According to the Oxford English Dictionary a tontine is “A financial scheme by which the subscribers to a loan or common fund receive each an annuity during his life, which increases as their number is diminished by death, till the last subscriber enjoys the whole income…” [From the name of Lorenzo Tonti who initiated the scheme in France c 1653].
At first tontines seem to have been large scale affairs, often state-organised, and the reward for investment was the annuity, never a share of the capital, but by the later 18th century the very large tontines were out of favour and they were becoming a device for smaller groups to raise investment for a particular scheme. By the early 19th century there also appear to have been tontines where everything, including the capital, devolves on the survivor. This, of course, makes a perfect motive for murder, even for tontines where the capital is never awarded, but the survivors’ annuities increase with the death of each member. Who would want to stand at the head of a staircase with a fellow tontine subscriber behind you?
My first encounter with the concept of the tontine was in the film The Wrong Box (1966) which was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1889 novel of the same name. The heirs of the two elderly Masterman brothers – the sole survivors of a tontine – engage in a range of hilarious and illegal tricks when it seems that one of the brothers has been killed in a train crash.
A few reminders of the tontines remain in the UK, mainly in hotels called The Tontine. There is one is Glasgow, one in Peebles – and the one that reminded me of the whole subject, in Ironbridge, Shropshire.
Here it is at the foot of the famous Iron Bridge itself. The bridge itself was opened in 1784 and immediately became a huge draw for not only engineers and iron masters but also early tourists. The men behind the bridge saw the opportunity to cash in on this early tourist attraction and formed a tontine to pay for building the hotel. Pioneer industrialists Abraham and Samuel Darby and John Wilkinson were amongst the members of the tontine, but I have not discovered who was the survivor who eventually owned the hotel for himself.
In New York the Tontine Coffee House (1793) was funded by 203 shares of £200 each – a substantial investment. The coffee house on the corner of Wall Street and Water Street became the heart of New York financial dealing – the birth of the stock exchange. In this picture it is shown on the left with the flag above.
Meanwhile I am left wondering if I can’t use a tontine in a murder plot…