Who was Sydney Renée Courtauld?

Autumn view through a woodland alley, Ashridge Estate

Sydney Renée Courtauld (1873-1962) was a social reformer and philanthropist dedicated to improving women’s access to education. She helped secure part of the present Ashridge Estate for the National Trust.

Family background

Sydney Renée Courtauld was born into a wealthy family of Unitarian silk manufacturers based in Braintree, Essex.

The Courtauld family name is perhaps best known today in association with the Courtauld Institute and Gallery in London founded by her brother, Samuel. However, her family’s social impact through reform and philanthropy was far-reaching and included the promotion of workers’ and women’s rights.

Education, education, education

Courtauld was educated at Roedean and then Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892-4. It was here that her life-long conviction in the value of education was fostered.

Through her connection with Newnham she joined the Women’s University Settlement which placed university-educated women in deprived areas of London as social workers. It was governed by an executive board that included Octavia Hill, the social reformer and founder of the National Trust. The society aimed to improve the welfare of poorer urban communities through increased opportunities in education and recreation, particularly for women and children.

Votes for women

Courtauld’s concern with the lot of women in contemporary society led her to actively participate in the suffrage cause. She served in a range of roles including the secretary of the North and East Essex branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1913.

Open space at the Ashridge Estate

Though it is unclear how well acquainted Courtauld was with Octavia Hill during her time as a social worker in London, she shared in her belief of the importance of open spaces for the urban masses. Accordingly, in 1937 she donated a generous sum of money to secure a new portion of the Ashridge Estate for the National Trust. She continued her support of the Ashridge Estate in her capacity as a member of the Ashridge Committee of Management.

It is thanks to her and Professor G. M. Trevelyan, the then vice-chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Trust, that the Great and Little Frithsden Copses, Frithsden Green, and Berkhamsted Common were saved from development – the anticipated plight of much of the estate under private ownership – and preserved for the future enjoyment of the nation.

Legacy

Upon her death in 1962, Courtauld’s monetary bequests continued to facilitate her life-long dedication to improving women’s access to education.

From campaigning for votes for women to securing land for the National Trust, the legacy of Sydney Renée Courtauld’s philanthropic generosity and devotion to social reform still continues to provide opportunities for many people today.

Ashridge Estate in autumn

Ashridge Estate

Ashridge Estate boasts ancient trees, rolling chalk downlands and lush meadows.