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F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

British politician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro British politician
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Politician Judge Barrister
Gender male
Birth 12 July 1872 (Birkenhead, Wirral, Merseyside, North West England)
Death 30 September 1930 (London, Greater London, London, England)
Star sign Cancer
Politics Conservative Party
Children: Eleanor Smith
Education University of Liverpool, Wadham College
The details

Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, (12 July 1872 – 30 September 1930), known as F. E. Smith, was a British Conservative politician and barrister who attained high office in the early 20th century, in particular as Lord Chancellor. He was a skilled orator, noted for his staunch opposition to Irish nationalism, his wit, pugnacious views, and hard living and drinking. He is perhaps best remembered today as Winston Churchill's greatest personal and political friend until Birkenhead's death aged 58 from pneumonia caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

Early life and education

Smith was born in Birkenhead in Cheshire, the eldest son of Frederick Smith and Elizabeth Taylor.

He was educated at a dame school in the town, Sandringham School at Southport, then, (having failed entry exams to Harrow), at Birkenhead School from 1887 to 1889. After four terms at the University College of Liverpool, he went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1891, where he was a contemporary of the politician John Simon and the athlete C. B. Fry.

He became President of the Oxford Union, where a bust of him now stands. He obtained a Second in Mods before switching to Law, in which he obtained a First. However, to his disappointment, he only obtained a Second in his Bachelor of Civil Law degree. After winning the Vinerian Scholarship he was appointed as a Fellow of Merton College in 1896, and also a lecturership at Oriel College,

In May 1897 Smith went to see HRH the Prince of Wales open the new Oxford Town Hall. University undergraduates were expected to mount a large demonstration, so a detachment of the Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch had been drafted in to reinforce the small Oxford City Police force. The Metropolitan officers were unused to Oxford undergraduates, and considered the boisterous crowd a danger. The officers attacked the crowd with batons, causing several serious injuries. The crowd reciprocated, unhorsing one officer and trampling him.

Smith took no part in the disorder, but he saw his college servant in the crowd being manhandled by police officers. He went to rescue his servant but was himself arrested. The new Town Hall included a new police station, and Smith was made the first prisoner in one of its cells. Before entering, Smith raised his hands for silence. He declared "I have great pleasure in declaring this cell open". He was ushered in and the door slammed shut. The police charged Smith with obstructing police officers in the lawful execution of their duty. He was tried but found not guilty after defending himself in court. All of this made F.E. even more of an Oxford legend.

Career as an advocate

Smith continued to teach law at Oxford until 1899, when he was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn, where the Birkenhead Award bears his name. The F.E. Smith Memorial Mooting Prizes commemorate him at Merton.

Smith married Margaret Eleanor Furneaux, daughter of classical scholar Henry Furneaux, in April 1901 and they had three children, Eleanor Smith, Frederick and Pamela Smith.

Smith rapidly acquired a reputation as a formidable advocate, first in Liverpool and then in London. In 1907 he was asked to give an opinion on a proposed libel action by the Lever Brothers against newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe concerning the latter's allegations of a conspiracy to raise the price of soap by means of a 'soap trust'. He checked into the Savoy and, after working all night reading a pile of papers nearly four feet thick and consuming a bottle of champagne and two dozen oysters, Smith wrote a one-sentence opinion: "There is no answer to this action in libel, and the damages must be enormous". The newspapers subsequently paid Lever £50,000, more than four times the previous record for a defamation action or out-of-court published settlement in the country.

In February 1908, Smith was made a King's Counsel by Lord Loreburn, on the same day as his friend and rival from Wadham College, future Home Secretary Sir John Simon.

At the Bar, he became one of the best known and most highly paid barristers in the country, making over £10,000 per year before the First World War. His spending was commensurate with this income even after he took lower paid jobs in government in later years, something of which he would bitterly complain.

In one of the best-known cases in which Smith was involved he successfully defended Ethel le Neve, mistress of Hawley Harvey Crippen ("Dr Crippen") against a charge of murder. Le Neve was accused of killing Crippen's wife. Crippen was tried separately and convicted.

Member of Parliament

"A Successful First Speech ("Moab is my Washpot")"
FE Smith MP depicted in Vanity Fair, January 1907

Smith twice unsuccessfully stood for Parliament in Liverpool, for Scotland division in a by-election in 1903, and for Walton division in 1905 before he entered the House of Commons representing Walton in 1906. He attracted attention by a brilliant maiden speech, "I warn the Government..." After this speech, Tim Healy, the Irish Nationalist, a master of parliamentary invective, sent Smith a note, "I am old, and you are young, but you have beaten me at my own game."

Smith did not support restriction on the powers of the House of Lords, fearing that tyranny could result from an unchecked unicameral parliament. He was soon a prominent leader of the Unionist wing of the Conservative Party, especially in the planned Ulster resistance to Irish Home Rule in 1912–14, during which time he was known as 'Galloper Smith'.

Smith was a vociferous opponent of the Disestablishment of the Welsh part of the Church of England, calling the Welsh Disestablishment Bill introduced into parliament in 1913 "a bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe". This prompted G. K. Chesterton to write a satirical poem, “Antichrist, Or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode”, which asked if Breton sailors, Russian peasants and Christians evicted by the Turks would know or care of what happened to the Anglican Church of Wales, and answered the question with the line "Chuck it, Smith".

The bill was approved by Parliament, under the provisions of the Parliament Act 1911 but its implementation delayed by the outbreak of the First World War. When it was finally implemented in 1920, Smith was part of the Lloyd George Coalition that did so.

Following abolition of the Walton seat in constituency boundary changes, Smith was returned at the December 1918 general election for neighbouring West Derby Division, only to be elevated to the House of Lords two months later.

First World War

Smith had joined the Territorial Army by commission into the Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars, in which Churchill was already an officer, in 1913, and was a captain in the regiment before the outbreak of the First World War. On its outbreak he was placed in charge of the Government's Press Bureau, with rank of full colonel and responsibility for newspaper censorship. He was not very successful in this role, and in 1914–1915 served in France as a staff officer with the Indian Corps with ultimate temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel. He and his successor as 'recording officer' (a Colonel Merewether) later collaborated on an official history entitled The Indian Corps in France (published 1917).

In May 1915, he was appointed Solicitor General by H. H. Asquith and knighted. He soon after (in October 1915) succeeded his friend Sir Edward Carson as Attorney General, with the right to attend Cabinet. Early in 1916 he was briefly placed under military arrest for arriving at Boulogne without a pass, and had to be 'appeased' by a meeting with General Sir Douglas Haig.

As Attorney General, it was his responsibility to lead the prosecution for the Crown in major cases such as the trial in 1916 of the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement for treason. Sir Roger had been captured after landing from a Kaiserliche Marine U-boat on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay in north County Kerry, south-west Ireland, just a few days before the Easter Rising in late April 1916.

Smith was made a baronet in 1918.

Postwar Coalition: Lord Chancellor

Sir F. E. Smith, newly created Lord Birkenhead, on his appointment as Lord Chancellor

In 1919, he was created Baron Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Cheshire following his appointment as Lord Chancellor by Lloyd George. At the age of 47, he was the youngest Lord Chancellor since Judge Jeffreys. The Morning Post dismissed his appointment as "carrying a joke beyond the limits of pleasantry", while the King urged Lloyd George to reconsider.

That year, in the House of Lords debate on the Amritsar Massacre, he courageously denounced Tories who declared General Dyer (the responsible officer) a hero. He played a key role in the passage of several key legal reforms, including the reform of English land law which was to come to fruition in the mid-1920s. He also unsuccessfully championed a reform of the divorce laws, which he judged caused great misery and which favoured the wealthy.

Despite his Unionist background, Smith played an important role in the negotiations that led to the signature of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which led to the formation of the Irish Free State the following year. Much of the treaty was drafted by Smith. His support for this, and his warm relations with the Irish nationalist leaders Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, angered some of his former Unionist associates, notably Sir Edward Carson. Upon signing the Treaty he remarked to Collins, "I may have just signed my political death warrant", to which Collins dryly and with premonitory accuracy replied, "I have just signed my actual death warrant". Collins was killed by opponents of the treaty eight months after the signing, during the Irish Civil War.

Also in 1921, he was responsible for the House of Lords rejecting a proposal, put forward by Frederick Alexander Macquisten, MP for Argyllshire, to criminalise lesbianism. During the debate, Birkenhead argued that 999 women out of a thousand had "never even heard a whisper of these practices".

Smith was created Viscount Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Chester, in the 1921 Birthday Honours, then Viscount Furneaux, of Charlton in the County of Northampton, and Earl of Birkenhead in 1922. By 1922 Birkenhead and Churchill had become the leading figures of the Lloyd George Coalition. The Anglo-Irish Treaty, the attempt to go to war with Turkey over Chanak (which was later vetoed by the governments of the Dominions) and a general whiff of moral and financial corruption which had come to surround the Coalition were all hallmarks of his tenure in office.

A scandal erupted in 1922 when it became known that Lloyd George, through the agency of Maundy Gregory, had awarded honours and titles such as a baronetcy to rich businessmen in return for cash in the range of £10,000 and more. At an earlier meeting before Parliament broke up for the summer, and more famously at the Carlton Club meeting in October 1922, Birkenhead's hectoring of the junior ministers and backbenchers was one of the factors leading to the withdrawal of support from the Coalition.

Subsequent political career

Like many of the senior members of the Coalition, Birkenhead did not hold office in the Bonar Law and Baldwin governments of 1922–24. Unlike the others Birkenhead was rude and open in his contempt for the new governments. He sneered that Sir George Younger was "the cabin boy" who had taken over the ship, he referred to Lords Salisbury and Selborne as "the Dolly Sisters" after two starlets of the era and remarked that the new Cabinet was one of "second-class brains", to which the reply – variously attributed to Stanley Baldwin and Lord Robert Cecil – came that this was better than "second-class characters".

Even a famous speech, the Rectorial Address to Glasgow University of November 1923, in which Birkenhead told undergraduates that the world still offered "glittering prizes" to those with "stout hearts and sharp swords", now seemed out of kilter with the less aggressive and more self-consciously moral style of politics advocated by the new generation of Conservative politicians such as Stanley Baldwin and Edward Wood, the future Lord Halifax.

In the House of Lords he accused the Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon (who had deserted the Coalition in its final hours and thus retained his office under Bonar Law) of making unauthorised promises of support to Greece in her war against Turkey; he was forced to apologise when Curzon produced the key documents which he had circulated to the Cabinet, and which Birkenhead had initialled as read. Lady Curzon retaliated by cutting Birkenhead at a ball, but as she remarked to her husband in a letter, he was "too drunk to notice" the snub.

A 1924 entry in Evelyn Waugh's diary states that an English High Court judge, presiding in a sodomy case, sought advice on sentencing from Lord Birkenhead. "Could you tell me," he asked, "what do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?" Birkenhead replied without hesitation, "Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds; whatever you happen to have on you."

From 1924 to 1928 he served as Secretary of State for India in Baldwin's second government. Baldwin had allegedly declined to reappoint him to the woolsack on the grounds that it would be inappropriate for the Lord Chancellor to be seen drunk in the street. His views on pre-partition India's independence movement were gloomy. He thought India's Hindu-Muslim religious divide insurmountable and sought to block advances in native participation in provincial governments that had been granted by the 1919 Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms. His parliamentary private secretary recalled much time ostensibly on India Office business seemed to be spent playing golf.

He was engaged outside the office in negotiating for the government with the Trades Union Congress to try to avert the 1926 General Strike and he strongly supported the 1927 Trades Disputes Act which required union members to contract into the political levies. It was in his government role that in October 1927 he unveiled the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial to Indian Army soldiers of no known grave killed on the Western Front in the 1914–18 War.

Later life and assessments

His increasingly pompous oratory caused David Low to caricature him in the 1920s as "Lord Burstinghead". After retiring from politics, he became Rector of the University of Aberdeen, a director of Tate & Lyle, a director of Imperial Chemical Industries, and High Steward of the University of Oxford. In a 1983 biography review, William Camp — who had written a 1960 biography of the man — opined that "F.E. was the quintessential male chauvinist who, almost with his dying breath, dragged himself to the Lords in July 1930 to attack the right of peeresses to take their seats."

In the opinion of Winston Churchill, who was a friend: "He had all the canine virtues in a remarkable degree – courage, fidelity, vigilance, love of chase." As for Margot Asquith, who was not a friend, she thought: "F. E. Smith is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head." Of Birkenhead's loyalty, Churchill added: "If he was with you on Monday, he would be the same on Tuesday. And on Thursday, when things looked blue, he would still be marching forward with strong reinforcements."

Gilbert Frankau recalled in his own autobiography Self Portrait, that in 1928 Sir Thomas Horder confided: "Birkenhead's pure eighteenth-century. He belongs to the days of Fox and Pitt. Physically, he has all the strength of our best yeoman stock. Mentally, he's a colossus. But he'll tear himself to pieces by the time he's sixty."

Birkenhead died in London aged 58 from pneumonia caused by cirrhosis of the liver. After cremation at Golders Green Crematorium, his ashes were buried in the parish churchyard at Charlton, Northamptonshire.


As "Lord Birkenhead", he is dramatised in the film Chariots of Fire, as an official of the British Olympic Committee. He is played by actor Nigel Davenport.

In the year of his death, he published his utopian The World in 2030 A.D. with airbrush illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer. The book was the subject of considerable controversy as several passages were alleged to have been copied from earlier works by J. B. S. Haldane.



As counsel

As judge

  • Viscountess Rhondda's Claim [1922] 2 AC 339, right of peeresses to sit in the House of Lords
  • R v Secretary of State for Home Affairs, ex p O'Brien [1923] AC 691, legality of British policy of internment in Ireland
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