F. E. Smith. First Earl of Birkenhead.

By John Campbell

Printed: 1983

Publisher: Jonathan Cape. London

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 6 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 6

Buy Now

Item information


In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

  • F.B.A. provides an in-depth photographic presentation of this item to stimulate your feeling and touch. More traditional book descriptions are immediately available.

What a book! What a man!

Of all the political biographies I have read, indeed probably of all the biographies I have read, which must by now number in the high hundreds, this has to be the most gripping and the most readable! It is a mammoth book; it’s almost 1000 pages, but it rattles along effortlessly such is the fantastic life of the subject. His life really is like a political version of the derring-do heroes of Boy’s Own. It’s a shame the book is so hard to get, it’s a real gem!

Review: Very, very, very interesting especially re the Casement prosecution (he was hanged). Since the Trial was only in 1916 there will still be people alive who know about it & the paperwork will still exist unless the archives have been burnt, flooded, stolen or…? Some of us were much better organised after WWI than I imagined! See elsewhere on my Profile page for books by Lord Birkenhead which is his son on Walter Monckton & Rudyard Kipling.


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

Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, GCSI, PC, DL (12 July 1872 – 30 September 1930) was a British Conservative politician and barrister who attained high office in the early 20th century, in particular as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain. 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.

Smith married Margaret Eleanor Furneaux, daughter of classical scholar Henry Furneaux, in April 1901. They had three children:

  • Lady Eleanor Furneaux Smith (born 7 August 1902, died 20 October 1945)

  • Frederick Winston Furneaux Smith, 2nd Earl of Birkenhead (born 7 December 1907, died 10 June 1975)

  • Lady Pamela Margaret Elizabeth Smith (born 16 May 1914, died 7 January 1982), married Michael Berry, Baron Hartwell.

In around 1919, Birkenhead began an affair with Mona Dunn, the then seventeen year old daughter of the Canadian financier James Hamet Dunn, a friend of Lord Beaverbrook’s (it is unclear how much her father knew of the affair). Beaverbrook, in so far as can be discerned from the limited surviving evidence in letters, appears to have provided a cover for sexual liaisons between the two of them, and for womanising by others of their social circle. She appears to have been genuinely in love with Birkenhead, whereas he was mildly fond of her but regarded her as no more than a mistress. The affair attracted the fury of Birkenhead’s daughter, a friend of Mona’s, a state of affairs likened by Campbell to the relations between Lloyd George, his mistress Frances Stevenson, and his daughter Megan.

In 1926 Arnold Bennett published a novel, Lord Raingo, about a self-made millionaire who becomes a peer and a Cabinet Minister (under a Prime Minister clearly based on Lloyd George), and who keeps a young mistress. The character was actually largely based on Lord Rhondda and Beaverbrook himself. Birkenhead gave an angry interview to the Daily Mail in which he criticised both the novel and the recent practice of Colonel Repington, Colonel House and Margot Asquith in publishing political secrets so close in time to the events. Bennett replied that the character was not based on any single person and anyway that it was not for Birkenhead, who had recently published a potboiler called “Famous Trials”, to criticise others for writing books to make money. The two men, who were both members of The Other Club, remained on friendly terms.

Mona Dunn had married “Bunny” Tattersall in February 1925. She had a daughter, then died in Paris aged 26 on 19 December 1928, officially of peritonitis. John Campbell’s original (1983) text states that there is no evidence for the tales that she died of a failed abortion. However, later editions contain a footnote adding that it had since come to the author’s attention that her husband had been paid off by Birkenhead to enter into a marriage of convenience with her as a cover for their continued affair, and that, the affair now over, she then fled to Paris with a third man, where she died of “appendicitis and drink” (inverted commas in the original). Birkenhead wrote a poem in her memory, which Beaverbrook declined to publish in the Daily Express at the time, but eventually published three decades later in the life of Sir James Dunn.

Birkenhead’s 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.”

Birkenhead wrote a series of articles (later republished in Last Essays: 1930) about “The peril to India”, in which he criticised the Indian Nationalist leaders as “a collection … of very inferior Kerenskis” and asserted that it was widely accepted that without British rule India would collapse into anarchy. He attacked the Irwin Declaration as “so ambiguous that it is impossible to select from it any clear and unambiguous proposal”.

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.”

In 1930 he published his utopian The World in 2030 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.

Birkenhead died in London in 1930, 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.

Want to know more about this item?

We are happy to answer any questions you may have about this item. In addition, it is also possible to request more photographs if there is something specific you want illustrated.
Ask a question

Share this Page with a friend