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Mrs Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815–1914

Ian Jack, Senior Fellow and Archivist, September 2014

Mrs Janet Coutts, a well-to-do Presbyterian widow, who outlived her husband by 60 years and all her children by 35 years, was a major benefactor to tertiary education in New South Wales. Over her long life and after her death, she funded awards to students at the University of Sydney, the Women’s College and St Andrew’s College, but by far her greatest generosity was to St Andrew’s, which her residual legatee was. The total received by College a century ago was the equivalent of nearly $2 million in modern money. The income from the Janet Coutts fortune more than doubled the College’s ability to subsidise able and needy students and was used to fund up to twenty scholarships and bursaries a year, tailored to need. Janet Grant, born in 1815 in a small Inverness-shire village, came to Australia at an unknown date and in 1843 married an Aberdonian called John Coutts, sixteen years her senior.1 John had come to the colony in 1826 with his brother Thomas. They were both in their twenties, had come out from Scotland in their own ship and, as master mariners, established a whaling enterprise and coastal shipping, before settling prosperously on the Darling Downs.2 John acquired a grazing property called Rosewood, near Ipswich, and it was there that he, Janet and their four children lived in the 1850s.3 But John met an untimely death in 1854, aged 55.4 His body was brought to Parramatta for burial by his twin brother James, who had followed John to Australia in 1849.

1; Births, Deaths, Marriages, NSW. Brisbane Courier, 4 January 1870 p.3; 11 January 1870, p.2. 3 Moreton Bay Courier, 9 February 1850 p.3; 21 June 1851 p.3; 29 July 1854 p.3. 4 State Records NSW, Probate, series 1, 14/3273/3133; Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1854, p.8. The grave-marker in Mays Hill cemetery gives the date wrongly as 1855. 2

Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914 James Coutts was a distinguished Presbyterian minister, a graduate of Aberdeen University, master of ten languages, who served first at Parramatta and then at Newcastle. He had married just before he left Britain, but his wife Elizabeth died in Parramatta in 1850, at the age of 23, after giving birth to their first child: the baby herself died eight months later. Five years after this double loss, John Coutts was buried in the same cemetery, Mays Hill at Parramatta, adjacent to his sisterin-law and niece. The widowed James did not remarry and lived on alone into his eighties, dying in his Newcastle parish in 1884, long outliving his other two brothers, Thomas and Donald. He was buried at Mays Hill beside his long-dead wife, daughter and other relatives.5 While at Newcastle the Revd James Coutts had subscribed £10 to the St Andrew’s Building Fund and in his will he left £1,000 to St Andrew’s College to found a scholarship. After a legal challenge in the Equity Court the money, over $100,000 in modern prices, was received by College in 1886. The James Coutts Scholarship was then established.6 Janet’s four children survived their father, John, but all died relatively young and childless, long before their mother. Donald died in 1862 aged 17, Edith in 1871 aged 16, John junior in 1875 aged 25 and James in 1879 aged 30.7 For the last thirty-five years of her life, Mrs Janet Coutts was therefore a widow without children or grandchildren. Like her brother-in-law, James Coutts, she had endured comprehensive bereavement. Janet had survived her two brothers, Charles and Peter Grant, but both brothers had established families in Australia and in her will Janet made bequests totalling the equivalent of $200,000 to her four Grant nieces and three nieces-by-marriage. She also left $180,000 to six members of the Kelles family in Scotland: her sister had married an Aberdonian, James Kelles. Janet’s other relatives in her old age were the two sons and daughter-in-law of her late husband’s brother, Donald Coutts, who had joined John and Thomas Coutts in Australia by the 1840s.8 Donald ran Rosewood after Janet’s husband died and then moved to a grand stone mansion called Bulimba on the Brisbane River, when he had a famous sugar-cane plantation: he had died in 1869.9


R.S. Ward and M.D. Prentis, Presbyterian Ministers in Australia, 1822-1901: Biographical Register, New Melbourne Press, Wantirna, 2001, p.39; Coutts file, Ferguson Library; grave-marker, Mays Hill cemetery, Thomas and Donald, died on their Queensland properties in 1868 and 1869. 6 St Andrew’s College Archives [SACA], Council Minute-Book vol.2, pp.280-281, 283-284. 7 Births, Deaths, Marriages, NSW; grave-marker, Mays Hill cemetery. 8 State Records NSW, Will Registers, Reel 4161, 4/8067/67114. 9 Moreton Bay Courier, 20 December 1860, p.3.

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914 During her married life Janet Coutts had lived as a Queensland pastoralist. After 1854 seems likely that she moved to New South Wales, but her whereabouts are not known and she travelled abroad on several occasions.10 Both of Janet’s sons who lived long enough, John and James, attended the University of Sydney in the 1860s. Because there was still no Presbyterian college, both attended St Paul’s.11 The two brothers rowed in the first University boat-race in 1867, on the harbour off Lady Macquarie’s Chair. This was not an inter-collegiate competition. One four was crewed by first and second year students, the other boat by third years. John and James were both in the junior team which lost.12 After topping the University batting averages in cricket, John graduated in 1870 and went on to Edinburgh and London to study Medicine with distinction. He contracted a deadly fever at University College Hospital, however, and returned to Sydney to die at his brother’s Ashfield home in 1875.13 James Coutts had established himself as a barrister in Sydney, but also died too young in 1879.14 Many years later, in 1905, their mother endowed two scholarships in the names of John junior and James at the University of Sydney, each worth at that time £50. She had mulled over the terms of the awards for some years and, retaining her anonymity. entrusted the negotiations with the Chancellor of the University to her longstanding friend, Sir Edmund Barton, the founding Prime-Minister of a federated Australia and now a judge of the new High Court. Barton had been a student with both James and John Coutts and had remained their close friend until their early deaths. Both Barton and Sir Normand Maclaurin, the Chancellor, praised the originality and ‘sagacity’ of Mrs Coutts’ wish to provide graduating students with the means for a further year of study.15 The University hastened to get formal approval to the terms, because, as Barton said to Maclaurin,


Draft letter, Sir Edmund Barton to Mrs J. Coutts, 14 April 1905, University of Sydney Archives, Coutts Scholarship file, G3/13/15827. 11 Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December 1866, p.4; 23 December 1868, p.5. 12 Queenslander, 17 August 1867, p.12; Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1912, p.22. 13 Sydney Morning Herald, 16 April 1869, p.6; 4 April 1875, p.7. 14 Sydney Morning Herald, 6 May 1879, p.1. 15 Draft letter, Barton to Coutts, 14 April 1905; letter, Barton to Sir Normand Maclaurin, n.d., University of Sydney Archives, Coutts Scholarship file, G3/13/15827; Martha Rutledge, 'Barton, Sir Edmund (Toby) (1849–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 8 September 2014.

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914 ‘very old people are apt to alter their intentions suddenly, or to propose new conditions at the last moment’.16 Both Mungo MacCallum sr and H.V. Evatt held the James Coutts University Scholarship while they were at Andrew’s , while J.G. Stephens, later Senior Tutor and Wilson Fellow, held the John Coutts in 1919.17

Ellensbrae (now Lorrac), 124 Lurline Street, Katoomba. Photograph, Ian Jack, 2001.

In 1907, Mrs Coutts gave £600 to Women’s College to enable bursaries to be paid to students who had already completed first year.18

On 30 October 1914, in extreme old age, Mrs Coutts died at Ellensbrae, a charming house in Lurline Street, Katoomba, which was available for rental.19 Her body was brought back to Parramatta, where the funeral service was held at St Andrew’s Church, where her brother-in-law had been minister: Dr Harper, Principal of St Andrew’s College, assisted the Parramatta minister.20 Janet’s funeral in 1914 was attended by a nephew (Donald Coutts’ 58-year-old son, John), by her two nieces (Mrs Isabella Reilly and Mrs Elizabeth Hay), daughters of her brother Peter Grant, and by a grand-niece, Mrs Hilda Asmus, the daughter of Isabella.21


Letter, Barton to Maclaurin, 1 May 1905, University of Sydney Archives, Coutts Scholarship file, G3/13/15827. 17 Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1905, p.5; University of Sydney Calendar, 1919, p.329; R.I. Jack, The Andrew’s Book, 4th ed. Sydney, 2013, pp. 143, 145. 18 W.V. Hole and A.H. Treweeke, The History of the Women’s College within the University of Sydney, Sydney 1953, pp.181-182. Mrs Coutts is there erroneously identified as the widow of the Revd. James Coutts. 19 Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 1914, p.12; G. Silvey, Happy Days: Blue Mountains Guesthouses Remembered, Kingsclear, 1996, p.104; Blue Mountains City Council, Rate Assessment Books, Katoomba. 20 Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 1914, p.10. 21 Cumberland Argus, 7 November 1914, p.6; Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1914, p.10; Moreton Bay Courier, 11 May 1850 p.3. Thomas’s eldest son was another Thomas, while his daughters became Mrs Gillespie and Mrs Ross (Queenslander, 20 June 1868, p.10; Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 1865, p.10; Warwick Argus and Tenterfield Chronicle, 24 February 1869, p.2).

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914 On the wall at St Andrew’s Church there were memorial tablets to both her late husband, John Coutts senior, and her brother-in-law, the Revd James.22 The 1840s church was, however, replaced by the present St Andrew’s in 1925 and the old church was then re-erected in McKern Street, Wentworthville. The plaques were not transferred to the Wentworthville church, but James’ plaque remained in the front porch of the new St Andrew’s in Parramatta and is still there, despite the translation of the church into the Bavarian Bier Café. The fate of John’s plaque is not known.23

Plaque to Revd James Coutts, 1884, now in foyer of Bavarian Bier Café (formerly St Andrew’s Uniting Church), corner Phillip and Marsden Streets, Parramatta. Photograph by Ian Jack, September 2014. There is a small reproduction in Beryl Henderson (ed.), Monuments and Memorials, Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney 1988, p.150.

Along with her husband, children, brother-in-law and four other members of the family, Janet Coutts was buried in Mays Hill cemetery at Parramatta.


Cumberland Argus, 7 November 1914, p.6. G. Fairbairn, St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Parramatta: Centenary, 1837-1937, Sydney 1937, pp14-16; P. Trimmer, ‘St Andrew’s Church, Wentworthville’, Church Heritage, vol.18 no.iii, March 2014, pp.143-148; information from Revd Simon Arkapaw, minister at Wentworthville. 23

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914

The Coutts graves in Mays Hill cemetery, Parramatta. Photographs, Ian Jack, 22 August 2014.

Janet’s precise age of 99 is not stated on the inscription. Instead there is a quotation from the first book of the Chronicles: ‘in a good old age, full of days’. This refers to the death of King David, who, like Janet Coutts, was full not only of days but also of ‘riches, and honour’.24 Probate of Janet Coutts’ will was granted in December 1914. No provision was made for any relatives, but there were four charitable bequests: 1. £1,000 to Thirlmere Consumptive Home, founded by John Hay Goodlet, a Councillor at St Andrew’s College, who had died earlier in 1914 and would have been known to the Coutts family through his Ashfield connection, 2. £500 to the Deaf Dumb and Blind Institute, now part of the University of Sydney, 3. £400 to a kindergarten in Woolloomooloo and 4. £500 to the Presbyterian Burnside Homes in Parramatta. The residue of the estate, valued at probate at almost £30,000, was bequeathed to St Andrew’s College ‘to be applied in such manner for educational purposes as they think fit’.25 The residual estate had initially, in 1912, been destined for the University of Sydney, but eight months later, in April 1913, Mrs Coutts signed a codicil changing this to 24 25

I Chronicles, chap.29 v. 28. Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1914, p.10.

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914 the College.26 St Andrew’s was obviously attractive to a devout Presbyterian benefactor, but Mrs Coutts must also have been well aware that Sir Edmund Barton, one of the executors of her will, had sent his own elder son to Andrew’s in 1900 and that young Wilfrid had become the first New South Wales Rhodes Scholar in 1904.27 Janet Coutts had spent part of her widowhood living in Britain28 and seems to have owned no Australian residence in her later life, so her movements are hard to trace. In 1905 Mrs Coutts was living as a guest in Craigo, the Strathfield mansion of James Inglis, the Billy Tea millionaire.29 Almost £20,000 of the bequest to College was in shares and the remainder in bank deposits.30 Mrs Coutts’ jewellery, including her husband’s gold hunting watch, was sold at auction at Lawson’s in the following February 1915.31 Despite the much higher probate valuation of Janet Coutts’ estate, her trustees handed over only £19,000 (nearly $2 million in today’s prices) to the College in 1916.32 The income was initially allocated in 1915-1916 for ‘replenishing’ the library (£200), for scholarships in faculties ‘in which there were none’ and the residue to furnishing the two new science laboratories in what is now called the Old Laboratory.33 It was also decided, very significantly, to establish a Coutts Foundation ‘to be used as a Bursary Fund to make the cost of residence in the College not greater than the cost of living in lodgings’.34 In 1916 the income from the estate was used to offer three scholarships, each of £50, and three bursaries, totalling £60.35 In 1917 all the Coutts income, then amounting to £675 (over $50,000), was used to fund only scholarships, eighteen in all, varying in value from £15 to £5, while the James Coutts Scholarship of 1886 still funded one whose value had declined over the years from £50 to £25.36


State Records NSW, Will Registers, Reel 4161, 4/8067/67114. Jack, The Andrew’s Book, 4th ed., pp.148, 164. 28 State Records NSW, Will Registers, Reel 4161, 4/8067/67114. 29 James Inglis to Registrar, University of Sydney, 15 May 1905, University of Sydney Archives, Coutts Scholarship file, G3/13/15827; Michael Jones, Oasis in the West: Strathfield’s First Hundred Years, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985, pp.77-81. 30 Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December 1914, p.10. 31 Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February 1915, p.4. 32 SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, pp.8-9. 33 SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, p.24. 34 SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, p.24. 35 SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, p.27. 36 SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, pp.45, 47. 27

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Janet Coutts, benefactor, 1815-1914 Janet Coutts’ $2 million more than doubled the capital funds then held by College for the provision of scholarships and bursaries. The audited statement both of capital funds and investment income in February 1912 shows that there was approximately £16,000 ($1.6 million) in the capital funds provided by the generosity over the years of Gordon, Lawson, Bowman, Struth, Horn, Dean, Stewart, Fullerton, Rennie, Ross and the Revd James Coutts.37 Janet Coutts added 120% to this vitally important element in the College’s strategic budget. In 1918 the principle of awarding both scholarships and bursaries in the name of Janet Coutts was put into practice, with 14 scholarships totalling £620 and three bursaries totalling £90.38 The policy of College Council at the end of World War I to enable young people’s transition or return to University by liberal awards based both on need and on ability is strikingly similar to the recent decisions of our current Council. College Council, both then and now, could implement so enlightened a policy only if the means were available and exactly a century ago Janet Coutts made the means available for a massive and necessary increase in awards to the deserving. Janet Coutts’ generosity was critically important to College and remained the main resource for scholarships and bursaries for over half a century. She should be remembered with the greatest respect, as she was during World War I. In 1917 the Principal, Dr Harper, was asked by Council to go to Parramatta and personally inspect Mrs Coutts’ grave. If the grave needed attention, Dr Harper was empowered to arrange whatever housekeeping work might be required.39 In August 2014 the Senior Fellow followed in Dr Harper’s footsteps and inspected the two imposing grave-markers to the Coutts family, which still today dominate Mays Hill cemetery. The cast-iron railings have been sawn off around the double plot and the marble urn atop the Revd James Coutts’ obelisk has been broken, but the weather-stained monument commemorating Janet, her husband and their children, is intact, just as Janet’s zeal to provide essential bursaries and scholarships is still intact in St Andrew’s College community today.


SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.5, p.199. SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, p.71. 39 SACA, Council Minute Book, vol.6, p.50. 38

Ian Jack, St Andrew’s College, September 2014


Mrs Janet Coutts  


Mrs Janet Coutts