Papers of the Courtney family of Beverley deposited by Sir Christopher Courtney

Scope and Content

The most substantial material relates to John Courtney (1734-1806) and his son, the Reverend John Courtney (1769-1845). The bulk of the material for the former is at DDX/60/1-7 and comprises four journals ('Diary of Occurrences etc') for the years 1759-1767 and 1788-1805, a letter book 1787-1791, a book of rentals 1796-1806 and the household account book kept in the final two years of his life.

The bulk of material for his son is at DDX/60/8-15 and solely comprises correspondence about the rentals and tenancy agreements on his properties in Beverley and other places. DDX/60/16 is the correspondence of his lawyer with his widow just after his death.

Between DDX/60/17 and DDX/60/49 there are miscellaneous papers which include the wills of Richard Kirkby (1590), George Wilkinson (1616) and James Hall (1641), as well as a number of seventeenth-century sales and settlements, especially in Hessle, of the Baxter, Clarke and Hall families. Eighteenth century documents largely relate to the land ownership of John Courtney's grandmother, Elizabeth Nelson, and his mother's family, the Featherstones, all of Beverley. He inherited property from his uncle, aunt, mother and grandmother and a copy of a settlement (1764) relating to this considerable inheritance is at DDX/60/47. There is also an 1801 plan of his estate at DDX/60/38 and a plan of the lands belonging to his son in 1813 at DDX/60/42.

DDX/60/50 is a bundle of letters dated 1769-1828; these are addressed to the older John Courtney, his wife, Mary Smelt (d.1805) and to the Reverend John Courtney. They come from the Smelts and Franklands (including Thomas Frankland, 6th baronet, MP and botanist), all members of Mary Smelt's family. They contain much family news, though letters from Major William Smelt (later General) and Lieutenant Leonard Smelt are very informative on the Canadian War of 1812 (he is very critical of the conduct of the army) and of a dangerous voyage to India in 1814 respectively. This bundle of letters contains biographical notes by Sir Christopher Courtney about the correspondents represented and family members mentioned in the letters.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Courtney was the son of John Courtney of Wakefield and Elizabeth Bourdenand nee Featherstone of Beverley. His father had been in the East India Company and served a spell as governor of Surat. John Courtney was born in Beverley in 1734 and attended Beverley Grammar School before being admitted as pensioner at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1752. He inherited land and property in Beverley and the surrounding area from his grandmother, mother and from his uncle and aunt, Ralph and Margaret Featherstone, and went to live in Beverley. His diaries, which begin in 1759, are thus filled with local information about Beverley elections, the Minster, the Assembly Rooms, the Beverley races, turnpikes, the Beverley Arms, the Beverley Bank, the East Riding Bank, the coffee house at the Blue Bell and so on. All the main local families are included in his gossip; the Legards, the Broadleys, the Barnards, the Gees, the Stricklands- Mark Sykes he calls 'an artful cunning fellow'. The elopement of Captain Hotham and Miss Gee in 1792 rates a mention.

On 8 June 1759 he recorded 'This day I kept my act in the law schools'; he had been in Cambridge for a while before taking his LLB and the diary is quite good for college talk. He used his legal qualification to manage his lands and property. He was also heavily involved in the local militia (the diary is filled with reference to East Riding militia activities), possibly as a response to the threatening international events that he also recorded. In 1762 and 1763 he was recording his thoughts on the war with Spain, and the French Revolution later gets good coverage. By 1792 he was saying of events in France: 'What a terrible tragedy...what savage wretches'. This eventful year also sees him recording tea conversations with William Wilberforce (who rates further mentions through the decade), as well as his thoughts on the slave trade and the publication of Tom Paine's Rights of Man. In 1802 he was recording his thoughts on Horatio Nelson and the Peace of Amiens.

John Courtney married Mary Smelt (b.circa 1744), daughter of William Smelt and Ursula Hankin and sister in law to the botanist Sir Thomas Frankland (1750-1831), 6th baronet, and Colonel Cornelius Smelt (c.1748-1832), lieutenant governor of the Isle of Man. Her uncle, Leonard Smelt, was sub-governor to the sons of George III. John Courtney and Mary had at least five sons and three daughters: John (see below), Ralph (b.1770 and died the same year), Cornelius, who was weak and died at the age of 20 in 1793, Henry (1774-1844), Thomas (1776-1818) and Septimus (1779-1843), Mary (1777-1787), Margaret Jesse (b.1780) and Dorothy Anne (b.1781). These children receive mention throughout John Courtney's diaries and they are also much mentioned in the correspondence from Mary Smelt's family.

Mary Smelt died at the very end of 1805 and her husband died the following year. Their eldest son, John Courtney, inherited his father's lands. He had been born in Beverley in 1769 and was admitted pensioner to his father's old college, Trinity, in 1788. He took MA in 1795 and was ordained as a priest in the same year. He had some difficulty getting livings and moved around a bit, though most of his career was spent as rector of Goxhill, Yorkshire (1801-8) and then Sanderstead, near Croydon in Surrey (1821-45). He was a pluralist- while at Sanderstead, he continued to be incumbent at Goxhill (1818-45) and his curate, the Reverend Christopher Forge, reported back on his charities, his rents and rectorial tithes at Goxhill (DDX/60/15). John Courtney, like his father before him, was able to live well on the proceeds of his landlordism; his tenants in Beverley ranged from yeoman farmers like John Wilson of Storkhill farm to John Lockwood, his solicitor, and Dr Berkeley who rented his property in Newbegin Lane, Beverley.

The younger John Courtney married first Caroline Ferrers and then Sophia Elizabeth Catherine Poggenpohl of St Petersburg. When he died in 1845 letters from his lawyer, Henry John Shepherd, to his widow, indicate that his land agents, John and Thomas Lee, may have embezzled some of his rents over the years. The family papers terminate at about this time.

Conditions Governing Access

Access will be granted to any accredited reader

Custodial History

Deposited 27 November 1958 [DDX/60/1-45], 6 August 1966 [DDX/58/46-48], 23 February 1967 [DDX/58/49], 18 January 1972 [DDX/58/50] and 1 June 1972 [DDX/58/51]

Related Material

Hull University Archives:

DDMM/29/29; DDCV(2)/50/3; DRA/544

Other repositories:

Thomas Frankland letters in correspondence of Joseph Banks


  • Susan & David Neave eds., The diary of a Yorkshire gentleman: John Courtney of Beverley, 1759-1768 (Otley: Smith Settle, 2001)
  • Venn, J A, Alumni Cantabrigienses, ii, 1 (1922-54)