Twilight years 1789-1800
Sacred to the Memory of MR HENRY CORT of Devonshire Street, St. George The Martyr QUEEN SQUARE, LONDON, who departed this Life 23rd May 1800 in the 60th Year of his age. He passed away a broken hearted man.
Near this place lieth the Body of Miss MARIA CORT Daughter of the said HENRY CORT, departed this Life 6th June 1797, Aged 19 years.
Inscription on Cort's tomb in Hampstead
In view of the collapse of his business in 1789 and his description as "broken hearted" at the time of his death, it is tempting to assume that the intervening period was one of unrelieved gloom. Closer study reveals a more interesting picture.
After Adam Jellicoe's death, an "inquisition" into the resulting debt is held on 1st September 1789. This finds that the partnership of Cort & Jellicoe owes £9,000 to The Crown, and an extent for recovery is despatched to the Sheriff of Hampshire, authorising him to arrest Cort. The Sheriff replies that Cort is "not in my bailiwick".
In all probability Cort has gone to London for Adam's funeral on 6th September. He does not wish to return to Hampshire to face arrest, and on the 26th files for bankruptcy, which the partnership has already done on the 17th. Both applications are made via Adam's lawyers, Ambrose & James Weston (who, coincidentally, also act for James Watt in enforcing his patents). Meanwhile Cort notifies his main customers, the Navy, of his withdrawal from the partnership, leaving Adam's son Samuel free to raise money to cover this part of the debt. Cort is still deemed to owe £27,500 to The Crown.
Further inquisitions are held to determine which of Cort’s assets can be seized, and inventories are drawn up of his properties in Fontley and Catisfield. (According to an affidavit in the National Archives file covering the financial implications of Adam Jellicoe’s death, the goods seized from Cort “were sold by the Sheriff of Hants about Jan 1790”.)
Meanwhile, in October 1789 a bankruptcy order is issued, putting Cort's affairs in the hands of bankers John Hollingsworth and Thomas Hankey.
One can assume that Cort has been in London throughout this time, probably at the Devonshire Street address. How soon his family join him is a matter for conjecture. Elizabeth is pregnant at the time the business collapses, and must be there by the time their daughter, Catherine Frampton Cort, is born on 24 February 1790, since Catherine’s birthplace is identified as London in the 1861 census and her baptism has been recorded at St George The Martyr, Queens Square.
There is no evidence that Cort leaves London at any time between 1789 and 1800. Indeed he declines to go to Lancaster to act as executor when Jane Cort dies in 1798. One can understand that he has little financial means, while The Letterbook of Richard Crawshay suggests he is already ridden by gout and other ailments at the time his business collapses.
But there is no reason for complete inertia. London is a busy place, with the British Museum only three blocks away from Devonshire Street. His wife's cousin Joanna is living with her husband James Watson round the corner in Powys Place, while William Attwick in Portman Square can easily be reached. Cort’s former clerk John Kendrick is just off The Strand, and lawyer John Eames from Gosport (who signs the 1791 petition) can't be that far away. Rev. Moses Porter at Clapham is a much less likely acquaintance!
Cort's application for a certificate of conformity (in meeting debts other than those to the Crown) is advertised in the London Gazette in March 1790, and the certificate's issue on 14 April relieves the most severe financial pressures. The following month sees an attempt at reconciliation with the Navy, with Cort writing to Trotter on the seventeenth and Watson sending off his memorandum to Henry Dundas. There is no immediate response, however.
Mr. Cort on 17th May 1790 wrote to Mr Trotter offering his services to procure such necessary information to render the patents productive but not receiving any Answer Mr. Cort of course cd not proceed to procure such information and ye only step he cd take under his circumstances were to procure information from a Master Roller (Jn Swaine) whom Mr. C had planted at Coalbrook Dale in ye works of Mr. Reynolds for the purpose of setting a going ye Rolling of Bars… July 1791 H.C.
From Weale collection, quoted in Henry Cort; The Great Finer.
Around August 1791 comes the petition to William Pitt, which bears the signature of several directors of the East India Company. The petition apparently does not bear fruit until 1794, when Cort is granted a pension.
Queen Square, on the confines of Bloomsbury, appears to have been something of a Directors neighborhood. William Barwell, Stephen Law, Lawrence Sullivan and Timothy Tullie, all lived in the Square or the adjoining Great Ormond Street.
From J.M. Holtzman, The Nabobs in England (New York, 1926).
None of the directors that Holtzman names features among the petition’s signatories. Nevertheless it is not surprising that Henry’s eldest son leaves for India during this period. In 1802 Michael Cheese will testify to meeting him "about eight years ago in Dinapore", while other testimony suggests he may arrive as early as 1792.
Elizabeth Cort Becher is Henry's niece and his (and/or his wife's) goddaughter. Surely the Corts make the effort to attend her wedding at St George, Hanover Square, on 9th November 1792. Whether they manage her brother Alexander's wedding the following year (location unknown) is more doubtful.
In March 1794, Richard Norbury raises the complaint about implementation of his brother Coningsby's will, leading Cort to make an affidavit the following year. In departing for India in June 1795, James Watson is accompanied by Cort's son Coningsby: and probably by daughter Harriet as well, since she marries in Calcutta barely two years later.
Some time around the beginning of 1796, Hyde Mathis arrives in London, taking up residence in Tottenham Court Road - five or six blocks away from Cort. One can only conjecture how they meet. Maybe Mathis is informed of Cort's presence before he arrives. Maybe he contacts his former fellow-trustee at Gosport, William Attwick, who tells him. Maybe they meet accidentally at the British Museum. Whatever the occasion, Mathis is pleased to renew the friendship and to name Cort as a further executor in a codicil to his will in July. He dies just over a year later, but meanwhile Cort has been saddened by the death of daughter Maria.
The departure of William (and possibly other children) for Berbice may have occurred as early as 1796. William is well established there by 1803.
It appears from subsequent correspondence that Coningsby returns from India in 1798, doubtless bearing tidings of Harriet's marriage. But news of young Henry's confinement probably arrives later, doubtless contributing to the broken heart.
The Hampstead churchyard where Cort is buried contains the graves of many other notables. Clockmaker John Harrison, subject of the acclaimed book Longitude, has already been interred there. Doubtless one of Cort's admirers reckons he deserves an equally auspicious resting place; but one must note that he has been preceded by his daughter Maria three years earlier. Was any special influence wielded to achieve this?
We may note also that James Watson's widow Joanna lives her last years in Hampstead, and is buried in 1811 in the same churchyard as Henry Cort; also that her daughter Arabella's will speaks of a "family vault at Hampstead Old Church". We may wonder if there is a Watson influence in the choice of Cort's burial place. But it could hardly be Joanna: she is in India at the time of Maria's death.