Today (December 12) in London History – Last Peer to be Tried by the House of Lords

The 26th Baron de Clifford was the last peer to be tried in the House of Lords. The trial took place on December 12th, 1935. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Here’s one for the books. But it’s not in the books. Which makes it all the more satisfying for me. Only at London Walks do you get the occasional quirky gem like this little number. 

Ok, here’s what you need to know. A peer – that is to say, a member of the House of Lords – accused of felony has to be tried by his peers.

And that holds good for peeresses as well. It doesn’t matter whether they’re noble by birth or by marriage. The privilege or procedure cannot be waived.

Now the thing is, there aren’t that many peers who are accused of felony. So trial by their fellow peers in the House of Lords is pretty rare. In fact, the last one ever got underway on this day, December 12th, 1928.

Now let’s meet his Lordship, the defendant, the star of the show.

His name is Edward Southwell Russell. He’s the 26th Baron de Clifford. His father, the 25th Baron, was an Irish landowner. His mother was a Gibson girl. His grandfather on his mother’s side was an orderly room clerk. 

His father was killed in a motor accident when Edward was 19 months old. So, yes, our man becomes the 26th Baron when he’s a toddler. He doesn’t just inherit the title. He inherits the impoverished Irish estate that goes with it.

The 26th Baron is educated at Eton. And subsequently at Imperial College in London.

He studies engineering but if I may introduce a little American parlance into this, he majors in fast cars and fast women. When he’s 19 he marries Dolly, the dance hostess daughter of the shady nightclub manageress Kate Meyrick. Kate Meyrick, the 26th Baron’s mother-in-law was regularly fined and in and out of prison for keeping disorderly premises, selling liquor without a license, selling drinks after hours, well, you get the idea. The Baron’s mother-in-law had no time for killjoys. A magistrate who sentenced her said she ‘She was a lady, of good appearance and charming manners but with also a fine contempt for the law.’

Well, the mother-in-law is a good London story in her own right. 

But we’re the 26th Baron – we’re on the run-up to his trial in the House of Lords. That said, it is perhaps worth mentioning here that the Baron fined £50 for making a false oath to obtain the marriage certificate. He lied about his age and his father. He said he was 22. His mother was his legal guardian and he was worried that her consent to his marriage to Dolly the Dance Hostess wouldn’t be forthcoming.  So our 19-year-old peer fought the law and the law won. But he got off lightly with that fine. He was told he was fortunate to have escaped a prison sentence.

Fast forward to August 21st, 1935. The 26th Baron is fast forwarding indeed at 3.30 am on the Kingston Bypass road. He forces another car off the road. The mishap kills the driver. As it happens, the other driver, a chap named Douglas George Hopkins, was another racing driver. He was returning from a dance in Datchet with his sister and girlfriend. The 26th Baron said Hopkins was going at a tremendous speed and on the wrong side of the road. He, the 26th Baron, swerved to avoid Hopkin’s vehicle, and, well, ended up on the wrong side of the road himself. 

The police weren’t buying it.

The 26th Baron was charged with feloniously killing and slaying Douglas George Hopkins by driving a motor recklessly at the Kingston Bypass Road.”

And that gets us to the trial by the House of Lords. They were very rare. The last one was held in 1901. That was the trial of the second Earl Russell for bigamy.

And yes, they were a major social occasion. Admission by ticket only.

The trial couldn’t get underway until the Lords settled the question of whether it was obligatory for peers to wear cocked hats. And that spun off into the thorny question of the definition of a cocked hat.

They moved pretty smartly on that question. They decided that all peers wishing to be full members of the trial had to be properly dressed and hatted. But ordinary spectators could be less formally dressed.

As for the trial itself – it took place in two venues. The first part of the proceedings were held in the Royal Gallery, which was done up as a courtroom. Then the Lords debated it in their chamber. And trooped back to the court to deliver their verdict. With those venues and those cocked hats and all the rest of it, well, it looked good. It was London doing what London does very well. Pageantry I mean. That said, the actual proceedings were, well, not to put too fine a point on it, very brief indeed. The word that springs to mind is: privilege. The root of the word privilege is “private law.” This was an exemplary instance of private law. Defending the 26th Baron, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett KC argued that de Clifford had no case to answer. He had admitted he was on the wrong side of the road. But the mere fact that motorist was on the wrong side of the road was no evidence of negligence, let alone of criminal negligence. The peers solemnly listened to this preposterous argument. They then trooped out to their chamber to debate. And having done so, they returned to the court to pronounce, in turn, beginning with the most junior baron, that the 26th Baron was not guilty.

And look, the House of Lords had form in these matters. They had traditions that had to be upheld. A shining example of which was the acquittal of Lord Cardigan in 1841. The Lords acquitted Lord Cardigan because the evidence that he shot Harvey Tuckett in a duel did not prove that he had shot the Harvey Garnet Phipps Tuckett named in the indictment.

And now here’s the bad news ladies and gentlemen, the 26th Baron’s trial in the House of Lords was most definitely the last trial in the House of Lords because Law Reforms in the 1948 Criminal Justice Act abolished trial by peers. 

So what I said right at the beginning – that fudged it a bit. I said a peer accused of felony has to be tried by his peers. That was the case until 1948.

As for the 26th Baron – racing driver and last peer to be tried by the House of Lords – well, what else would you expect – he became a road safety expert. 

And finally a dog food salesman, selling it door to door. 

Ain’t Britain wonderful.

And for a Today in London recommendation.  Hmmm. How about a tour of the famous Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. The tours are normally once. And they’re in aid of a good cause.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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