1783: Isabella Courtenay and her niece

In the summer of 1781, in the nineteenth year of their marriage, William’s parents became grandparents when Frances, the eldest of their children, gave birth. Frances Courtenay had married her cousin John Honywood and the couple’s first child was named after the two grandmothers – Frances for lady Courtenay and Elizabeth for her widowed sister Honywood who lived at Alphington, between Powderham and Exeter in Devon.

As was the way of things for most of her married life, lady Courtenay herself was pregnant when her grandchild was born. She had given birth the year before to Sophie, her twelfth daughter, and now she was carrying Louisa who was to be her last child, born at the family’s London house on Christmas Day.

Louisa was baptised at Powderham in January but the family was soon back in London so that lord Courtenay could attend parliament. After the war in North America had ended in victory for the Thirteen Colonies and their French and Spanish allies, the British government was in crisis. The prime minister had resigned, the opposition was preparing to take power and king George III had drafted a letter of abdication:

‘His Majesty therefore with much sorrow finds he can be of no further utility to his native country which drives him to the painful step of quitting it for ever.’

In the midst of all this excitement lady Courtenay’s death in March 1782 passed almost unnoticed. She died before any more of her 50 or so grandchildren were born.

Several years later, in 1800, the Gentleman’s Magazine published a letter from ‘Investigator’ in which he recalled a visit to Powderham:

‘There were also at that time at large in the park a nice breed of pyed pea-fowls, in which the late lady Courtney, whose prudence and good conduct in her once unexpected high situation was always exemplary, took great delight.’

The family observed a year of formal mourning, both in their dress and in the style of hospitality and entertainment at their houses. The marriage in September between lord Courtenay’s youngest sister, Charlotte Courtenay, and lord Loughborough could not be celebrated at Powderham or any of the other houses lived in by the family but took place near the home of her sister Frances Wrottesley in Staffordshire.

Throughout that year political crisis had continued at Westminster. The new administration had been forced out of office and was about to be replaced by an unhappy and short-lived coalition of its opponents. By the beginning of March 1783 the Powderham family was back in London although lord Courtenay had not yet resumed attendance at parliament.

The family’s London house was 16 Grosvenor Square – on the north side, between Brook Street and Upper Brook Street. Lord Courtenay’s father had bought the lease in 1755 while he was still sir William Courtenay, a baronet and one of the members of parliament for the county of Devon.

One evening lady Honywood was visiting with her daughter. They were sitting by a fire with Isabella, the third of lady Courtenay’s children, when a spark flew out, or perhaps the poker accidentally fell from the grate. Within seconds Isabella Courtenay’s dress was aflame:

‘she was so miserably burnt before any assistance could be procured, that she died at two o’clock next morning in the greatest agonies. No person was in the room when the melancholy accident happened except her sister, Lady Honywood, and her child, who were not capable of affording any assistance, the former falling into fits. The young lady, when her cloaths caught fire, ran out of the room, and from room to room, without meeting with any one to give her the least aid, until it was too late to overcome the flames. It is generally thought her immediate death, however, was owing to the fright.’

As with other publications which reported the accident, the Annual Register continued with advice to other ladies about how best to deal with an event of this kind:

‘In such cases, the first thought should be to avoid running about; to fall down and roll one’s self up in the carpet, or in the bed-quilt, as the safest and most certain expedient; but the horror and trepidation are generally such as to prevent the mind from taking the necessary steps for deliverance.’

Isabella, ‘who was most elegantly accomplished, and had almost completed her 18th year’, was the first of lady Courtenay’s children to die. She was buried at Powderham a year after her mother.

In the next spring the king and his new prime minister, the younger William Pitt, had secured a major victory in the general election for the British parliament. Sir John Honywood, who had inherited a baronetcy from his grandfather in the same month as his daughter Frances Elizabeth was born, became one of the new members of the House of Commons, returned by the 100 or so electors of the Kent borough of Steyning. During the summer of 1784 he visited the studio of sir Joshua Reynolds to have his portrait painted, alongside a large and glossy dog. In the same season sir Joshua painted lady Honywood with her daughter.

Reynolds, Joshua, 1723-1792; The Honourable Frances Courtenay, Lady Honeywood (b.1763), and Her Daughter

Frances Elizabeth married in 1802 by which time she had several sisters as well as a brother John. Her husband Aubone Surtees, an army officer in the 11th Light Dragoons, came from a family of wine merchants prominent in the civic life of Newcastle-upon-Tyne; he himself became mayor of the town in 1821. Both are listed in an 1827 directory for Newcastle: ‘Surtees Fanny, gentlewoman’ at 7 Saville Place, and ‘Surtees Aubone, wine, &c. merchant’ with his home at Saville Place and a business address at 14 Sandhill.

Frances became the mother of eight daughters and five sons. In 1851 she was still living at Saville Place with two of her grown-up children – Villiers Charles Villiers, the elder of her two surviving sons, and Augusta Matilda. Aubone lived on for most of the decade, through the Crimean War and the Indian Rebellion, dying in September 1859 at the age of 82. He was buried in the cemetery at Jesmond, in the same grave as his wife.

Frances Elizabeth survived not just her sisters and her brother, sir John Courtenay Honywood, but also his son and successor, sir John Edward Honywood. The young sir Courtenay Honywood had inherited the baronetcy by the time his great-aunt died at the age of 73 in August 1854 at Pigdon Cottage, the Northumberland home of her youngest son Honywood Graham Surtees.

Her uncle William had parted with the house in Grosvenor Square to Richard Howard of Castle Rising (Norfolk) half a century before. It was afterwards renumbered from 16 to 17, and in the 20th century demolished. Both the portraits by Reynolds survive – the painting of Frances Elizabeth with her mother is now in the collection of Bristol City Art Gallery.


Joshua Reynolds: the hon. lady Honywood and her daughter, 1784.


The portrait of sir John Honywood can be viewed online at Historical Portraits archive: