Courtenay Ilbert

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Sir Courtenay Ilbert
Courtenay Ilbert.jpg
Born(1841-06-12)12 June 1841
Kingsbridge, Devon, England
Died14 May 1924(1924-05-14) (aged 82)
Alma materBalliol College, Oxford
OccupationLawyer, Civil servant
Known forIlbert Bill
Legislative Methods and Forms
RelativesLettice Fisher (daughter) Mary Bennett (grand-daughter)

Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert GCB KCSI CIE FBA (12 June 1841 – 14 May 1924) was a distinguished British lawyer and civil servant who served as legal adviser to the Viceroy of India's Council for many years until his eventual return from India to England. His later career included appointments as the Parliamentary Counsel to the British Treasury and as Clerk of the House of Commons from 1902 to 1921.

Early life[edit]

Ilbert was born at Kingsbridge to Reverend Peregrine Arthur Ilbert and Rose Anne (daughter of George Welsh Owen) on 12 June 1841. He was educated at Marlborough College (1852–60) and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was Hertford, Ireland, Craven, and Eldon law scholar. He graduated with first class honours in Literae Humaniores and was elected a fellow of Balliol in 1864.[1]

Personal life[edit]

Ilbert married Jessie, daughter of Reverend Charles Bradley and niece of George Bradley, former headmaster of Marlborough College in 1874. They had five daughters, the oldest, Lettice Fisher became the first to head the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child.[1] His fourth daughter Margaret Peregrina Ilbert (1882–1952) married Sir Arthur Cochrane of the College of Arms.

Ilbert was an outdoorsman in his youth and he climbed in Chamonix (1871 with Leslie Stephen and M. Loppe)[2] the Hekla in Iceland and the Vignemale in the Pyrenees in 1872-73 with James Bryce.[3] When Ilbert lived in Simla, at Chapslee house, he founded a Simla Natural History Society around 1885 but the organization dissolved when he left Simla in 1886.[4]

Ilbert died a few months after the death of his wife at his home in Troutwells, Buckinghamshire on 14 May 1924.[1]

Legal career[edit]

Ilbert was called to bar (Lincoln's Inn) in 1869. He joined the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the department for drafting parliamentary bills. His expertise in drafting bills attracted the attention of Sir Henry Thring who invited him to help prepare bills. The Marquess of Ripon sought a Liberal and an imaginative lawyer who could succeed the likes of Lord Macaulay, Sir Henry Maine, and Sir James Fitzjames Stephen. Ilbert was identified in this role and made a legal member of the Council of Governor-General of India from 1882-6. During this period he introduced a draft which came to be called the Ilbert Bill in 1883 for British India that proposed an amendment for existing laws in the country at the time to allow Indian judges and magistrates the jurisdiction to try British offenders in criminal cases at the District level, something that was disallowed at the time. This faced much opposition from Europeans in India as well as influential figures in England like Sir Fitzjames Stephen. The extent of Ilbert's personal beliefs in preparing this document are unknown but this draft led to a major discussions on the purpose of colonialism, the welfare of subjects, and racial equality resulting in the draft bill being modified greatly.[1]

He was appointed assistant parliamentary counsel to Treasury in 1886 and parliamentary counsel in 1899. In February 1902, Ilbert was appointed Clerk of the House of Commons,[5] and he served as such until 1921.[1]


Ilbert was invested as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India in 1895, as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1908, and as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1911. He was a founding fellow of the British Academy (1903).[1]


Ilbert reflected on laws and law-making and wrote several books on parliamentary and legislative procedure and history that were highly regarded. Jurists like Sir Carleton Kemp Allen praised his knowledge of parliamentary procedure but felt he was outdated. He pointed out to how government initiatives were modified into legally actionable forms but many[weasel words]considered Ilbert to be outdated and old-fashioned in putting faith in public opinion to exert corrective action on legislative abuses.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Cocks, R.C.J. (2004). "Ilbert, Sir Courtenay Peregrine". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34090. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Maitland, Frederic William (1906). The life and letters of Leslie Stephen. London: Duckworth & Co. p. 94.
  3. ^ Carlyle, E.I. (1937). "Bryce, James". Dictionary of National Biography (1922-1930). Oxford University Press. pp. 127–135.
  4. ^ Buck, Edward J. (1904). Past and Present. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink and Co. pp. 33, 195.
  5. ^ "No. 27408". The London Gazette. 18 February 1902. p. 1037.

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Henry Jenkyns
First Parliamentary Counsel
Succeeded by
Sir Mackenzie Dalzell Chalmers