F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

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The Right Honourable
The Earl of Birkenhead
Lord Chancellor
In office
10 January 1919 – 19 October 1922
Monarch George V
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Preceded by The Lord Finlay
Succeeded by The Viscount Cave
Secretary of State for India
In office
6 November 1924 – 18 October 1928
Monarch George V
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by The Lord Olivier
Succeeded by The Viscount Peel
In office
3 November 1915 – 10 January 1919
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Sir Edward Carson
Succeeded by Sir Gordon Hewart
In office
2 June 1915 – 8 November 1915
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Stanley Buckmaster
Succeeded by Sir George Cave
Personal details
Born Frederick Edwin Smith
12 July 1872 (1872-07-12)
Birkenhead, Cheshire
Died 30 September 1930(1930-09-30) (aged 58)
Grosvenor Gardens, London
Nationality British
Political party Conservative
Spouse(s) Margaret Eleanor Furneaux
(d. 1968)
Children Lady Eleanor Smith (1902-1945)
Frederick Winston Furneaux-Smith, 2nd Earl of Birkenhead (1907-1975)
Lady Pamela Smith (1915-1982)
Alma mater University of Liverpool
Wadham College, Oxford

Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead GCSI PC KC (12 July 1872 – 30 September 1930), best known to history as F. E. Smith, was a British Conservative statesman and lawyer who attained high office in the early 20th century, most notably 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 at age fifty-eight from pneumonia caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

Early life, education and career as an advocate

Smith was born in Birkenhead in Cheshire, the eldest son of Frederick Smith and Elizabeth Taylor.[1]

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,[2] 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. However, to his disappointment, he only obtained a Second in his Bachelor of Civil Law degree. After winning a Fellowship of Merton College in 1896, and also a lecturership at Oriel College,[3] 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. The F.E. Smith Memorial Mooting Prizes commemorate him at Merton.

Smith rapidly acquired a reputation as a formidable advocate, first in Liverpool and then in London. He married Margaret Eleanor Furneaux, daughter of classical scholar Henry 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 (just over £4,100,000 at 2010 prices[4]), more than four times the previous record for a defamation action.

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.

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")"
F. E. Smith M.P. 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.[3] 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." He 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 also a vociferous opponent of the Disestablishment of the Welsh portions 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 go up to the House of Lords two months later.[5]

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,[3] and was a captain in the regiment[6] 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.[6] He and his successor as 'Recording Officer' (a Colonel Merewether) later collaborated on an official history entitled The Indian Corps in France (published 1917).[7]

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.[8]

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.

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, and appointed Lord Chancellor by Lloyd George at the youthful age of forty-seven; the Morning Post dismissed his appointment as "carrying a joke beyond the limits of pleasantry". 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.[9] 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".[10]

Smith was created Viscount Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Chester, in the 1921 Birthday Honours,[11] and 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 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. 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 1922–4. 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".

Even a famous speech, the Rectorial Address to Glasgow University of November 1923,[12] 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."[13]

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.[14] 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.[14] 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.[15]

Later life and assessments

His increasingly pompous oratory caused David Low to caricature him in the 1920s as "Lord Burstinghead".[9] After retiring from politics he became Rector of the University of Aberdeen, a director of Tate & Lyle, and High Steward of the University of Oxford. He died in London in 1930. After cremation at Golders Green Crematorium his ashes were buried in the parish churchyard at Charlton, Northamptonshire.[14]

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 at the age of fifty-eight from pneumonia caused by cirrhosis of the liver.).[16]


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.[17]



  1. The Post Victorians: Lord Birkenhead by Sir Claud Schuster, p.85
  2. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 51. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 113. ISBN 0-19-861401-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>Article by John Campbell.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 The Complete Peerage, Volume XIII, Peerage Creations 1901–1938. St Catherine's Press. 1940. p. 293.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Measuring Worth – Measures of worth, inflation rates, saving calculator, relative value, worth of a dollar, worth of a pound, purchasing power, gold prices, GDP, history of wa...
  5. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 51. p. 116.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Kelly's Handbook to the Titled, Landed and Official Classes, 1930. Kelly's. p. 239.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. The Complete Peerage, Volume XIII. p. 294.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Groot 1988, p.226
  9. 9.0 9.1 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 51. p. 117.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Doan, Laura (2001). Fashioning Sapphism: The Origins of a Modern English Lesbian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 56–60. ISBN 0-231-11007-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 32346. p. 4529. 4 June 1921.
  12. "Idealism in International Politics." Reprinted in: The Speeches of Lord Birkenhead. London, 1929. p. 204-217. According to Paul Johnson (Heroes: From Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar to Churchill and de Gaulle. New York, 2007. p. 207), "The speech was, in its own way, as sensational as his maiden, and required the same kind of courage."
  13. Cited in The Times 23 May 2006, Law supplement p.7
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 51. p. 118.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. [1] CWGC Cemetery report.
  16. Frankau, Gilbert (1941). Self Portrait, A Novel of His Own Life. The Book Club. pp. 262–263.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. E.McKnight Kauffer. The World in 2030 at www.fulltable.com


  • Frederick Second Earl of Birkenhead, Frederick Edwin, Earl of Birkenhead, (Thornton Butterworth, London 1933) (2 vols).
  • Frederick Second Earl of Birkenhead, 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).
  • De Groot, Gerard Douglas Haig 1861–1928 (Larkfield, Maidstone: Unwin Hyman, 1988)
  • R. V. F. Heuston, Lives of the Lord Chancellors 1885–1940, (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1964)
  • John Campbell, F. E. Smith: First Earl of Birkenhead (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983).
  • William Camp, The Glittering Prizes: A Biographical Study of F. E. Smith (London: MacGibbon & Kee 1960).
  • Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts, "Lord Birkenhead. Being an account of the life of F.E. Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead" (London: Mills and Boon 1927).

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Parliament of the United Kingdom
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James Henry Stock
Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton
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Legal offices
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Sir Stanley Buckmaster
Solicitor General for England and Wales
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Sir George Cave
Preceded by
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Attorney General for England and Wales
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Political offices
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Lord Chancellor
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Secretary of State for India
Succeeded by
The Viscount Peel
Academic offices
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Rector of the University of Glasgow
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Austen Chamberlain
Preceded by
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Rector of the University of Aberdeen
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Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl of Birkenhead
and Viscount Furneaux
Succeeded by
Frederick Winston Furneaux Smith
Viscount Birkenhead
Baron Birkenhead
Awards and achievements
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Samuel George Blythe
Cover of Time Magazine
20 August 1923
Succeeded by
Frederick G. Banting