Courtenay, William Reginald (DNB01)

COURTENAY, WILLIAM REGINALD, eleventh Earl of Devon (1807–1888), politician and philanthropist, eldest son of William Courtenay, tenth earl (d. 19 March 1859), by his first wife, Lady Harriet Leslie, daughter of Sir Lucas Pepys, bart., was born in Charlotte Street, Bedford Square, London, on 14 April 1807. He was admitted at Westminster School on 16 Sept. 1818, and matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, on 30 March 1824. He took a first class in classics in 1827, graduated B.A. in 1828 and B.C.L. in 1831, and from 1828 to 1831 was a fellow of All Souls' College. He was created D.C.L. on 27 June 1838, and was elected in 1869 a governor of Westminster School.

Courtenay was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn on 27 Jan. 1832, and with three others edited vol. vi. of 'Cases decided in the House of Lords on appeal from the Courts of Scotland' (1832-3). From July 1841 he sat in parliament, first in the conservative interest and then as a Peelite, for the division of South Devon, but retired in February 1849 on his appointment as a poor-law inspector. From 1850 to 1859 he was secretary to the poor-law board. He succeeded to the peerage on 19 March 1859. The family estates in Devonshire and Ireland were worth about 35,000l. per annum, but they had been heavily mortgaged by his two predecessors. He at once set to work to free them from these incumbrances, and was fast realising his wishes when the extravagance of his eldest son involved them in still greater liability. Only a fragment of the property still remains to the family. Lord Devon had before his succession returned to the conservative party, and in the Derby ministry he became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, and was created a privy councillor (July 1866). He remained in that office until May 1867, and from that month to December 1868 he was president of the poor-law board. After that date he ceased to take an active part in politics, but his statement in the House of Lords on 7 June 1869 in favour of reading the Irish Church bill a second time produced much effect on public opinion. He was chairman in 1870 of the commission appointed to inquire into the treatment of Fenian prisoners in English convict prisons (Brodrick, Memoirs, pp. 163-8).

Lord Devon was for many years the most influential man in his county, and was generally known as 'the good earl.' For fifty-two years he presided at quarter sessions, and he was at first director and then chairman of the Bristol and Exeter Railway. He made extensive improvements at Powderham Castle, planted the famous cedar avenue in its grounds, and aided in all the charitable foundations of Devonshire. In 1859 he built and endowed the church of St. Paul at Newton Abbot, where he was the chief landed proprietor. A statue of him, by E. B. Stephens, A.R.A., was placed in 1880 by public subscription in the Bedford Circus at Exeter.

In 1877, while riding through the plantations at Powderham on his seventieth birthday, Lord Devon was thrown from his horse. Though he did not altogether recover from this accident, he was engaged in active life until a few weeks before his death. He died at Powderham Castle on 18 Nov. 1888, and on 24 Nov. was buried in the family vault in the chancel of Powderham church. He married, at Filleigh, Devonshire, on 27 Dec. 1830, Lady Elizabeth Fortescue, youngest daughter of Hugh, first earl Fortescue. She was born in 1801, and died on 27 Jan. 1867. Memorials of her and her husband are in Powderham church. They had issue three sons and one daughter.

[Burke's Peerage; Foster's Peerage; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Barker and Stenning's Westminster School; Men of the Time, ed. 1887; Times, 19 Nov. 1888, p. 6; Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette, 19-26 Nov. 1888 ; Speaker Denison's Notes from my Journal, 1900, p. 244.]

W. P. C.