Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert was a prominent British lawyer and civil servant. He served as legal adviser to the Viceroy of India’s Council for many years until his eventual return from India to England.
Ilbert was born on 12 June 1841 at Kingsbridge to Reverend Peregrine Arthur Ilbert and Rose Anne (daughter of George Welsh Owen).
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 honors in Literae Humaniores and was elected a fellow of Balliol in 1864.
In 1874, Ilbert married Jessie, daughter of Reverend Charles Bradley and niece of George Bradley, former headmaster of Marlborough College.
They had five daughters. The oldest, Lettice Fisher became the first to head the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child. 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) the Hekla in Iceland and the Vignemale in the Pyrenees in 1872–73 with James Bryce.
When Ilbert lived in Simla, at Chapslee’s house, he founded a Simla Natural History Society around 1885. But, in 1886, the organization dissolved when he left Simla.
Ilbert died on 14 May 1924 at his home in Troutwells, Buckinghamshire, a few months after the death of his wife.
In 1869, he was called to bar (Lincoln’s Inn). He joined the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, the department for planning parliamentary bills. His expertise in drafting bills drew the attention of Sir Henry Thring who invited him to help prepare bills.
The Marquess of Ripon asked 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 began a draft which came to be called the Ilbert Bill in 1883 for British India that offered 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 allowed much opposition from Europeans in India as well as important figures in England like Sir Fitzjames Stephen. The extent of Ilbert’s personal beliefs in preparing this document is unknown but this draft led to a major discussion on the purpose of colonialism, the welfare of subjects, and racial equality resulting in the draft bill being modified greatly.
He was appointed assistant parliamentary counsel to Treasury in 1886 and First Parliamentary Counsel in 1899. In February 1902, Ilbert was appointed Clerk of the House of Commons, and he served as such until 1921.
Ilbert was invested as:
- Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India in 1895
- Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1908
- Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1911
He was a founding Fellow of the British Academy (1903).