COURTENAY, Thomas Peregrine (1782-1841).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



22 Oct. 1811 - 1832

Family and Education

b. 31 May 1782, 2nd s. of Rt. Rev. Henry Reginald Courtenay, bp. of Exeter 1797-1803, by Elizabeth Howard, da. of Thomas, 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.

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 Board of Control Aug. 1812-May 1828; agent, Cape of Good Hope 1813-33; PC vice-pres. Board of Trade May 1828-Nov. 1830; commr. Board of Control July 1828-Nov. 1830.

Lt. Lee and Lewisham vols. 1803.


Courtenay, a younger son who saddled himself with a large family, was described in 1815 by his former patron, Charles Long*, as ‘one of those persons who will lose nothing for want of asking’.1 He was certainly a dedicated place-hunter, but he had a modest talent as a political pamphleteer and proved a capable administrator when put to the test.

It was as a junior clerk at the Treasury that Courtenay first came to the notice of Long, joint-secretary under Pitt. His friendship with William Dacres Adams, then a Home Office clerk and subsequently private secretary to Pitt and the Duke of Portland as prime ministers, was later strengthened by their marriages to the Mayow sisters. In September 1801 Courtenay told Adams that ‘whatsoever King may reign, I hope still to be "Vicar of Bray"', but in July 1802 he was not sorry to see electoral evidence of the 'weakness' of the Adington ministry, hoping that the consequence might be the eventual return to power of Pitt, though he admitted that these thoughts, heretical in a Treasury clerk, were basically provoked by 'a private motive'.2 A week later he left the Treasury to become cashier of the Stationery Office.

By September 1803 he was 'much in the confidence' of Long and therefore able, so Adams thought, to anticipate obtaining 'something very and permanently advantageous' when the Pittites returned to office. Shortly afterwards, on the strength of a recent 'sensible pamphlet' on a financial question, he was chosen by Rose, Long and Pitt, who did not want anyone 'immediately connected' with him to do the job, to act as Pitt's standard-bearer in the current pamphlet war with government. His Plain answer, a defence of Pitt and Grenville against the attack made in A few cursory remarks upon the state of parties, for which he was supplied with materials and advice by Pitt and Long, was published later in the year.3

On Pitt's return to power in May 1804 he was rewarded with the agency for Ceylon.4 When Long went to Ireland as chief secretary in September 1805, Courtenay accompanied him as private secretary, but Pitt's death and the consequent change of ministry seemed to cloud his future prospects. Adams advised him to leave the bargaining to Long: the agency would probably have to given up, but the Stationery Office was safe and 'as to the possibility of your having any office under the new government, or of being entangled against your will in new connections, I do not conceive that anything of the kind will be done as you know nothing of Lord Grenville yourself'. For his own part Courtenay professed to 'prefer the smallest independency now to the largest income dependent upon any now existing minister'. He surrendered the agency, but Long was able to obtain for him a post at the Land Tax Register Office, which brought £400 a year and a house in Lincoln's Inn Fields. On the formation of the Portland ministry. Long took him to the Pay Office as his deputy, with a salary of £500.5

For all this Courtenay, who attacked the government's dealings with America in a series of letters to the Sun under the pseudonym of 'Decius' between November 1807 and January 1808, and later in 1808 published Additional observations on the American treaty, remained dissatisfied and was constantly trying to improve his position. Long, who later claimed that Courtenay had 'had the modesty' to ask him either to allow him to treat the deputy paymastership as a sinecure, or to make it permanent and lucrative, refused to abet these manoeuvres: 'though it is very true', he reflected, 'that he has shown himself a warm partisan of Mr Pitt and his friends, yet he has been most amply rewarded for it'. While Courtenay remained nominally in possession of the cashiership until 1813 he evidently bartered it in some fashion to a protégé of Lord Lonsdale in about 1807. He was presumably compensated (Long said in 1810 that he received £600 a year from the Treasury in addition to his salaries), but in July 1810 he failed in his attempt to use the transaction as a means of putting pressure on Lonsdale to 'obtain for me a small appointment not depending upon political changes': he had in mind, Long thought, the paymastership of Exchequer bills.6

Courtenay did not give up easily and in the summer of 1811 Perceval offered him 'an efficient and difficult place', apparently in Ireland, which Adams counselled him not to take 'with no more than £500 a year'. He had already been earmarked by Adam's father to succeed him as Member for Totnes on the family interest at the next general election and his brother-in-law urged him to inform Perceval, 'as such a knowledge might possibly forward your present views'.7 In the event Adams senior died in harness, 21 Sept. 1811, and Courtenay, having of necessity resigned his deputy paymastership, was returned unopposed the following month. He retained the seat after a contest in 1812 and was undisturbed in 1818.

A staunch ministerialist from the outset, he made his maiden speech in defence of the droits of Admiralty, 21 Jan. 1812, protesting against 'the principle of having a mere stipendiary King', but according to Brougham, the author of the critical motion, he 'broke down' in the course of his speech.8 He voted against attacks on sinecures, 7, 21, 24 Feb. and 4 May 1812, when he condemned the sinecure offices bill as a departure from the true tradition of economical reform established by Pitt and Burke, and was in the ministerial minority who divided against Stuart  Wortley's call for a stronger administration, 21 May. He opposed a civil list inquiry, 10 Feb., supported the bill imposing capital punishment for frame breaking, 18 Feb., though he claimed to sympathize with Romilly's attempts to ameliorate the criminal laws, and spoke in support of the princesses' annuity bill, 17 Apr. 1812.

On Liverpool's confirmation in power he made an unsuccessful bid for the treasureship of the Ordnance, but in August 1812 he was appointed secretary of the Board of Control with a salary of £1,500, which by the 1820s had risen to £2,200 with a retirement annuity of £1,000. Shortly afterwards he arranged with Robert Willimott an exchange of his land tax post for the agency of the Cape, officially worth £600 a year but estimated to bring in £4,000 in practice. On 26 Sept. 1813, considering himself 'the fittest man in the party for the receipt of £4,000 per annum', he staked a claim to the secretaryship of the Treasury currently held by the ailing Richard Wharton, but he did not obtain it when it fell vacant.9

As an official man, Courtenay was an utterly reliable supporter of the Liverpool government for the rest of the period, though he voted steadfastly in favour of Catholic relief and in 1816, expressing doubts as to whether he could work under Canning at the Board of Control, claimed to be attached to Castlereagh 'personally rather than to the adminstration in general'.10 His few recorded speeches after 1812 were mainly on Indian business, but he made a point of opposing inquiry into the civil list, 27 May 1813 and 8 May 1815, refuted allegations that his secretaryship was a sinecure, 7 May, and replied to criticism of the state of the revenue, 31 May 1816. He sat on the committee of inquiry into the Poor Laws in 1817 and the following year published two pamphlets advocating their reform on the twin principles of encouraging the frugal and limiting relief to the idle. His bill of May 1818 for the encouragement of Friendly Societies was killed by the dissolution, but on 25 Mar. 1819 he obtained leave to introduce a similar measure together with a bill for the establishment of parochial benefit societies. They were subsequently combined into one measure, which reached the statute book on 12 July 1819.

Courtenay, described by Lord Ellenborough in 1829 as 'a man of undignified manners and appearance' but 'certainly a clever man', was an efficient if rather officious secretary to the Board of Control, where he provided an element of stability during his long tenure of the post. Liverpool had Canning's authority for asserting in 1820 that 'no office ever had an individual more completely conversant with every detail belonging to it'.11

He was drowned while bathing at Torquay, 8 July 1841.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: David R. Fisher


  • 1. Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 27 Jan. [1815].
  • 2. PRO, Dacres Adams mss 11/1, 3.
  • 3. Ibid. 11/4; Rose Diaries, ii. 56, 63.
  • 4. Add. 38737, f. 37.
  • 5. Dacres Adams mss 11/27, 28; Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 9 Oct. [1807].
  • 6. Lonsdale mss, Long to Lonsdale, 7, 9 Oct. [1807], 17 [1809], 3 Aug., Courtenay to Lonsdale, 5 July 1810.
  • 7. Dacres Adams mss 11/38, 39.
  • 8. Creevey mss, Brougham to Creevey [22 Jan. 1812].
  • 9. Add. 38248, ff. 16, 216, 227; Dacres Adams mss 11/40; Black Bk. (1823), 148; Herries mss, Add. 57415.
  • 10. Northumb. RO, Wallace (Belsay) mss S76/17/29.
  • 11. Ellenborough Diary, i. 390-1; C. H. Philips, E.I. Co. 214, 245; Add. 38288, f. 386.