COURTENAY, Thomas Peregrine (1782-1841), of Abingdon Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



22 Oct. 1811 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 31 May 1782, 2nd s. of Rt. Rev. Henry Reginald Courtenay, bp. of Exeter (d. 1803), and Lady Elizabeth Howard, da. of Thomas Howard, 2nd earl of Effingham; bro. of William Courtenay*. educ. Westminster 1796. m. 5 Apr. 1805, Anne, da. of Mayow Wynell Mayow of Sydenham, Kent, 8s. 5da. (1 d.v.p.). d. 8 July 1841.

Offices Held

Jun. clerk at treasury 1799-1802; cashier, stationery office 1802-13; agent, Ceylon 1804-6; principal registrar, land tax register office 1806-13; dep. paymaster-gen. Apr. 1807-Oct. 1811; sec. to bd. of control Aug. 1812-May 1828; agent, Cape of Good Hope 1813-33; PC 30 May 1828; vice-pres. bd. of trade May 1828-Nov. 1830; commr. bd. of control July 1828-Nov. 1830.

Lt. Lee and Lewisham vols. 1803.


Courtenay, a son of the late bishop of Exeter,1 held office in every administration between 1807 and 1830. In 1823 a radical publication sarcastically observed that he was living proof of the proverb that ‘when God sends children, he sends the means to maintain them’: he received a salary of £2,200 as secretary to the India board while his agency for the Cape of Good Hope, nominally worth £600, was ‘supposed to net £4,000 a year in all’.2 Nevertheless, his efforts to achieve greater financial security for his large family were unceasing. In 1820 he was returned unopposed for Totnes, where he had sat since 1811 on his brother-in-law William Dacres Adams’s interest.3

He was a loyal placeman in Lord Liverpool’s ministry who contributed occasionally to debate and served on various committees. In December 1820 he ‘deeply lamented’ the resignation of Canning, his chief at the India board, over the Queen Caroline affair, as he was ‘not quite satisfied of its propriety’ and expected a ‘period of embarrassment and danger’ for the government. An existing cabinet minister, Charles Bragge Bathurst, was appointed to the presidency as a temporary arrangement, which Liverpool justified on the ground that Courtenay was ‘perfect master of all that is necessary to be known and of the manner of conducting all the business of the board’.4 He was named to the select committee on foreign trade, 6 Feb. 1821 (and again, 25 Feb. 1822, 12 Feb. 1823, 4 Mar. 1824). He explained the routine business of the India board, 9 Feb. He divided, as in the past, for Catholic relief, 28 Feb. He maintained that ‘a great deal of corruption’ existed in large boroughs such as Westminster and favoured reinserting a phrase in the preamble to the Grampound disfranchisement bill which would ‘disconnect [it] from any principle of parliamentary reform’, 2 Mar.5 He declared that ‘the poor ... from the course of our legislation ... and from what he might call moral right, had a fair and reasonable claim ... for relief’, 24 May 1821. He defended the operation of his Friendly Societies Act of 1819 as ‘most beneficial’, 28 Feb. 1822.6 He spoke at length to justify the number of commissioners on the India board, 14 Mar., and secured the rejection of Creevey’s hostile motion by 273-88. In the debate on the poor removal bill, 31 May, he argued that ‘the nearer a man is to the fund on which he has a claim ... the less industrious and independent he is’. He thought it appropriate for the Calcutta bankers’ petition to be considered by a Commons committee, 4 July. Next day he defended his role as agent for the Cape, claiming that he was ‘considered a bore at the public offices because of his frequent applications’ on its behalf, and he justified combining this with his post at the India board, explaining that he was ‘obliged, by the state of his circumstances, to give up leisure time to active and laborious duties, which he would more willingly devote to dissipation and amusement’. In September 1822 he told a friend that he had recently been ‘at death’s door’.7 He introduced a poor law amendment bill, 27 Mar. 1823, but it did not get beyond the report stage. He strongly opposed repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act, 16 Apr. 1823, warning that Britain would be abandoning its neutrality in the war between France and Spain. That summer he corresponded with the prime minister in an attempt to obtain a pension from the East India Company or else ‘permanent compensation’ in the form of a £800 civil list pension; neither application was successful.8 He presented Totnes petitions for repeal of the coastwise coal duty and against the export of long wool, 1 Apr. 1824.9 He obtained the appointment of a select committee to investigate the law relating to friendly societies, 24 Feb. 1825. He divided for the Irish unlawful societies bill, 25 Feb., and Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May, but he opposed payment of the Catholic clergy, 29 Apr., as this would give them ‘reason to hope that their church would in time become the established religion in Ireland’. In July 1825 he secured a deferred pension of £1,000 under the Act 6 Geo. IV, c. 90 and wrote to Canning, now the leader of the Commons, thanking him for his exertions on his behalf:

From the moment of Lord Londonderry’s* death I have been looking for the opportunity of requesting that you would consider me as one of your political followers. But until the present moment I could not, with common prudence, increase by any voluntary act the chance of losing official emolument ... which would have reduced me and mine to actual poverty ... I beg therefore that you will henceforward consider me bound to follow you whenever any reason, either political or personal, may remove you from office.

He showed this letter to a friend to indicate where he would stand ‘in the event of a partial dissolution of the government’, and expressed concern at the strength of ‘No Popery’ feeling in the west country.10 At the general election of 1826 he was returned for Totnes at the head of the poll, after emphasizing his long service to the borough.11

He divided for Catholic relief, 6 Mar. 1827. He obtained the appointment of a select committee on friendly societies, 27 Mar., and presented its report, 29 June.12 In April he wrote to Canning, the new prime minister, hoping that he would ‘bear me in mind’ for any vacancy at the treasury, admiralty or board of trade and that he would ‘rally round ... men and principles adapted to the times, by whichever of the unmeaning designations of party they may have been known’. He thought the ‘provocation’ Canning had received from the ‘Protestant’ Tories justified him in approaching the Whigs. Herries, the financial secretary to the treasury, who was willing to accept another office, suggested Courtenay as a suitable successor, observing that ‘he knows the details of finance better than any man I am acquainted with. He knows the rules and forms of the House and ... he knows the habits of Mr. Canning in business ... He is already in the enjoyment of his confidence’. In the event, Courtenay remained at the India board, but he continued to press his claim to the treasury post.13 When Canning died in August, Courtenay speculated that the Whig Lord Lansdowne might form the next government and told Herries that ‘I must act with the political and personal friends of Mr. Canning and ... go out or stay in with the body’. Following Lord Goderich’s appointment as prime minister, Courtenay was led to believe that Herries would become chancellor of the exchequer and that he would have the treasury secretaryship, but he apparently gave ‘offence’ by allowing this information to leak to the press and his transfer did not take place. He wrote to the colonial secretary, Huskisson, to request his assistance in settling the matter, and complained that ‘I have been now 15 complete years in the same wearying and thankless office, of the fourth parliamentary class’. However, in September the coveted treasury post was given to his rival, Thomas Frankland Lewis*.14 Courtenay wrote to Herries in December 1827 advising him against hasty resignation from the government and indicating that, in such an event, he would not be able to follow him. Although they agreed ‘on almost all subjects, especially foreign affairs’, and he was ‘probably not more inclined than you are to the Whigs as a party’, he had to ‘avoid the charge of an indecent and interested desertion of Mr. Canning’s friends and principles’. In January 1828 he agreed to remain in office under the duke of Wellington on the understanding that the Catholic question was left open.15 He denied that the poor laws had ‘been a mischief’ and was anxious to see their ‘careful modification’ and ‘application to ... Ireland’, 19 Feb. Two days later he introduced his friendly societies bill, which sought to ensure the ‘proper appointment of suitable trustees’ and to place the societies’ rules and tables ‘upon a better footing’. However, in a notable example of ‘successful institutional petitioning’ by the societies, who argued that the bill weakened the powers of their members, over 250 hostile petitions were sent to the Commons and after consideration by a select committee the bill was withdrawn.16 He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., but for Catholic relief, 12 May. He maintained that the India board had ‘ever been vigilant in the discharge of its duty’ in relation to the Indian insolvency laws, 25 Mar. He supported the pension for the widow of Canning, to whom he was ‘connected by ties of private friendship’ and ‘gratitude’, 22 May, but he did not resign from the government that month with Huskisson and the other Canningites and benefited from the subsequent reshuffle, being appointed vice-president of the board of trade. One of Canning’s friends acknowledged that Courtenay ‘could hardly be expected to go’ and was not sure that ‘we had any right to claim said Peregrine as our own, though he was much attached to Canning’.17 Thereafter, he played a more prominent part in the Commons, moving for and presenting statistical returns and regularly intervening on details of the customs bills and other trade legislation. In the judgement of a recent historian, he was one of the few economic ministers who ‘appeared in command of their subject’.18 He nevertheless cut a ‘miserable figure’ in his first departmental speech, 17 June, when he promised to give an unbiased consideration to issues affecting the shipping interest and declared that he and the president, Vesey Fitzgerald, wished to ‘preserve our minds as a sheet of blank paper’;19 this statement frequently came back to haunt him. He also promised to keep an open mind about distress in the glove trade, 26 June, and the wages of handloom weavers, 1 July. He argued that public servants must be well rewarded if the country was to be ‘honestly and well served’, 14 July 1828. The following month Peel, the leader of the Commons, advised Wellington against appointing Courtenay president of the India board, believing he would not be ‘a very advantageous head of a department in the ... House’.20

Courtenay naturally divided for Catholic emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. Wellington now wished to appoint him governor of Bombay, but the East India Company directors ‘received the proposition very unfavourably’, claiming that ‘he had made himself very unpopular during the time he was secretary of the board’ and that he was ‘a man of undignified manners and appearance’. His ‘unfortunate declaration that the minds of himself and his colleague were sheets of wastepaper’ was also recalled against him. Wellington still wanted to press Courtenay on the directors, as he ‘very much wanted his place’ at the board of trade for another, but the directors’ view finally prevailed.21 Courtenay defended the silk bill, which gave manufacturers ‘the utmost protection’ consistent with the prevention of smuggling, 1 May. He rejected claims that Huskisson’s free trade measures were responsible for economic distress, observing that increased imports invariably led to increased exports and concluding that the principle of commercial policy should be ‘one, as far as possible, of absolute freedom’. He approved of the revised friendly societies bill, 6 May, but secured an amendment in committee, 15 May, to ensure that the rules of new societies offered ‘safety to all parties’. He presented, but dissented from, a Totnes petition for repeal of the coastwise coal duty, 4 June 1829. He was named to the select committee on the East India Company, 9 Feb. 1830. His proposal to reduce the interest payable to those claiming compensation in the case of the registrar at Madras from eight to five per cent was agreed, 7 July. He believed there would be ‘no getting rid of the poor unless there is a constant progressive prosperity, which ... we can never expect to occur’, 9 Mar. He supported the clause in Slaney’s poor law amendment bill allowing parishes to provide for children whose parents could not support them, 26 Apr. Three days later he introduced his labouring poor bill, to promote their employment by free hiring at fair and adequate wages, but it was killed by the dissolution. He recognized that the long-term effects of the transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy had contributed to the current distress, 18 Mar., but rejected calls for the reintroduction of small banknotes and maintained that free trade, ‘as an experiment, has fully succeeded’. He argued that the reduction of the sugar duties went as far as was compatible with the needs of the public revenue, 21 June. He maintained that the government had acted ‘upon its declared professions of neutrality’ in the affair at Terceira, 28 Apr., and stated that the Methuen treaty of 1703 would be revised ‘as soon as the state of our political relations with Portugal afford an opportunity’, 15 June. He presented a Totnes petition in favour of Jewish emancipation, 4 May, but voted against it, 17 May 1830. At the general election that summer he was again returned for Totnes at the head of the poll.22

He was of course listed among the ‘friends’ of Wellington’s ministry and voted with them in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He became an increasingly active figure in the opposition to Lord Grey’s ministry and attended several of the Tory leadership dinners.23 He claimed that it was ‘at all times usual ... for retiring ministers to grant pensions’, 11 Dec., warned that giving the Commons control of all pensions would be ‘productive of infinitely more jobbing’, 23 Dec. 1830, and seconded Hume’s motion for a return of the pensions granted under the Acts of 1817 and 1825, 4 Feb. 1831, as he had no fear of investigation. He maintained that Wellington’s ministry had ‘acted upon the principle of retrenchment to a greater extent’ than any previous one, 13 Dec. 1830. He was named to the select committee on the East India Company’s charter, 4 Feb. 1831 (and again, 28 June 1831, 27 Jan. 1832). He condemned the ‘unjust’ and ‘impolitic’ proposed duty on transfers of stock, 14 Feb., but welcomed repeal of the seaborne coal duty and the revised timber duties, and urged the government to reconsider its plan to raise the duty on Cape wine. He believed that rising imports of luxuries and raw materials showed that ‘the state of the consumers had rather improved’, 15 Feb. On 30 Mar. he asserted that ‘the great desideratum’ for England and Ireland was ‘the discovery ... of some great public work, not of a kind to be completed within a given time’, at which paupers might be employed when necessary ‘at a lower rate of wages than those usually given’. He supported the labourers’ wages bill, 12 Apr. He could discern no clear principle underpinning the government’s reform bill, 9 Mar., and complained that the proposed £10 borough franchise was ‘arbitrary’ and afforded no guarantee of ‘independence and intelligence’. The bill ‘infuses too much of the popular feeling into the composition of this House’ and would lead to other measures which must ‘in time, leave behind hardly a vestige of the original constitution’; he voted against the second reading, 22 Mar. He dismissed the argument that the bill would put an end to bribery, 14 Apr., as it enfranchised people ‘of a low class of society who will be very open to temptation’. He divided for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. 1831. At the ensuing general election he was again returned for Totnes at the head of the poll, despite receiving a hostile reception from the inhabitants.24

He divided against the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, but was against the adjournment motions, 12 July 1831. While he said he had not voted in ‘any of the vexatious divisions’, he regarded Lord Althorp’s proposal to devote five days per week to the bill instead of the agreed four as ‘one of the most outrageous breaches of faith’ he had ever known, 22 Aug. He voted to postpone consideration of Chippenham’s inclusion in schedule B, 27 July. He supported calls for Totnes to be removed from schedule B, 2 Aug., warning that it would otherwise ‘become much more susceptible of bribery’. He voted against the third reading, 19 Sept. He agreed next day that under the proposed reform ‘men of landed property’ would be returned by ‘many of the counties’, but he feared that on the whole ‘men who will flatter and delude, who will excite the people by violent addresses and declamations ... will take the place of sober, intelligent and practical men’. He believed the only ‘practical evil’ of the existing system was ‘direct nomination’, and though the constitution was capable of adapting itself, he would ‘reluctantly assent’ to a more moderate reform measure. He divided against the bill’s passage, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. He was authorized to contradict the statement that Lord Lovaine, Member for Bere Alston, was a minor, 13 July. He presented a Cape petition against the increased duty on its wine, 18 July, and promised to oppose this next session if necessary, 7 Sept. He considered the proposed equalization of the duties on Portuguese and French wine to be ‘a breach of a solemn compact’ made in the Methuen treaty, 22 Aug., and remarked of Althorp, the chancellor of the exchequer, that ‘after devising his measure with the ingenuity of a pettifogger [he] justifies it with the sophistry of a smuggler’. It appears that he was ‘induced to stay away’ from the division on the sugar refining bill, 30 Sept.,25 and he saw no reason for refusing to renew it, 13 Oct. He opposed an inquiry into civil list pensions, 18 July, asserting that in the last 40 years none had been ‘granted from corrupt motives’. He supported the grant for Irish public works although he knew from previous experience that it would ‘encourage jobbing’, 15 Aug. He argued that the North Western Union petition against the Queen’s Dower Act should not be received, 19 Aug., as its language was ‘an insult to the House’. He moved for the production of information on Britain’s relations with Portugal and the action taken by the French squadron in the Tagus, 30 Aug. He complained that it was disrespectful to the House that these papers had not been produced, 22 Sept., and put six questions to the foreign secretary Lord Palmerston, 17 Oct. He expressed his ‘indignation’ at the plan to reduce the salaries of the president of the board of control and other public officials, 29 Sept. 1831, warning that it was ‘the most atrociously aristocratical course of proceeding you can adopt’ as it would ‘make it impossible for any man to take to the public service as to a profession’.

He divided against the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, going into committee, 20 Jan., the enfranchisement of Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar. 1832. On being reappointed to the select committee on the East India Company’s charter, 27 Jan., he observed that previous inquiries had been hampered by their ‘desultory mode of proceedings’ and advised that it should confine itself to the main question of the China trade. He could see no ‘beneficial and practical result’ from an inquiry into distress in the glove trade, which was not caused by foreign competition, 31 Jan., and voted accordingly, 3 Apr. He approved of the revised schedule of customs duties, 15 June, supported a lower duty on coffee, 25 July, and welcomed the reduction of the sugar duty, 27 July. He voted against the Vestry Act amendment bill, 23 Jan. He divided against ministers on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July, when he stated that he knew from private sources that the loan was justified but felt the House had been given insufficient information. In what a Whig Member described as ‘a dreadfully dull speech’, 9 Feb., he moved an address to the king for papers regarding the government’s conduct towards Portugal. He accused Palmerston of abandoning Canning’s ‘system of non-interference’ in the internal affairs of other countries and of endangering ‘the interests and honour of the country’. He maintained that while Canning had wished to promote constitutional liberty he had always ‘refused to take any active measures to enforce its establishment anywhere’, and warned that replacing Dom Miguel with Dom Pedro would not bring freedom to Portugal or ‘restore English influence’ there. The Conservatives reportedly ‘tried all they could to avoid a division’ but failed, and the motion was defeated by 274-139.26 He urged ministers to ‘prevent a delusion being raised in the minds of the Poles’ that Britain was prepared to go to war to restore their ‘nationality’, 18 Apr. He criticized the government for making ‘hostile demonstrations on the continent’ without giving the House ‘adequate information’, 2 Aug., declaring that he was ‘John Bull enough to take care of England in the first instance’. He voted against the Greek loan convention, 6 Aug., but agreed that Britain could not now renege on it, 8 Aug., although the House was ‘voting away £800,000’. He was named to the committee of secrecy on the Bank of England’s charter, 22 May. He opposed an amendment to the Exeter improvement bill to exclude corporators from the commission, 13 June. He advised that the Indian juries bill should be postponed for further consideration, 18 June, observing that ‘India has not been treated hitherto as a country in a state of civilization’ and that its government was ‘in fact, a despotism’. He preferred lawyers to medical men as coroners, 20 June. He agreed that the labourers’ employment bill should not be a permanent measure and favoured allowing parishes to make ‘experiments of different kinds’, 9 July. He accused Hume of making ‘unfounded statements’ regarding the military establishments, 26 July. He argued that the Preston petition against the use of British troops to enforce the payment of tithes in Ireland should not be received, as it ‘threatens the House with force’, 3 Aug. He gave a ‘hearty negative’ to the West Indies relief bill, 8 Aug., which he described next day as ‘either a compensation or a bribe’; his amendments to the preamble were negatived, 10 Aug. He feared that the civil list payments bill was ‘the first stage of a very republican proceeding’, 8 Aug. 1832.

In November 1832 Courtenay issued a lengthy farewell address to his constituents in which he entered into a detailed historical defence of Toryism and a condemnation of the Grey ministry’s record. He declared his support for a fixed duty on corn, retrenchment wherever possible, abolition of the East India Company’s monopoly of the China trade, church reform, the present poor law system, protection for factory children and slave emancipation with compensation to the planters. If the Totnes electors were ‘hereafter disposed to seek a liberal Tory, cautious in profession, strenuous in exertion, they will find in me a faithful servant’; they expressed no such wish.27 On his brother William’s succession to the earldom of Devon in 1835 he was raised to the rank of an earl’s younger son. He continued to pursue his literary and historical interests, publishing a Memoir of Sir William Temple (1836), and Commentaries on the Historical Plays of Shakespeare, (1840). He drowned while bathing in the sea at Torquay in July 1841. An obituarist described him as ‘a man of business, very assiduous and efficient’.28 He left all his property to his wife, including an estate which he had acquired in Kent; his personalty was sworn under £14,000. Lord Devon wrote to the prime minister, Peel, that his brother’s children were ‘very scantily provided for’ and that most of the eight sons were ‘struggling ... to maintain themselves with such assistance as we can give them’. A clerkship at the India board was eventually found for the youngest son, and Devon reported that they were ‘now all placed in some way of earning their livelihood’.29 The eldest, Thomas Peregrine Courtenay, (1810-61), was a clerk in the treasury.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins


  • 1. Who left him £1,500 in his will, which was proved under £20,000 (PROB 11/1396/622; IR26/77/52).
  • 2. Black Bk. (1823), 148.
  • 3. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 16 Mar. 1820.
  • 4. Devon RO, Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Bragge Bathurst, 20 Dec.; TNA, Dacres Adams mss, Courtenay to Adams, 21 Dec. 1820.
  • 5. The Times, 3 Mar. 1821.
  • 6. Ibid. 1 Mar. 1822.
  • 7. Christ Church, Oxf. Phillimore mss, Courtenay to Phillimore, 11 Sept. 1822.
  • 8. Add. 38411, ff. 140-5, 161.
  • 9. The Times, 2 Apr. 1824.
  • 10. Buckingham, Mems. Geo. IV, ii. 260-1; Add. 57418, f. 118; Phillimore mss, Courtenay to Phillimore, 11 Aug. 1825.
  • 11. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 17 June 1826.
  • 12. The Times, 28 Mar., 30 June 1827.
  • 13. Add. 57419, ff. 13, 17; E. Herries, Mem. John Charles Herries, i. 124-5, 132.
  • 14. Add. 38750, f. 86; 40394, f. 170; 57419, ff. 30, 54, 95.
  • 15. Add. 57419, f. 115; Wellington mss WP1/914/18.
  • 16. P. Jupp, British Politics on Eve of Reform, 225, 407-8.
  • 17. Bagot mss (History of Parliament Aspinall transcripts), Binning to Bagot, 3 June 1828. A. Aspinall, ‘The Canningite Party’, TRHS (ser. 4), xvii (1934), 224-5, lists Courtenay among their number although he does not appear on any of the contemporary lists.
  • 18. Jupp, 137.
  • 19. Croker Pprs. i. 424.
  • 20. Wellington mss WP1/950/35.
  • 21. Ellenborough Diary, i. 388, 390-1; ii. 19, 56.
  • 22. Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, 12 Aug. 1830.
  • 23. Three Diaries, 35, 37, 45, 46, 60.
  • 24. Western Times, 7 May 1831.
  • 25. Three Diaries, 138.
  • 26. Hatherton diary, 9 Feb. 1832.
  • 27. Devon RO D1579A/12/22.
  • 28. Gent. Mag. (1841), ii. 316.
  • 29. PROB 8/234; 11/1953/735; Add. 40389, ff. 231-5.