F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Time magazine, August 20, 1923

Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, commonly known as F.E. Smith (July 12, 1872 - September 30, 1930) was a British Conservative statesman and lawyer of the early Twentieth Century. He was a skilled orator, noted for his staunch opposition to Irish nationalism. He was noted for his wit, pugnacious views, hard living and drinking.

Smith was born in Birkenhead in Cheshire on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. Educated at Birkenhead School, he graduated from Wadham College, Oxford in 1896 and taught law at Oxford until 1899, when he was called to the Bar. In 1906 he entered the House of Commons representing the Walton constituency of Liverpool, and attracted attention by a brilliant first parliamentary speech. He was soon a prominent leader of the Unionist wing of the Conservative Party.

He married Margaret Eleanor Furneaux in April 1901 and they had three children, Eleanor, Frederick and Pamela.

On the outbreak of the First World War he was placed in charge of the government's Press Bureau, with responsibility for newspaper censorship. In 1915 he was appointed Solicitor General by H. H. Asquith, and soon after succeeded his friend, Sir Edward Carson, as Attorney General. 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.

In 1919 he was created Baron Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Chester, and appointed Lord Chancellor by Lloyd George. He was instrumental to the passage of several key legal reforms, 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.

Smith was created Viscount Birkenhead, of Birkenhead in the County of Chester, in 1921, and Viscount Furneaux, of Charlton in the County of Northampton, and Earl of Birkenhead in 1922. From 1924 to 1928 he served as Secretary of State for India. After retiring from politics he became Rector of Aberdeen University and a director of Tate & Lyle. 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."

One little-noticed fact is that as "Lord Birkenhead," Smith is a character in the movie Chariots of Fire, an official of the British olympic committee


  • "The world continues to offer glittering prizes to those who have stout hearts and sharp swords."
  • "A couple of aspirates." - F. E. Smith's prescription for J. H. Thomas, who had complained of "an 'ell of an 'eadache."
  • "We have the highest authority for believing that the meek shall inherit the earth; though I have never found any particular corroboration of this aphorism in the records of Somerset House."

On Bolshevism:

  • "Nature has no cure for this sort of madness, though I have known a legacy from a rich relative work wonders."

On Winston Churchill:

  • "He has devoted the best years of his life to preparing his impromptu speeches."

In Court, as a young barrister

  • Judge: "I have read your case, Mr Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started."
  • F.E. Smith: "Possibly not, my lord, but much better informed."
  • Judge: "Are you trying to show contempt for this court, Mr Smith?"
  • F.E. Smith: "No, my lord. I am attempting to conceal it."
  • Judge: "Have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon--the great Bacon--that youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions?"
  • F.E. Smith: "Yes, I have. And have you ever heard of a saying of Bacon--the great Bacon--that a much-talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?"
  • Judge: "You are extremely offensive, young man!"
  • F.E. Smith: "As a matter of fact we both are; but I am trying to be, and you can't help it."
  • Judge: "Mr Smith, you must not direct the jury. What do you suppose I am on the bench for?"
  • F.E. Smith "It is not for me, your honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence."
  • F.E. Smith to witness: "So, you were as drunk as a judge?"
  • Judge (interjecting): "You mean as drunk as a lord?"
  • F.E. Smith: "Yes, my lord."
  • Master of the Rolls: "Really, Mr Smith, do give this Court credit for some little intelligence."
  • F.E. Smith: "That is the mistake I made in the Court below, my lord."

Preceded by:
The Lord Finlay
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Cave
Preceded by:
The Lord Oliver
Secretary of State for India
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Peel

Template:End box

Preceded by:
New Creation
Earl of Birkenhead
Succeeded by:
Frederick Furneaux-Smith

Template:End box


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