COURTENAY, Lionel Thomas (1879–1935)
Senator for New South Wales, 1935 (United Australia Party)

Having won the 1935 federal election, Lionel Thomas Courtenay died before taking his seat. Though he had not been sworn in the Senate, the fact that Courtenay lived for ten days after the commencement of his Senate term made his estate eligible for a parliamentary allowance of £24.7.11.

Lionel Thomas Courtenay was born in Balmain, Sydney, on 29 May 1879, the son of Lionel Lewis Courtenay of England and Catherine, née Gleeson, of Ireland. His father was a labourer, then an engineer. Lionel was educated at Gardeners Road Public School, Sydney. At fourteen he became a messenger boy for a sanitary engineering firm, J. Tylor and Sons, moving through the company to be a traveller, then Australian general manager and ultimately the owner of the Australian branch. On 8 September 1902, at St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church, North Botany, he married a dressmaker, Anne Elizabeth Lee, with whom he had six children—Lionel, Bernard, Marie, Vincent, Maurice and Anne.

Courtenay’s entry into state and federal politics resulted from his strong involvement in local government, which began in 1906 when he was elected to the North Botany Council as an alderman, holding the position until 1910. He was elected also to other municipal councils—Mascot (1914–16) and Mosman (1917–22)—and was alderman for the ward of Phillip for the Sydney City Council (1921–27). Courtenay, who was described as ‘one of the most keen and fearless advocates of Local Government in New South Wales’, was an executive member of the Local Government Association for approximately thirteen years and president for two (1920–22). In 1919 while on a business trip overseas, he was commissioned ‘in an honorary capacity’ by the New South Wales Government to report on local government in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America. In 1920 he was involved with the establishment of the Citizens’ Reform Association, suggesting the name ‘Civic Reform Association’—a terminology finally adopted in 1960.

Other community involvement included the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society and membership of the Roman Catholic Cemetery Trust at Rookwood. From 1919 he was a director of radio station 2SM in Sydney. He was a member of various associations including the Chamber of Commerce, Chamber of Manufactures, Association of British Manufacturers and the Australian Jockey Club. From 1931 to 1935 he was a councillor and vice-president of the Town Planning Association. In 1933 he chaired the Building Trades Rehabilitation Advisory Committee. He was a member of the provisional committee appointed in February 1920 to establish the National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA), becoming an NRMA councillor and treasurer. He resigned before the end of 1920 in protest against staff reductions, though he continued to take a serious interest in roads and traffic.[1]

Courtenay’s political associations started with the Labor Party, though during the conscription debate in 1916 he sided with Prime Minister W. M. Hughes. Deserting Labor, he became a foundation member of the Nationalist Party in New South Wales, and the next year was New South Wales delegate to the Australian Nationalist Federation conference in Melbourne. In May 1931 he was a founding member of the United Australia Party in New South Wales. In that year also, he unsuccessfully contested the by-election for the federal seat of East Sydney, which was won for the Lang Labor Party by E. J. Ward. A year later, he was appointed a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council. Following the reconstitution of the Council in April 1934, he stood for election, but though successful resigned in August to contest a seat in the Senate.[2]

In the Legislative Council Courtenay quickly became the champion of local government and the building trade. While conceding that he had been appointed to the Council to support the UAP–CP Coalition Government, he nevertheless opposed measures calculated to limit the employment of married women as teachers. Mentioning his experience as a member of the Metropolitan Tramway Trust (of which he had been a member in 1930) he opposed the control of Sydney’s trams by the New South Wales Government. Strongly supportive of citizens’ rights, he considered it ‘ridiculous’ that the Government should impose penalties for those ‘buying a few eggs on the roadside’. He saw the Sydney Corporation (Amendment) Bill’s proposal to remove the management of Sydney electricity from the corporation to the state Parliament as the beginning of a general attack on services. According to the Shire and Municipal Record, Courtenay ‘put Right before Party’, though the Stevens–Bruxner UAP Ministry may not have agreed.[3]

In 1933 Courtenay was chairman of a building relief committee, appointed by the New South Wales Government for administering government building loans as a means of reducing unemployment. In this capacity he expressed publicly his annoyance that the federal War Service Homes Commissioner refused to assist New South Wales by providing security for those seeking funds for repairs for war service homes. ‘It seems strange’, he said, ‘that a Federal department should hinder an effort of the State Government to provide more employment’.[4]

Perhaps it was the hope of bringing federal pressure to bear on such matters, as well as his intention to use the federal sphere in his work to uphold local government, that led him to contest the Senate at the federal election in September. Despite serious illness, he ran a strong campaign for the UAP and was elected the second senator for New South Wales, due to take up his seat on 1 July 1935.

He died on 11 July at his home in Sydney Street, Willoughby, and was buried in Rookwood Cemetery after a Requiem Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, celebrated by his son, Father Bernard Courtenay. His wife and all six children survived him. Upon being informed that he was dying, Courtenay had written to Hughes, then federal Minister for Health, offering his body, either before or after his death, for medical research. Hughes consulted with the Director-General of Health, Dr J. H. Cumpston. It was decided that an examination for medical research would be undertaken post-mortem.

When Parliament returned, it was announced that Labor’s James Guy Dalley Arkins had been appointed to the vacancy. Senator George Pearce noted Courtenay’s thirty-four years of public service and his expertise in local government. In the New South Wales Parliament, E. H. Farrar referred to his friend’s fortitude, his religious conviction, and to the fact that his greatest ambition had been to enter federal politics. Perhaps due to his early years in Balmain, Courtenay seems to have placed public service above material gain, and furthermore expected it of others; in 1920 he expressed some disapproval of the large salaries drawn by the commissioners of the Citizens’ Reform Association. In 1936 the Lord Mayor of Sydney unveiled a memorial to Courtenay at the Roman Catholic cemetery at Rookwood. It was donated by ‘the citizens of Sydney’.[5]

John Williams 

[1] Letter, Acting Clerk of the Senate to Mrs L. T. Courtenay, 24 July 1935, Senate Registry File, A8161, S60, NAA; SMH, 12 July 1935, p. 12; Frederick A. Larcombe, The History of Botany 1788–1963, Council of the Municipality of Botany, [1963], p. 231; Renato Perdon (comp.), Sydney’s Aldermen: A Biographical Register of Sydney City Aldermen 1842–1992, Sydney City Council, Sydney, 1997; H. E. Maiden, The History of Local Government in New South Wales, A & R, Sydney, 1966, pp. 308–9; Shire and Municipal Record (Syd.), 28 Oct. 1920, p. 154, 21 Aug. 1919, pp. 56–8; F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales 1906 to the Present, SUP, Sydney, 1978, pp. 28–9; Hilary Golder, Sydney’s Electoral History: A Short Electoral History of Sydney City Council 1842–1992, Sydney City Council, Sydney, 1995, p. 39; Rosemary Broomham, On the Road: The NRMA’s First Seventy-Five Years, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1996, pp. 3, 16, 17, 19, 32; The editor is indebted to Mike Skennar for information on Courtney and the Hibernian Society, and to Andy Carr, SLNSW, and Robyn Vincin, Local Government and Shires Associations, NSW, for information.

[2] Joan Rydon, A Federal Legislature: The Australian Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1980, OUP, Melbourne, 1986, p. 139; NSWPD, 8 Aug. 1934, p. 2590.

[3] NSWPD, 6 Oct. 1932, pp. 820–4, 27 Oct. 1932, pp. 1548–9; Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government, pp. 310–11, 74–5; NSWPD, 31 July 1934, p. 2313, 5 July 1934, p. 1630; Shire and Municipal Record (Syd.), 28 July 1935, p. 150, 28 July 1934, p. 5.

[4] DT (Syd.), 16 Mar. 1933, p. 9; SMH, 17 May 1934, p. 9; DT (Syd.), 8 Feb. 1933, p. 10.

[5] SMH, 5 Oct. 1934, p. 16; Argus (Melb.), 13 July 1935, p. 20, 12 July 1935, p. 9; CPD, 1 Oct. 1935, p. 314, 23 Sept. 1935, pp. 5–6, 26; NSWPD, 12 Sept. 1935, pp. 47–50; SMH, 10 Aug. 1936, p. 5.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 414-416.

COURTENAY, Lionel Thomas (1879–1935)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1935

New South Wales Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, 1932–34