A Most Desirable Eighteenth Century Investment Opportunity

In the early 1770s the British government was (as ever) short of cash and facing problems at home and abroad. Their troubles only intensified in 1775, when war finally broke out in America.

Berkshire family history

                  Georgian Coin Scale                  

Against this backdrop, they decided to resurrect a previously less than successful money-making scheme called a tontine, loosely based on an issue of life annuities. Via the Irish Parliament, they established three state-run Irish Tontines: in 1773, 1775 and 1777, all heavily promoted by the national press in both England and Ireland.1

The Irish Tontines worked as follows: subscribers (proprietors) bought shares and in return, received an annual payment (or annuity). The shares were tied to a nominated ‘life’ (or nominee) so when a subscriber’s nominee died, so too did their annuity! However, the dividend paid to the remaining subscribers then rose (as a result of one less subscriber) so the longer your nominee lived, the more you made from your investment.

As you can imagine, the life expectancy of a nominee was of great significance. Gothic novelists please take note!

In 1777, a group of Genevan investors tried to approach the problem scientifically. They employed a doctor to identify local families with the longest life expectancies, from whom they chose 50 of the youngest girls as their nominated ‘lives’. Forty years later, 64% of the women were still alive, compared to 42% of the same age group of nominees, from the Tontine as a whole. Not such an audacious plan after all.2

If your ancestors were involved in the Tontines in any way then the records held in the National Debt Office collection at the National Archives in Kew will be a rich seam of information. Aware as they were of the potential for false claims and forgery, the record keepers were very keen on ‘proof of existence’, age and death. As a result there are registers of subscribers, nominees, descriptions of powers of attorney, payment books, certificates of death and marriage, declarations of identity, letter books and memoranda.3

Apart from Ireland, subscribers and their nominees came from all over the British Isles and as we have already seen, even Europe. A study published in the 1960’s showed that of 3561 nominees only 720 were Irish.4 Berkshire families were no exception! The 1777 Tontine included nominees from Binfield, Reading, Windsor, Little Wittenham, Wokingham and Abingdon, all from the ‘middling classes’ or local gentry. Entries in the ‘Lists of Nominees’ include age, parish of abode and names of both parents. Some also have month and year of death added by hand, in the margins.5

By way of example, Mary Ann Carter was a nominee in the third class of the 1777 Tontine. Her record shows that she was aged 12, the first daughter of the Reverend Henry and Ann Wilhemina Carter of Little Wittenham. A later notation states she died in 1791. Her sister, Elizabeth, another nominee, was aged 9 in 1777. Her death in 1801 has also been noted. I haven’t checked the register of subscribers but it was probably their father Henry who bought the shares, at 100L each!6

According to the Little Wittenham parish registers, Mary Ann did indeed die in 1791 (she was buried in the chancel), she would have been only 26.7 Elizabeth married William Palmer of Balliol College Oxford in Little Wittenham in 1794.8 I haven’t looked for her burial but if she died in 1801 she would have been 31 years old. Henry and Wilhelmina Carter had at least another 7 children yet they chose Mary Ann and Elizabeth, I wonder if the other children fared any better?9

[1] The London Gazette http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/
[2] ‘A Short History of Tontines’ by Kent McKeever
Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law (2009) Vol 15 Issue 2: Article V, p.494 http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1108&context=jcfl
[3] ‘The Irish Tontine Index’ owned & compiled by Emmy Eustace
[4] ‘Tontines’ by Francis Leeson in Genealogist Magazine Vol 14 No.11 September 1964 & Vol 15 No.I March 1965
[5] 1777 Irish Tontine: Lists of Nominees Third Class p.45 (TNA Ref: NDO 3/33/66369)
[6] 1777 Irish Tontine: Lists of Nominees Third Class p.45 (TNA Ref: NDO 3/33/66369)
[7] Berkshire Record Office Little Wittenham St Peter Parish Register (Ref: D/P152/1/)
[8] Berkshire Record Office Little Wittenham St Peter Parish Register (Ref: D/P152/1/)
[9] Berkshire Record Office Little Wittenham St Peter Parish Register (Ref: D/P152/1/)

© Emmy Eustace


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