Page 1: Biography
Draper, businessman, city councillor, philanthropist
This biography, written by Janice C. Mogford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
John Court was born at Bradley Green, Worcestershire, England, on 21 January 1846. He was the fourth of nine children of Jane Boucher and her husband, William Court, a farmer who later became an innkeeper in nearby Feckenham. John was educated at the Feckenham charity school. When he was 14 the trustees of the school apprenticed him for six years to Henry Jackson, a draper in Walsall, Staffordshire. Court's indentures forbade him to marry, frequent taverns or absent himself day or night, and made Jackson responsible for educating Court and bringing him up in the religion of the Church of England. Court subsequently worked in the drapery trade in Birmingham and Rugby. He was married on 30 November 1871 at the parish church of St Nicolas, Birmingham, to Sarah Babington, the daughter of a bootmaker. The couple were to have four daughters and four sons.
In July 1889 John and Sarah Court and their eight children emigrated to New Zealand. Two of Court's brothers, George and Frederick, had established a drapery shop in Auckland in 1886. By the time John joined the partnership in September 1889 the business had expanded to a second store. Frederick retired about two years after John's arrival. The firm continued to trade as Court Brothers, drapers and clothiers, in Karangahape Road and Queen Street. By 1902 George and John Court were operating from three shops, and with their older sons entering the business they decided to dissolve the partnership and establish separate firms. It was an amicable arrangement: George remained in Karangahape Road and John took over the two Queen Street shops.
John Court worked his employees hard but was regarded as a kind employer. He put on picnics for his staff and had tennis-courts built for their use. In 1905 the company of John Court Limited was registered, after which Court retired from the day-to-day running of the business. His four sons were all directors.
The company continued to prosper and expand. By 1909 it had three shops. In 1910 it purchased the three-storeyed Direct Supply Company (DSC) store on the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street East, and two of the smaller shops were closed. The new store opened for business in the DSC building on 11 July 1910. The other shop was later sold and by 1920 the remaining premises had been rebuilt and enlarged to eight storeys.
John Court Limited became one of the leading firms in the city, catering for all the clothing and household needs of the family. It had a tradition of good service, quality merchandise and reasonable prices. The JCL corner was a landmark and favourite meeting place for citizens and visitors to Auckland. In 1966 John Court Limited was purchased by an Auckland-based syndicate, and in 1972 it was sold to Cornish Investments Limited of Wellington.
Court's business commitments did not preclude him from participating in local affairs. In 1900 he was elected unopposed to the Auckland City Council representing the Ponsonby ward. He remained on the council until 1909 and served again from 1911 to 1915. He was a member of the council's works committee, which was responsible for planning the sewerage system, reorganising roads and improving the city landscape. From 1913 to 1915 he held the office of deputy mayor.
Court served on the Grafton and Ponsonby school committees and his continuing concern for the children of the community was further manifested in the provision of playground equipment at Grey Lynn and Victoria parks. He was a generous benefactor of the Community Sunshine Association and its health camps. In 1922 he donated funds for the purchase of the elephant Jamuna for the Auckland Zoological Park, and when the Auckland Zoological Society was formed in 1929 he was elected its first life member in recognition of his continuing support.
As well as being president of both the Ponsonby and West End bowling clubs, Court was a leading bowls player. In 1906 and 1907 he represented New Zealand in Australia and Great Britain respectively. He was also a patron of rowing, tennis and lacrosse. In later years his main interests were motoring, gardening, bridge and his extended family.
Sarah Court died on 20 March 1902. John Court survived her by 31 years, dying at their home in Herne Bay, Auckland, on 6 July 1933. The Courts' house in Hamilton Road had always been the focal point of family gatherings. In 1926 Court had given £5,000 to the city of Auckland for charitable purposes. After his death this bequest became known as the John Court Memorial Fund. The city council also erected a memorial tablet to him in the town hall in recognition of his long and notable services to their city.