1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Birkenhead, Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Viscount
BIRKENHEAD, FREDERICK EDWIN SMITH, 1st Viscount (1872–), Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, the son of a barrister, was born at Birkenhead July 12 1872, and was educated at the local school, whence he proceeded with a classical scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford. He gained a first class in jurisprudence in 1895 and was Vinerian Law Scholar in 1896, was elected a Fellow of Merton and did a considerable amount of educational work in the next few years, being a lecturer both at Merton and at Oriel, and an extension lecturer in modern history both for Oxford and for Victoria University. But his attention was mainly directed to law and public life. He had been president of the Union at Oxford, and he entered at Gray’s Inn, being called to the bar in 1899. He went the northern circuit, and attached himself to the local bar at Liverpool, where he rapidly obtained a considerable practice. He also published a book on international law, which has gone through several editions. He soon took a prominent place among the Conservatives of Liverpool as a decided Tariff Reformer, and was returned for the Walton division in Jan. 1906, holding the seat till his elevation to the Chancellorship in 1919. When he entered the House of Commons, he found himself a member of a small and discouraged minority, who had been soundly beaten at the general election, mainly on the issues of tariff reform, Chinese labour in the Transvaal, and religious education. He himself, though he had achieved considerable local reputation, was practically unknown in London. Within a week of the opening of Parliament he bounded into fame by a sparkling maiden speech in a Tariff Reform debate a speech conceived in a confident fighting spirit, calculated to cheer dejected partisans, and full of wit and epigram. One of his phrases went home, when he described the majority as “begotten by Chinese slavery out of Passive Resistance.” Mr. Lloyd George, who followed him in debate, spoke of the speech as very brilliant; and the Conservative party hailed him at once as a coming leader. He soon acquired a large practice at the bar in London, took silk in 1908, and became a bencher of his Inn. In Parliament, during the year of Opposition, he justified the expectations formed of him, but incurred the animosity of his opponents by the vehemence of his denunciation of ministerial schemes. He was chosen to move the rejection of the Parliament bill on the third reading in May 1911. In the crisis which followed he took an extreme view, was prominent in the disorderly proceedings when Mr. Asquith was refused a hearing in the House of Commons, and threw in his lot with the “Die-hards.” At the coronation in that year his growing reputation in Parliament was recognized by his admission to the Privy Council; and in 1912 he appeared as an acknowledged leader of the party, moving the Opposition amendment to the Address, and the rejection of the Welsh Disestablishment bill on second reading. He showed, moreover, as a Liverpool man, his strong sympathy with Ulster, threatened by the Home Rule bill; he went over to Ireland and constituted himself Sir Edward Carson’s principal lieutenant in the resistance which he was organizing in North-East Ulster against Home Rule.
When the World War broke out, he was one of the first Opposition leaders to place his services at the disposal of the Government. He accepted the position of head of the Press Bureau, and in that capacity encouraged, with a view to accelerate enlistment, the publication in The Times of Aug. 30 1914 of a telegram showing the serious plight of the British army after the retreat from Mons. But he went shortly afterwards to France on active service, with the Indian Corps, and was mentioned in despatches. He was captain in the King’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars, and a temporary lieutenant-colonel in the army. When the first Coalition Ministry was formed in May 1915, he was appointed Solicitor-General and knighted, and he succeeded Sir Edward Carson in November as Attorney-General, a post he held till 1919. The Defence of the Realm Act and other war-time measures threw in these years a great burden of anxious work on the law officers of the Crown, including the prosecution of Sir Roger Casement for high treason at the Old Bailey. In the autumn of 1918 Sir Frederick Smith undertook a visit of propaganda to the United States, and published a book about it on his return. When Mr. Lloyd George reconstructed his Ministry after the general election of Dec. 1918, the Attorney-General was appointed Lord Chancellor and created a peer. The appointment, though quite in the normal course of promotion, was subjected to considerable criticism, owing partly to his comparative youth, but chiefly to his vehement partisanship in earlier years. But it was soon admitted (and notably by his colleagues on the judicial bench) to have been amply justified. Lord Birkenhead brought to the performance of his new duties the vigour which had always been characteristic of him; his judgments in the two final Courts of Appeal were weighty and lucid; and he quickly made himself a force in the Lords’ debates. His zeal for the efficient administration of justice caused him, in addition to his other heavy work, to sit during several weeks in the spring of 1921 as a judge of first instance, in order to clear off the enormous arrears in the Divorce Court. He was created a viscount on the King’s birthday in that year.
He married, in 1901, Margaret Eleanor, daughter of the Rev. Henry Furneaux, a well-known Oxford scholar, his family consisting of a son and two daughters. He was always a man of much physical activity, fond of a horse, of field sports and games, and of yachting.