Coutts Bank, a London Institution

Victoria, here, dreaming about my weeks in England last spring.  Here are my photos of Coutts Bank, The Strand, London, taken in June 2011. The bank’s website is here.

It looks like an important place, though the architecture is about as 1970’s Mundane as one could imagine. The only reason I actually noticed it was that I was often across the street, sitting in McDonald’s where I could use their free wi-fi to power my iPad.* I was particularly amused that this great London institution, the bank that holds accounts for Her Majesty the Queen, had a glass curtain wall that clearly reflected that notable American institution on the other side!

[*Why is is that really inexpensive hotels have free wi-fi service while the better establishments charge outrageous amounts for the same thing?  ]

As I walked closer to get this picture of the reflection of McDonald’s, I think that guard inside picked up the phone to call for assistance to deal with the clearly deranged photographer on the pavement! I didn’t wait around to see what happened!  I’ll bet the bank’s directors did not consider what might happen to the glass during major demonstrations moving towards the adjacent Trafalgar Square.  You can clearly see the McDonald’s sign reflected above and to the right of his head.

So, fully knowing I was edging into Wellington Connection territory, I decided to see what more I could learn  about Coutts Bank. Angela Coutts (1814-1906) was a dear friend of the 1st Duke of Wellington, one of those younger women so attracted to the Great Hero (*like many of us???). But there must be much more.  The bank’s website has a nice timeline and lots of information, but other than the widely known fact that QEII banks there, the list of clients is a well-protected secret. 

It is said that checks written by (for?) the Queen are often saved as souvenirs, making it difficult to balance her accounts. 
Here is an account of a famous period in the existence of the bank, excerpted from Tales of the Bank of England, with anecdotes of London bankers, an anonymous book from 1882:
“The house of Coutts & Co. has a very interesting history. A very great banking heiress is the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, whose recent marriage with Mr. Ashmead Coutts-Bartlett excited so much attention. The kindly and popular Baroness is—or was until recently—the head of the great banking firm of Coutts & Co., and was popularly supposed to draw a hundred thousand a year from the business. Mr. Coutts married, for his second wife, Miss Mellon, the actress, to whom he left his entire fortune—about a million of money. Mrs. Coutts, left a widow, married the Duke of St. Albans; but, in her marriage settlement, this vast fortune was left entirely in her own power. She thought that she would best carry out the wishes of her husband, who had made the money, by bequeathing it to his favourite granddaughter, Miss Angela Burdett, the daughter of the famous Sir Francis. An infinite amount of this money “has wandered Heaven-directed, to the poor.” Child’s Bank was once represented by a lady, who became Countess of Westmoreland, and afterwards by her daughter, who became Countess of Jersey. On certain state occasions Lady Jersey dined with the bank officials, and took the head of the table.
The history of Coutt’s Bank shows how much may be done by a discriminating liberality. Old Coutts heard, one day at a dinner-party, from the manager of a city bank, that a nobleman had applied to his house for the loan of thirty thousand pounds, and had been refused. At ten o’clock at night he started for the peer’s house, and saw his steward. He explained his business, and said that if the nobleman would call upon him the next morning, he might have whatever he wanted. On the next morning, when the noble lord called at the bank, Mr. Coutts handed him thirty notes of a thousand pounds each. “What security do you want?” asked the peer. “I shall be satisfied with your note-of hand,” was the reply. This was given; and the nobleman said, ” I shall only want for the present ten thousand pounds of the money; so I will leave twenty thousand pounds with you, and open an account.” Some time afterwards the nobleman sold an estate for two hundred thousand pounds, which he deposited with Coutts’s. Nor was this all. He told the anecdote to his friends, and also to George III. The King was so impressed with the story that he himself deposited a large sum with Mr. Coutts. The King withdrew his patronage, however, when Coutts supported Sir Francis Burdett in his contest for Middlesex with immense sums, and transferred his account to another banker, who failed; and we cannot help thinking that in this instance his Majesty was served quite right.”

Angela Burdett-Coutts, portrait by an unknown artist, from the National Portra
it Gallery

Another old excerpt about the bank appears in Walter Thornbury’s 1865 volume Haunted London (this obviously refers to the old headquarters of the bank on The Strand, not the present building pictured above):

“No. 59 is Coutts’s Bank. It was built by the Adam brothers—to whom we are indebted for the Adelphi—for Mr. Coutts, in 1768. The old house of the firm, of the date of Queen Anne, was situated in St. Martin’s-lane. No. 59 contains some fine marble chimney-pieces of the Cipriani and Bacon school. The dining-room is hung with quaint Chinese subjects on paper, sent to Coutts by Lord Macartney, while on his embassy to China, in 1792-95. In another room hang portraits of some early friends of this son of Mammon, including Dr. Armstrong, the poet and physician, Fuseli’s friend, by Reynolds. Mr. Coutts was the son of a Dundee merchant. His first wife was a servant, a Lancashire labourer’s offspring. He had three daughters, one of whom became the wife of Sir Francis Burdett, a second Countess of Guilford, and a third Marchioness of Bute. On becoming acquainted with Miss Mellon, and inducing her to leave the stage to avoid perpetual insults, Mr. Coutts bought for her a small villa of Sir W. Vane Tempest, called Holly Lodge, at the foot of Highgate Hill, for which he gave 25,000/. His banking-house strong rooms alone cost 10,000/. building. The first deposit in the enlarged house was the diamond aigrette that the Grand Signor had placed in Sir Horatio Nelson’s hat. Mr. Coutts, though very charitable, was precise and exact. On one occasion, there being a deficit of 2s. li)d. in the day’s accounts, the clerks were detained for hours, or, as I believe, all night. One of Coutts’s clerks, who took the western walk, was discovered to be missing with 17,000/.* Rewards were offered, and the town placarded, but all in vain. The next day, however, the note-case arrived from Southampton. The clerk’s story was, that on his way through Piccadilly, being seized with a stupor, he had got into a coach in order to secure the money. He had remained insensible the whole journey, and had awoke at Southampton. Mr. Coutts gave him a handsome sum from his private purse, but dismissed him.
Coutts’s Bank stands on nearly the centre of the site of the New Exchange. When the Adelphi was built in Durham Gardens, Mr. Coutts purchased a vista to prevent his view being interrupted, stipulating that the new street leading to the entrance should face this opening; and on this space, up to the level of the Strand, he built his strong rooms. Some years after, wishing to enlarge them, he erected over the office a counting-house and set of offices, extending from William-street to Robert-street, and threw a stone bridge over William-street to connect the front and back premises.
      Mr. Coutts, a few years before his death, married Harriet Mellon, who, after his death, became the wife of the Duke of St. Albans, a descendant of Nell Gwynn, that light-hearted wanton, whom nobody could hate. “Miss Mellon,” says Leigh Hunt, “was arch and agreeable on the stage; she had no genius; but then she had fine eyes and a goodhumoured mouth.” The same gay writer describes her when young as bustling about at sea-ports, selling tickets for her benefit-night; but then, says the kindly apologist for everybody, she had been left with a mother to support.”
I wish that old building was still the headquarters. And I suspect that you will hear more about Angela Burdett-Coutts in this space in the future.
In 1969 Coutt’s Bank, with origins in the late 17th century, was bought by National Westminster Bank (NatWest), and in 2000, NatWest was purchased by the Royal Bank of Scotland.  Coutt’s is now the wealth division of the conglomerate, engaged in private banking, with branches and offices worldwide. To become their client, I assume you would have to rob your piggy bank. And a few others as well.
The Strand, c. 1824

London Calling…

The New York Times book Review of Sunday, November 13, 2011, carried a review of a new book I need to add to my library: London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets by Peter Ackroyd.
To read the review, click here.

The book begins with a warning to tread carefully in the streets of London, for one is walking over the remains of tens of thousands over many centuries. It is no surprise to think of cities buried beneath us; that is true of many cities. But for London junkies like Kristine and Victoria, all other locations pale in comparison.
Author Peter Ackroyd (above, from The Guardian in 2008) has written dozens of books, many about London and its residents.  One of my favorites is London: The Biography, published in 2000. Beginning with pre-history, Ackroyd brings London’s story up to the Greater London of almost today, a metropolis that sprawls over a vast region. London Under tells about what is below, from the earliest races of human habitation along the river Thames to the constant expansion of the Underground, or as it is more affectionately known, the Tube. The chapter headings begin with “Darkness Visible” and run to “Deep Fantasies.”
Ackroyd’s biographies include such subjects as Chaucer, Shakespeare, William Blake, J.M.W. Turner, Charles Lamb, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.  Don’t you wonder what he does in his spare time? 

I seem to have missed Ackroyd’s 2007 book Thames: Sacred River, a situation I will have to remedy soon.  He has also written fiction, some sounding like fictional biography, a genre that has become increasingly popular lately.

Above, the story of Charles Lamb, written as a novel, published in 2004.  From what little I recall about Charles and his sister Mary, the truth is actually stranger than fiction.  But the story of the pair no doubt makes for a dramatic account of interesting aspects of the regency era.

I guess I have set us up for a lot of reading in the near future.  But as long as the topic is London, it is a labor of love.  Thanks, Mr. Ackroyd!

Above, my photos:  Seven Dials, 2010; The London Eye from Parliament, also 2010.

London and Waterloo Tour – St. James's Street

One of the first stops on our London and Waterloo tour will be a stroll through the St. James’s area of London. Here’s a bit of history:

St James’s was once part of the same royal park as Green Park and St. James’s Park. In the 1660s, Charles II gave the right to develop the area to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans, who proceeded to develop it as a predominantly aristocratic residential area with a grid of streets centred on St James’s Square.

St James’s takes as its borders Piccadilly, Haymarket, the Mall and Green Park. This part of London became the centre of fashion in the 1530s when Henry VIII built St James’s Palace on the site of St James’s Hospital, a former leper hospital. The palace was one of the principal royal residences for more than 300 years and continues to be the Court’s official headquarters. Foreign ambassadors to the UK are still known officially as ‘Ambassador(s) to the the Court of St James’.

Until the Second World War, St James’s remained one of the most exclusive residential enclaves in London. Famous residences in St James’s include St James’s Palace, Clarence House, Marlborough House, Lancaster House, Spencer House, Schomberg House and Bridgewater House. It is now a predominantly commercial area with some of the highest rents in London and, consequently, the world. Corporate offices in St James’s include the global headquarters of BP and Rio Tinto Group. The auction house Christie’s is based in King Street, and the surrounding streets contain a great many upmarket art and antique dealers.

St James’s is also the home of many of the best known gentlemen’s clubs in London, and is sometimes, though not as often as formerly, referred to as “Clubland”. The “clubs” found here are organisations of English high society and include White’s, Boodle’s and Brooks’s Clubs. A variety of groups congregate here, such as: royals, military officers, motoring enthusiasts, and other groups. In 1990, the Carlton Club, traditional meeting place for members of the Conservative Party, was struck by an IRA bomb. In a similar vein, the area is also home to fine wine merchants Justerini and Brooks and Berry Brothers and Rudd, at numbers 61 and 3 St James’s Street respectively. Adjoining St James’s Street is Jermyn Street, famous for its many tailors. St James’s is also famous for being home to some of the most famous cigar retailers in London. At 35 St James’s Street is Davidoff of London, 19 St James’s Street is home to J.J. Fox and 50 Jermyn St has Dunhill; this makes the area a Cuban cigar haven.

Also once located in St. James’s was Almack’s Assembly Rooms in King Street, about which we’ll be blogging tomorrow. Visit the LondonTown page for St. James’s Street for an in-depth look at everything in the area today.

The statue of Brummell by Irena Sedlecka was erected on London’s Jermyn Street in 2002.

My London by Kristine Hughes

I’ve been to London many times and whenever those who don’t know me very well ask why I keep returning to the same city, I’m hard pressed to explain to them what London means to me. My London is not the city that exists now. Madame Tussaud’s and the London Eye are all well and good, but my London is the old city, the Square Mile that was bordered to the north by the Oxford Road, to the South by Vauxhall Gardens, to the east by Mile End Road and to the west by Hyde Park. To my mind, Richmond, Hampstead, Brixton and Golder’s Green are not in London. Though I may visit these places, they lay outside the parameters of the London I see in my mind, the London I see when I walk the streets today. You can still see Georgian, Regency and Victorian London on practically every street. Kensington Palace, St. James’s Palace and Apsley House still exist. Hatchard’s bookshop and Fortnum and Mason, the Burlington Arcade and the Tower are still to be found. True, there are no longer Hansom cabs or sedan chairs for hire, no hawkers crying their wares in the streets and, certainly, no dandies strolling in St. James’s Street, but every now and then you come across a London view so perfect, so historically right, that it makes the trip worthwhile.

One of the stops I always make while in London is Apsley House, London home of the Dukes of Wellington, where today you’ll find all of the many paintings and gifts bestowed upon the first Duke by grateful nations on display. While the current Duke of Wellington does live there, the portions of Apsley House now open to the public have a museum feel, there’s nothing of Wellington the man left to see except for a small room in the basement that houses some of his army gear. But again, portions of the upstairs rooms do offer views onto 19th century life. Enough to make me return time and again.

Perhaps what I love best about London are the modern day memories my visits have provided and the people I’ve met along the way. There was the time I was strolling down the Mall with a tour group and our way was suddenly blocked by a burgundy Rolls Royce coming out of a drive and stopping right in front of us. It was an older Rolls and the windows were as large as those found in some houses. Looking through the back passenger window, my gaze met and held that of Prince Charles. He was dressed in full regimental regalia no less. He smiled at me and raised his gloved hand to the visor of his hat in a jaunty salute before the car pulled away. Then there was the day that I was taken to the Victoria and Albert Museum and for a cruise up the river by David Parker, then curator of the Dickens House Museum. At one point during our ramblings, David took hold of my elbow, stopped me and pointed to a second story window. Looking up, I saw Inigo Jones’s ceiling of the Banqueting House through the upper storey windows. Amazing. Another memory I’ll always cherish is the time Anthony Lejeune, author of The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London, invited me to dinner at Brooks’s Club. Walking up the stairs to the second floor dining room, I came face to face with Sir Thomas Lawrence’s full length portrait of George IV. Having port after dinner in library, I gazed at the portraits of the Dilettanti Society that range the walls and marveled at the fact that there were bed billows, in white pillow cases, placed on the arms of the leather couches, ready for any member who felt the overwhelming need of a nap.

On our upcoming trip to London this June, as soon as I land on the Saturday, I’ll meet up with Victoria Hinshaw and the first thing we plan to do is to walk the St. James’s area. We’ll visit the lesser streets, give a nod to the Almack’s building, stroll by the statue of Beau Brummell and, no doubt, raise a pint at the miniscule Red Lion pub in King Street, a perfectly preserved time capsule of a Victorian pub.  No doubt I’ll be returning home with many more memories to treasure . . . . .  . More musings on adventures ahead soon, as well as detailed blogs on the sites Victoria and I have on our itinerary.  

Boodle's Club

During the Regency and Victorian eras, Boodle’s Club, in St. James’s Street, was noted for the number of baronets who were members. It’s been recorded that when a waiter called out “Sir John, you are wanted,” a whole host of gentlemen would at once respond. This is rather a quaint anecdote, but it must be remembered that the club was established chiefly for “county people,” who had a proper respect for their own importance. Until the late 19th century, before Boodle’s came under the management of a committee, there was a kind of secret tribunal, the members of which were fictitiously supposed to be unknown. “This conclave conducted its proceedings with great secrecy, and its very existence was only inferred from the fact that at intervals, varying from six months to fifteen years, some printed notices appeared in the club rooms.” But these notices only referred to dogs or strangers, who were looked upon by the ancient members as very objectionable intruders.
Another rule was that members dining in the coffee room must wear evening dress. However, there was another apartment for those who found it necessary to keep to their morning clothes. Boodle’s was very strict and chaste on etiquette laws. Boodle’s Club was originally known as the “Savoir Vivre,” and took its particular name from the founder, and was established, like many of the other famous clubs of the day, in St. James’s Street.Gaiety and the joy of good living marked its early career very conspicuously, as may be gathered from “the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers,” I773:
For what is Nature ? Ring her changes round,
Her three flat notes are water, plants, and ground ;
Prolong the peal, yet, spite of all your clatter,
The tedious chime is still ground, plants and water ;
So, when some John his dull invention racks,
To rival Boodle’s dinners or Almack’s,
Three uncouth legs of mutton shock our eyes,
Three roasted geese, three buttered apple pies.
White’s, Brookes’s, and Boodle’s for many years fought for supremacy, with masquerades, dinners, and “ridottos.” Boodle’s outside appearance is still very unpretentious, and perhaps sombre, from an architectural point of view, but the interior has a number of interesting features, especially in regard to some of the pictures by Gillray and others.
Among the exceedingly eccentric members of the club, two at least are deserving of passing comment. Michael Angelo Taylor, at one time M.P., and John, the tenth Earl of Westmorland. Taylor was “Paul Pry ” personified, and was an everlasting gossip. The Earl was very thin. Coming in one day, says Edward Walford in “Old and New London,” Taylor found Lord Westmorland, who had just dined off a roast fowl and a leg of mutton. “Well, my lord,” said Taylor, “I can’t make out where you have stowed away your dinner, for I can see no trace of your ever having dined in your bare body.” “Upon my word, I have finished both, and could now go in for another helping,” replied Westmorland. Walford adds that his lordship was notorious for his prodigious appetite, and on several occasions was known to have eaten the better part of a good joint and a couple of fowls.
The Club house, at No. 28 St. James’s Street, was designed by the Adams brothers and erected by John Crunden about 1765. The saloon on the first floor at Boodle’s is still noted for the stateliness of its appearance, opening from which on each side are two small apartments. One of these, according to tradition, was, in the Regency days of high play, managed by a cashier who issued counters and occupied himself with the details connected with the game; while the other room was reserved for special gambling members who wished to play in quietude.
It was not an easy matter to be elected a member of Boodle’s, and when Mr. Gayner became the manager, he would sit in state in a small chamber adjacent to the principal saloon, or front room, which, of course, was sacred to the members. Says Ralph Nevill, “When a candidate was proposed they (the members) walked across and deposited their black or white balls, after which they retired again to the front room. After a short time Mr. Gayner would shout ‘elected’ or ‘not elected,’ as the case might be, the ceremonial being gone through separately for every candidate.” But Mr. Gayner, it is said, took no account of the balls, but scrutinized all who were proposed from his peep-hole, and if they did not meet with his approval the black ball predominated.

Mr. Gayner, notwithstanding, was a very liberal and kind man, and prevented many a young fellow from getting into the hands of the money lenders and usurers who were in constant wait for the young unfledged geese who were ready to be plucked, by advancing them the wherewithal to assist them out of impending difficulties. There are several anecdotes in regard to his generosity and kindness in such cases. He always kept a large amount of cash in his safe, and at his death is said to have been owed no less than £10,000, which, however, by a clause in his will, was not to be demanded from the borrowers. After his death, Mr. Gaynor’s sister succeeded him in the proprietorship of Boodle’s. She died in 1896, when the club was purchased by its members.