Among the roughly 4,500 Cornish men and women captured in the Victorian Lives database it’s not that common to come across someone with connections reaching into the Privy Council and the heart of the British establishment. But that’s exactly what we find in Penzance.
In 1850 Louise d’Este Courtney was born at New Street, Penzance, the youngest child of John Sampson Courtney, a banker, and his wife Sarah. By 1871 the family had moved to Alverton House, now a Grade 2 listed building described as ‘large and irregular’, to the west of the town. Louisa lived there until 1885, when she married Richard Oliver, 20 years her senior.
The 1891 census found the pair at a hotel at Ramsgate in Kent. Louise’s brother William Prideaux Courtney was staying at the same hotel. William was an ecclesiastical commissioner. (Ecclesiastical commissioners were established in 1836 and managed the finances of the Church of England). William was also a writer and contributed to the Dictionary of National Biography. Louise’s husband was described as a sheep farmer and in 1896 Louise was with him on his no doubt substantial sheep farm in New Zealand. However, the pair were soon back in London, where Richard died at Kensington in 1910 and Louise followed in 1919.
Her brother William was not the only sibling to achieve a high position. Another brother John Mortimer Courtney served as a member of the Canadian Government, becoming deputy minister of finance. But the best-known in Britain was her eldest brother Leonard Henry Courtney, probably the most successful Cornish-born politician before David Penhaligon, but now hardly remembered.
Born in Penzance in 1832, Leonard Courtney had become Professor of Political Economy at the relatively new University College London by the 1870s. In 1876 he was elected as Liberal MP for Liskeard, which he represented until 1900. Liskeard and south east Cornwall more generally was much more progressive in its politics in the late 1800s than it is now and was happy to re-elect the radical Leonard Courtney who was an enthusiastic advocate of votes for women and proportional representation. But, when Gladstone failed to include proportional representation in his Reform Bill of 1883, Courtney resigned from the Cabinet.
Although a radical, Courtney left the Liberals in 1886 over the issue of home rule for Ireland. However, he soon drifted back. The final straw in his prickly relationship with his new Conservative and Unionist allies in the 1890s proved to be his opposition to the Boer War in 1900, when he highlighted the maltreatment of the Boers. He was back in the Liberal Party by 1906 when he (unsuccessfully) stood for them in the general election of that year. As compensation, the new Liberal Government made him the first (and last) Baron Courtney of Penwith.
Known as an unbending man of principle, Leonard Courtney left £57,000 (now worth £3.3 million) when he died in 1918. Politics obviously paid, even though he’d been an MP before they received a salary.