ordered a drying machine to be sent out to help the soldiers in the Crimea. According to the Illustrated London News, ‘one thousand articles of linen can be dried in twenty-five minutes.’

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts - NPG - Public Domain
Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts - NPG - Public Domain

Dickens assisted her in many charitable enterprises such as the Ragged School Movement and slum clearance in Bethnal Green and Bermondsey, and he dealt with the thousands of begging letters she received – as well as the hundreds he received himself.

Dickens may have had a few skeletons in his ancestral cupboard – father imprisoned for debt and maternal grandfather, Thomas Barrow, a fraudster, but even Miss Coutts’s pedigree was not without tarnish. Her grandfather married his brother’s Lancashire kitchen maid (good for him, I say), but no one actually minded. Thomas Coutts was banker to George III. When his Lancastrian wife died, he secretly married an actress, Harriot Mellon. Angela’s father, Francis Burdett, son of Sir Robert Burnett, was condemned to the Tower for breach of Parliamentary privilege and refused to comply. He was arrested, and then imprisoned again in 1820 for his scathing attack on the Peterloo massacre. He was on the side of the crowd. He was very much a radical, and, like Dickens, full of passionate anger at injustice and oppression. No wonder his daughter admired Dickens.

Portrait of Charles Dickens by Friedrich Bruckmann - Public Domain
Portrait of Charles Dickens by Friedrich Bruckmann - Public Domain

Windfall: Thomas Coutts left his banking fortune to Harriot Mellon and she left it to Angela – her fortune was reckoned at between thirty and forty million pounds. She remained unmarried until the age of sixty-eight when she married William Ashmead Bartlett who was thirty-four. Queen Victoria was not amused, and a good deal of gossip attended what was referred to as ‘the mad marriage’. She died in 1906 at the great age of ninety-two.

Dickens banked with Coutts until the end of his life. On the morning of Wednesday, June 8th, 1870, he cashed a cheque for £22 at the Falstaff Inn opposite his house, Gad’s Hill, in Kent. Just after six o’clock in the evening, he went into his dining room and after speaking incoherently, collapsed with a stroke. He died twelve hours later. He was only fifty-eight.

Mr Trood, landlord of the Falstaff, said he had been offered £24.00 for the cheque because of the signature. Mr Trood refused. Noble fellow.

Now, suppose that I, a poor, downtrodden kitchen maid in 1870, was left a small legacy by my aged aunt formerly in service at a grand house. Where might I deposit this trifling sum? There were hundreds of banks in Victorian London. Coutts a bit grand, perhaps. Ditto Barings and Rosthchild’s. Certainly not Barclay, Bevan, and Co. I’ve taken against Barclays for reasons above. I have a fancy for The London and Westminster – a branch on the Strand near my employers’ noble residence upon the gleaming steps of which I frequently kneel. (No Nat West in my present-day country town, of course.) And I can’t resist the name of one of its distinguished directors: Loran de Wolfe Cochran.

Nightfall: take off the Cochran, though, and there you have him: Loran de Wolfe – a black-hearted villain if ever there was one, and, no doubt, after my money. Once the master of my aged aunt, of course. It’ll be a dark and stormy night when I’ve to collect the money from Wolfe Court, the ancient seat of etcetera … He’ll be a womaniser, a gambler, and in debt, but I’m no fool. I’m keeping my twenty pounds under the mattress, and my virtue to myself. And I’m off to the bank tomorrow – if I can find one.

The Lair of the Wolfe – coming soon! Perhaps not. No time – Mr Dickens is busy with a new case. He’s at Madame Tussaud’s and just about to meet a man in black who has been staring very fixedly at a group of waxen murderers. Meet Mr Burke and Mr Hare; Mr Daniel Good – who wasn’t. This is not the occasion to describe his murderous act, nor that of Mr James Greenacre. Suffice it to say that their girlfriends met rather unpleasant ends. Courvoisier, the valet who murdered his master, Sir William Russell, is smirking back at Dickens and Mrs Manning in her black satin looks as though she’d like to shoot him. She’d shot Patrick O’Connor for his money and here’s Mr Rush who shot a man to whom he owed a great deal of money. Easier than paying it back, but he got his deserts on the scaffold. Madame Tussaud paid 70 guineas to the executioner for his suit. Bargain. Madame made fifteen hundred pounds in takings for the Rush Exhibition.

I’ll bet she banked at Coutts. Think of all those sixpences for the Chamber of Horrors. Ah, the sixpence in the Christmas pudding. That was worth breaking a tooth on. Those children will want more than sixpence in their festive envelopes. It’ll have to be a cheque, I suppose – no bank, remember.

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