Harriot Mellon, born c.1777, was the daughter of a wardrobe-keeper in a company of strolling players. She performed on stage from the age of ten, and was eventually talent-spotted by the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Impressed with her rosy-cheeked good looks and acting ability, Sheridan engaged her for a season at London's Drury Lane Theatre. She made her debut there in January 1795.
Harriot’s theatrical career was successful; she played mainly comic parts, and was known for her good nature. She acted as understudy to top actresses such as Dorothea Jordan and Sarah Siddons. Her best-remembered role was as Volante in John Tobin's The Honeymoon, performed in 1805.
Harriot's acting career ended in 1815 when she married the banker Thomas Coutts. The marriage was conducted in secret, partly to avoid the wrath of Thomas's three daughters by his first wife. When Thomas did eventually share the news with them, they were highly displeased. Thomas spent the subsequent years protecting Harriot from his daughters' hostility.
When Thomas Coutts died in 1822 Harriot inherited his estate, including his 50 per cent stake in Coutts & Co.
Senior partner of Coutts
Thomas Coutts had given Harriot a clear vision of his intentions for his bank's management, and Harriot carried that vision forward in her role as senior partner. She was a confident operator, taking an active role in decisions made in the business, and promoted Thomas's confidential clerk Andrew Dickie to be a partner; a groundbreaking step. The loyal, reliable Dickie provided Harriot with sound business knowledge and steadfast support in her new role.
As well as running the bank, Harriot attempted to improve relations with Thomas's family, making each daughter an allowance of £10,000 per annum. She also carefully considered Thomas’s ten grandchildren as potential heirs to her 50 per cent share in the business.
Later life and legacy
In 1827 Harriot remarried, to the young 9th Duke of St Albans, William Aubrey de Vere Beauclerk.
She died on 6 August 1837 at her home in London, and was buried in the parish church at Redbourne, Lincolnshire, the St Albans family seat.
She left her husband an allowance of £10,000 a year for his lifetime, along with the use of two properties in London. The bulk of her estate, worth around £1.8m, was left to Angela Burdett, the youngest of Thomas's grandchildren. However, the terms of Harriot’s will were written to exclude Angela from partnership in the bank. Angela was barred from touching the capital sum, but was given complete and independent control of the income from it. She was also required to take the additional surname of Coutts. Lastly, in the event of her marrying a foreigner, the fortune would pass to another member of the family. This last condition was Harriot's response to the earlier marriage of one of Thomas's grandsons to a member of the Bonaparte family; she could not countenance the prospect of the bank passing into French hands. Through all these conditions, Harriot did her utmost to protect the bank’s future, safeguarding the Coutts inheritance, even from beyond the grave.
Related publications and online sources
- Edna Healey, Coutts & Co: Portrait of a Private Bank (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992)
- 'Harriot Beauclerk' in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Summary of archival holdings
- business and personal correspondence