F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, GCSI, PC (12 July 187230 September 1930) was a British Conservative statesman and lawyer of the early 20th century. 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 untimely death at age 58.

Early life and education

Smith was born in Birkenhead in Cheshire and was educated at Birkenhead School. After a brief two years at the University College of Liverpool, he went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1896, 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 only a Second in Mods before switching to Law, in which he obtained a First and won the Vinerian Scholarship, although to his disappointment he only obtained a Second in his Bachelor of Civil Law degree. After winning a Fellowship of Merton College he taught law at Oxford until 1899, when he was called to the Bar at Gray's Inn, where the Birkenhead Award bears his name.

Smith rapidly acquired a reputation as a formidable advocate, first in Liverpool and then in London. He married Margaret Eleanor Furneaux in April 1901 and they had three children, Eleanor, Frederick and Pamela. In 1907, Smith was famously asked to give an opinion on a proposed defamation action by the Lever Brothers against newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe concerning allegations of a conspiracy to raise the price of soap by means of a 'soap trust'. After working all night reading a pile of papers nearly four feet thick and consuming a bottle of champagne and two dozen oysters, Smith opined "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. Adjusted for inflation this amounts to some £1,150,000 as of 2007. He was made a King's Counsel in February 1908 by Lord Loreburn, on the same day as his friend and rival from Wadham College, John Simon.

In 1906 he entered the House of Commons representing the Walton constituency of Liverpool, and attracted attention by a brilliant maiden speech. 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.

First World War

On the outbreak of the First World War he was placed in charge of the Government's Press Bureau, with the rank of 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 the temporary rank of Major. He and his successor as 'Recording Officer' (a Colonel Merewether) later collaborated on an official history entitled 'The Indian Corps in France'.

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. In 1916 he worked to secure the conviction and execution of the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement, who had been captured attempting to ship German arms to Ireland.

Lord Birkenhead

In 1919 he was created Baron Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Cheshire, and appointed Lord Chancellor by Lloyd George at the youthful age of forty-seven; the "Morning Post" dismissed his appointment as "carrying a joke too far". 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, and also played an important role in the negotiations that led to the signature of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, which established an independent Irish Free State the following year. His support for this, and his warm relations with the Irish 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 some accuracy replied, "I may have just signed my actual death warrant".

Also in 1921 he was responsible for the House of Lords rejecting a proposal, put forward by Frederick Alexander Macquisten, MP for Argyllshire, to criminalize lesbianism. During the debate, Birkenhead argued that 999 women out of a thousand had "never even heard a whisper of these practices". [cite book | last = Doan | first = Laura | title = Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture | publisher = Columbia University Press | date = 2001 | location = New York | id = ISBN 0-231-11007-3 | pages = 56-60 ]

Smith was created Viscount Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Chester, in the 1921 Birthday Honours, [LondonGazette |issue=32346 |date=4 June 1921 |startpage=4529 |endpage= |supp=yes] and Viscount Furneaux, of Charlton in the County of Northampton, and then Earl of Birkenhead in 1922. By 1922 Birkenhead and Churchill had become the leading figures of the Lloyd George Coalition and associated with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the attempt to go to war with Turkey over Chanak, later vetoed by the governments of the Dominions and, in Birkenhead's case if not Churchill's, the general whiff of moral and financial corruption which had come to surround the Coalition. 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. 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.

Like many of the senior members of the Coalition, Birkenhead did not hold office in the Bonar Law and Baldwin governments of 1922-4. 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". In the House of Lords he accused the Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon (who had deserted the Coalition in its final hours and thus retaining 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." [Cited in "The Times" 23 May, 2006, Law supplement p.7]

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. After retiring from politics he became Rector of the University of Aberdeen, a director of Tate & Lyle, and High Steward of Oxford University. He died in London in 1930.

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." Of Margot Asquith, who was not: "F. E. Smith is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head." As "Lord Birkenhead", he is dramatised in the film "Chariots of Fire", as an official of the British Olympic Committee.

In the year of his death, he published his utopian "The World in 2030 A.D." with airbrush illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer. [ [http://www.fulltable.com/VTS/f/fut/t.htm E.McKnight Kauffer. The World in 2030 ] at www.fulltable.com]


When the Welsh Disestablishment Bill came before the British Parliament in 1913, Smith declared it to be “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”. Ironically, the Church of Wales was later to be disestablished by the Lloyd George Coalition, of which the then-Lord Birkenhead was a key member, in 1921.

Further reading

Birkenhead, "Frederick Erwin, Earl of Birkenhead", Thornton Butterworth, London 1933 (2 vols).

Birkenhead, Frederick Second Earl of, "F.E.: The Life of F. E. Smith First Earl of Birkenhead", Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1960 (heavily revised edition of the above, with additional material on Smith's political career added, and much material relating to his legal career excised)

Heuston, R. V. F., "Lives of the Lord Chancellors 1885-1940", Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964.

Campbell, John, "F. E. Smith: First Earl of Birkenhead", London, Jonathan Cape, 1983 (Pimlico edition 1991).

Camp, William, "The Glittering Prizes: A Biographical Study of F. E. Smith." MacGibbon & Kee, 1960, London.


External links


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  • Birkenhead — I. /ˈbɜkənhɛd/ (say berkuhnhed) noun Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of, 1872–1930, British lawyer, Conservative politician, and writer. II. /ˈbɜkənhɛd/ (say berkuhnhed) noun a port in western England, on the Mersey opposite Liverpool …   Australian-English dictionary

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