Born 1907 Died 1982
One time racing driver and dog-food salesman who is better remembered as being the last peer to literally enjoy the privilege of being 'tried by his peers'.
Edward Southwell Russell was born on the 31st January 1907, the only son of Jack Southwell Russell, 25th Baron de Clifford and his wife, Evelyn Victoria Anne, a "statuesque stage beauty some six feet tall" and better known at one time under her stage name of Eva Carrington when she was a Gibson girl at the Vaudeville Theatre. The 25th Baron had the misfortune to be killed in a motor accident in 1909, leaving his two year old son to inherit the title together with 12,000 fairly impoverished acres in County Mayo and County Galway in Ireland.
He was educated at Eton College following which he studied engineering at Imperial College, London and subsequently became known for his enthusiasm for fast cars, fast women and fast politics, or at least a youthful enthusiasm for the ideas of Oswald Moseley, being described as an "ardent British Fascist" by Time magazine. Although he was indeed a frequent competitor at Brooklands, raced at Le Mans and made an appearance at Monte Carlo in 1933 in a diesel type touring car, it is not for his racing career that the 26th Baron was to be remembered but rather for his various encounters with the legal system.
His first brush with the law came on the 10th March 1926 when he married Dorothy Evelyn Meyrick, sometime dance hostess and daughter of Kate Meyrick, the 'Queen of London Night Club Keepers'. At this time Edward was only nineteen and required the consent of his mother in order to marry, but fearing that such consent would be withheld he made out that he was in fact twenty-two and the son of an engineer named Jack Russell. When this subterfuge was discovered, which wasn't difficult given that details of the marriage was announced in all the newspapers, he was was brought before the Lord Mayor of London, sitting as a magistrate, and fined the maximum penalty of £50 for making a false oath and ordered to pay an additional ten guineas in costs.
This was however small beer compared to the events that took place one foggy night in the summer of 1935, when Edward Russell was driving along the Kingston bypass at 3.30am on the 15th August in his "supercharged Lancia sports car", and suffered a head on collision with a "cheap four-seater Frazer-Nash" driven by Douglas George Hopkins. Mr Hopkins, who was returning home from a party with his sister Sheila and her friend Rosemary Reynolds, was killed at the scene. There seems to little doubt that Edward was indeed driving on the wrong side of the road, and the jury at the subsequent inquest were unanimously of the opinion that Hopkins had died as a result of the wilful negligence of the Baron de Clifford. He was therefore charged with manslaughter at New Malden police station and later committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court on a charge of "feloniously killing and slaying Douglas George Hopkins by driving a motor recklessly at the Kingston Bypass road on August 15".
However the authorities soon realised, that as a peer of the realm charged with a felony, the only tribunal which had jurisdiction to judge the 26th Baron de Clifford was the House of Lords. This caused something of a conundrum as it had been some time since the House of Lords had been placed in the position of acting as a court sitting in judgement on one of its members, and its first priority was to establish a Select Committee to examine the precedents for such a trial. Oddly enough the last time such a trial had been convened was in 1901 was when Edward's distant cousin the 2nd Earl Russell had been up before his peers on a charge of bigamy.
The trial of the Baron de Clifford opened on the 12th December 1935
social occasion. Admission was by ticket only, in fact much of the deliberations of the Select Committee had been taken up in deciding on the distribution of said tickets, whilst there was much prior disussion as to whether or not it was obligatory for peers to wear cocked hats. In any event the trial began with the Lord Chancellor, Douglas McGarel Hogg, 1st Viscount Hailsham, presiding as the Lord High Steward for the occasion, with the Attorney-General Thomas Inskip (later the 1st Viscount Caldecote) appearing for the prosecution, and Henry Curtis-Bennett leading the defence.
The trial itself proved to surprisingly brief. The prosecution's case consisted of the testimony of three witnesses (the two passengers in the Fraser-Nash and the police constable who's attended the accident), after which the defence put forward the claim that there was no case to answer. Russell's barrister argued that the "mere fact that a motorist was on the wrong side of the road was no evidence of negligence, still less of criminal negligence". He then proceeded to explain that the other car that had been travelling at an unsafe speed and was out of control and claimed that Edward had swerved onto the opposite side of the road in an attempt to avoid a collision, only to find that it switched to the right side of the road, resulting in the accident which terminated the life of Douglas George Hopkins. Or as Henry Curtis-Bennett put it; "In the agony of the moment, just before the collision, he did as he thought best!" This was a novel and ingenious argument which, to the surprise of most observers, was readily endorsed by the assembled jury of peers who proceeded to declare the 26th Baron de Clifford not guilty.1
The Baron de Clifford still had to face a charge of dangerous driving which was not a felony, and therefore could be dealt with by the criminal courts. His trial was due to start at the Old Bailey in the following January, but the Crown decided that in view of the prior acquital it would be quite hopeless to proceed with this alternative charge and therefore offered no evidence. A verdict of not guilty was recorded.
As Time magazine reported at the time; "Correspondents predicted that Lord de Clifford's was the last such trial by the House of Lords which British public opinion will tolerate." This indeed turned out to be the case, although it wasn't until 1948 that the authorities got round to passing the necessary legislation.
As it happened this wasn't quite the end of the 26th Baron's experiences with the law as later in 1936 he was back in court, although this time as a result of a civil action when he sued a Miss Rose Macaulay and the Spectator magazine for libel (this case was settled out of court)2, whilst later that same year he also found himself cited as the co-respondent in the divorce case Burdett v Burdett.
Somewhat ironically the Baron de Clifford had previously sought to establish a reputation as something of an expert on the subject of road safety. His maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1928 had been devoted to advancing the revolutionary proposals that all applicants for driving licences should be subject to a driving test and that policemen should be stationed outside schools in order to help the children in crossing roads. He continued for many years thereafter to campaign for the introduction of driving tests and the imposition of mandatory speed limits in built-up areas, arguing that there "were places in larger towns where even 30 miles an hour would be too great", and was also a keen advocate of the mandatory installation of semi-automatic signalling on motor vehicles.
After his 1935 trial however the Baron gave up on such on things, and it was to almost forty years before he spoke again in the House of Lords. He also gave up his racing career, such as it was, and devoted his time rather to the Army. He was already a Lieutenant in the Royal Gloucester Hussars, a Territorial Army regiment, where he sought to apply his knowledge of engineering and motor mechanics in the 21st Armoured Car Company. He subsequently became a captain in the Royal Armoured Corps and served in both the Royal Army Ordance Corps and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers during World War II, before signing up for the Regular Army in 1947. He was finally awarded a military OBE in the New Years Honours list for 1955, and retired from the army with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
Although his marriage survived his appearance in the divorce case back in 1936, he eventually separated from his wife after the war and they were divorced in 1973. He subsequently remarried Mina Margaret in the following year. By this time he was living at Wrantage in Somerset where he briefly ran a quarantine kennel before embarking on a career as a door-to-door salesman peddling dog food. (It must be presumed that all those Irish acres, valued at £100,000 in 1909, had previously been dissipated on either fast cars or fast women.) He eventually moved to Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire, which is where he died on the 3rd January 1982. He was survived by his second wife, and was succeeded in the title by his elder son, John Edward Southwell Russell.
1 Henry Curtis-Bennett was noted for submitting such optimistic arguments that there was 'no case to answer' in the hope, not so much of persuading the judge to dismiss the charge, but rather of influencing the jury to proceed directly to an acquittal. This was apparently known at the time as 'doing a Curtis'.
2 The Spectator reported that in the immediate aftermath of the accident one of the young women riding in the Frazer-Nash screamed at the Baron de Clifford, "For God's sake, why were you driving on our side of the road?", to which Edward calmly replied, "My good woman, this is not the place to inquire." The Times however reports the exchange as being "What on earth is your car doing over on our side of the road?" followed by "We can't go into this now." Which of course is not quite the same thing.
- F.M.L. Thompson, ‘Russell, Edward Southwell, twenty-sixth Baron de Clifford (1907–1982)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/56670, accessed 4 April 2007)
- Baronial Privilege, Time Magazine, Dec. 23, 1935
- The Commons: Time Magazine,Dec. 16, 1935
- Various contemporary reports in The Times extracted from their digital archive.