Edward Carson

This article is about the Irish Unionist leader and barrister. For his son the English Conservative politician, see Edward Carson (English politician).
The Right Honourable
The Lord Carson
PC PC (Ire) KC
Leader of the Opposition
In office
19 October 1915  6 December 1916
Monarch George V
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Vacant
last held by Andrew Bonar Law on 25 May 1915
Succeeded by H. H. Asquith
Attorney General for England and Wales
In office
25 May 1915  19 October 1915
Monarch George V
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Sir John Simon
Succeeded by Sir F. E. Smith
Solicitor General for England and Wales
In office
11 May 1900  4 December 1905
Monarch Victoria
Edward VII
Prime Minister The Marquess of Salisbury
Arthur Balfour
Preceded by Sir Robert Finlay
Succeeded by Sir William Robson
Solicitor General for Ireland
In office
20 June 1892  11 August 1892
Monarch Victoria
Prime Minister The Marquess of Salisbury
Preceded by John Atkinson
Succeeded by Charles Hemphill
First Lord of the Admiralty
In office
10 December 1916  17 July 1917
Monarch George V
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Preceded by Arthur Balfour
Succeeded by Sir Eric Geddes
Minister without Portfolio and member of the War Cabinet
In office
17 July 1917  20 January 1918
Monarch George V
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Preceded by None
Succeeded by None
Leader of the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party
In office
Preceded by Walter Long
Succeeded by The Earl of Midleton
Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party
In office
Preceded by Walter Long
Succeeded by The Viscount Craigavon
Personal details
Born 9 February 1854 (1854-02-09)
Dublin, Ireland
Died 22 October 1935(1935-10-22) (aged 81)
Minster-in-Thanet, England
Nationality Irish
Political party Irish Unionist (UUP)
Spouse(s) (1) Annette Kirwan
(d. 1913)
(2) Ruby Frewen
(d. 1966)
Children 5
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin
Profession Barrister
Religion Anglican

Edward Henry Carson, Baron Carson, PC, PC (Ire), KC (9 February 1854 – 22 October 1935), from 1900 to 1921 known as Sir Edward Carson, was an Irish unionist politician, barrister and judge. He was leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party between 1910 and 1921, held numerous positions in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom and served as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. He was one of the few people not a monarch to receive a British state funeral. Historian John Brown says that "His larger than life-size statue, erected in his own lifetime in front of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont, symbolizes the widely held perception that Northern Ireland is Carson's creation."[1]

Lord Edward Carson was born in this house, 4 Harcourt Street, Dublin

Early life

Edward Carson was born at 4 Harcourt Street, in Dublin, into a wealthy Anglican family;[2] His father was an architect. The Carsons were of Scottish origin, Edward's grandfather having originally moved to Dublin from Dumfries in 1815. Carson's mother was Isabella Lambert, the daughter of Captain Peter Lambert, part of an old Anglo-Irish family, the Lamberts of Castle Ellen, County Galway. Carson spent holidays at Castle Ellen, which was owned by his uncle.[3] He was one of six children (four boys and two girls). Edward was educated at Portarlington School, Wesley College, Dublin[4] and Trinity College, Dublin, where he read law and was an active member of the College Historical Society. He also played with the college hurling team. Carson graduated BA and MA.

He later received an honorary doctorate (LL.D.) from the University of Dublin in June 1901.[5]

As a barrister

Carson's ceremonial dress uniform, worn on his appointment as Solicitor General for England in 1900.

In 1877 Carson was called to the Irish Bar at King's Inns. He gained a reputation for fearsome advocacy and supreme legal ability and became regarded as a brilliant barrister, one of the leading ones in Ireland at the time.[6] He was also an acknowledged master of the appeal to the jury by his legal wit and oratory.[7] He was appointed Queen's Counsel (Ireland) in 1889.

Oscar Wilde

Main article: Oscar Wilde Trials
Mr. Edward H. Carson (as he then was) addresses Parliament. From Vanity Fair, 1893.

In 1895, he was engaged by the Marquess of Queensberry to lead his defence against Oscar Wilde's action for criminal libel. The Marquess, angry at Wilde's ongoing homosexual relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, had left his calling card at Wilde's club with an inscription accusing Wilde of being a "posing somdomite" [sic]. Wilde retaliated with a libel action, as homosexuality was, at the time, illegal.

Kevin Myers states that Carson's initial response was to refuse to take the case. Later, he discovered that Queensberry had been telling the truth about Wilde's activity and was therefore not guilty of the libel of which Wilde accused him.[8]

Carson and Wilde had known each other when they were students at Trinity College, Dublin and, when he heard that Carson was to lead the defence, Wilde is quoted as saying that "No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend."[9] In fact, Carson went out of his way to make his case and destroy Wilde, portraying the playwright as a morally depraved hedonist who seduced naïve young men into a life of homosexuality with lavish gifts and promises of a glamorous artistic lifestyle. He impugned Wilde's works as morally repugnant and designed to corrupt the upbringing of the youth. Queensberry spent a considerable amount of money on private detectives who investigated Wilde's activity in the London underworld of homosexual clubs and procurers.

Wilde abandoned the case when Carson announced in his opening speech for the defence that he planned to call several male prostitutes who would testify that they had had sex with Wilde, which would have rendered the libel charge unsupportable as the accusation would have been proven true. Wilde was bankrupted when he was then ordered to pay the considerable legal and detective bills Queensberry had incurred in his defence.

Based on the evidence of Queensberry's detectives and Carson's cross-examinations of Wilde at the trial, Wilde was subsequently prosecuted for gross indecency in a second trial. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two years' hard labour, after which he moved to France, where he died penniless.

Cadbury Bros.

In 1908 Carson appeared for the London Evening Standard in a libel action brought by George Cadbury. The Standard was controlled by Unionist interests which supported Joseph Chamberlain's Imperial Preference views. The Cadbury family were Liberal supporters of free trade and had, in 1901, purchased The Daily News. The Standard articles alleged that Cadbury Bros Ltd., which claimed to be model employers having created the village of Bournville outside Birmingham, knew of the slave labour conditions on São Tomé, the Portuguese island colony from which Cadbury purchased most of their cocoa for the production of their chocolate.[10]

The articles alleged that George's son William had gone to São Tomé in 1901 and observed for himself the slave conditions, and that the Cadbury family had decided to continue purchasing the cocoa grown there because it was cheaper than that grown in the British colony of the Gold Coast, where labour conditions were much better, being regulated by the Colonial Office. The Standard alleged that the Cadbury family knew that the reason cocoa from São Tomé was cheaper was because it was grown by slave labour. This case was regarded at the time as an important political case as Carson and the Unionists maintained that it showed the fundamental immorality of free trade. George Cadbury recovered the derisory sum of one farthing in damages in a case described as one of Carson's triumphs.[11]

Archer-Shee case

Carson was also the victorious counsel in the 1910 Archer-Shee Case, on which Terence Rattigan based his play The Winslow Boy. The fictional barrister, Morton, is a somewhat different character from Carson, younger and more lively (at least as played by Robert Donat in the 1948 film version, although other actors may have played the part differently). There is however one interesting detail. At the end of the play Morton indicates he may take a continued interest in the boy’s sister, who had played a key role in the fictional case. In his account of the case, which was the last chapter of his book before his suicide, Edward Marjoribanks said that Carson’s first marriage was strained and his wife died around this time. He then married a much younger woman, Lucy Frewen, and Marjoribanks, who had help from the Carson family, says her interest in him was aroused by the Archer-Shee case. They had a son (also Edward) born when Carson was over 60, who in 1945 became the youngest Member of Parliament but resigned after eight years for health reasons.


Carson's political career began on 20 June 1892, when he was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland, although he was not then a member of the House of Commons. He was elected as Member of Parliament for the University of Dublin in the 1892 general election[12] as a Liberal Unionist, although as a whole the party lost the election to the Liberals.

Carson maintained his career as a barrister and was admitted to the English Bar by The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in 1893 and from then on mainly practised in London. In 1896 he was sworn of the Irish Privy Council.[13] He was appointed Solicitor-General for England on 7 May 1900,[14] receiving the usual ex officio knighthood. He served in this position until the Conservative government resigned in December 1905, when he was rewarded with membership of the Privy Council.[15]


In September 1911 a huge crowd of over 50,000 people gathered to rally near Belfast to hear Carson speaking to urge his party take on the governance of Ulster. With the passage of the Parliament Act 1911, the Unionists faced the loss of the House of Lords' ability to thwart the passage of the new Home Rule Bill. Carson disliked many of Ulster's local characteristics and, in particular, the culture of Orangeism, although he had become an Orangeman at nineteen.[16] He stated that their speeches reminded him of "the unrolling of a mummy. All old bones and rotten rags."[17]

Sir Edward Carson signing the Ulster Covenant.

Carson campaigned against Home Rule. He spoke against the Bill in the House of Commons and organised rallies in Ireland promoting a provisional government for "the Protestant province of Ulster" should be ready, should a third Home Rule Bill come into law [18]

On Sunday 28 September 1912 'Ulster Day', he was the first signatory on the Ulster Covenant, which bound 447,197 signatories[19] to resist Home Rule with the threat that they would use "all means necessary" after Carson had established the Ulster Volunteers, the first loyalist paramilitary group. From it the Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in January 1913 to undergo military training and purchase arms.[20] In Parliament Carson rejected any olive branch for compromise demanding Ulster 'be given a resolution rather than a stay of execution.'[21] The UVF received a large arms cache from Germany on the night of 24 April 1914.[22] Imperial Germany was very eager to promote political tension in the United Kingdom at the time, and readily allowed the delivery of arms to both sides of the political divide in Ireland. Later that year, a further shipment of arms from Germany was delivered to the pro-Home Rule and IRB-influenced Irish Volunteers at Howth near Dublin.[23]

The Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons on 25 May 1914 by a majority of 77 and due to the Parliament Act 1911, it did not need the Lords' consent, so the bill was awaiting royal assent. To enforce the legislation, given the activities of the Unionists, H. H. Asquith's Liberal government had prepared to send troops to Ulster. This sparked the Curragh Incident on 20 March. Together with the arming of the Irish Volunteers, Ireland was on the brink of civil war when the outbreak of the First World War led to the suspension of the Home Rule Act's operation until the end of the war.[24] By this time Carson had announced in Belfast that an Ulster Division would be formed from the U.V.F., and the 36th (Ulster) Division was swiftly organised.[24]

Brown examines why Carson's role in 1914 made him a highly controversial figure:

But his commitment was unqualified, both to Ulster unionism and to its increasing extremism. Under Carson's leadership, with Craig as his lieutenant, discipline and organization were imposed on their supporters; proposed compromises were rejected; and plans were drawn up for a provisional government in the north, if the bill was passed, with its implementation to be resisted by the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been armed by illegal gun-running. It is this apparent willingness to carry resistance to virtually any length, even to risk civil war, that makes Carson so controversial.[25]

In a 1921 speech opposing the pending Anglo-Irish Treaty, Carson attacked the 'Tory intrigues' that had led him on the course that would partition Ireland, an outcome he opposed almost as strongly as Home Rule itself. In the course of the speech Carson said "What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into Power."[26][27] Later in the speech, Carson said:

"But I say to my Ulster friends, and I say it with all sincerity and solemnity: Do not be led into any such false line. Stick to your old ideals of closer and closer connection with this country. The Coalition Government, after all, is not the British nation, and the British nation will certainly see you righted. Your interests lie with Great Britain. You have helped her, and you have helped her Empire, and her Empire belongs just as much to you as it does to England. Stick to it, and trust the British people.[28]

Cabinet member

Edward Carson's statue at Stormont

On 25 May 1915, Asquith appointed Carson Attorney-General[29] when the Coalition Government was formed after the Liberal government was brought down by the Shell Crisis. He resigned on 19 October, however, citing his opposition to Government policy on war in the Balkans. During Asquith's coalition government of 1915–1916, there was no formal opposition in either the Commons or the Lords. The only party not in Asquith's Liberal, Conservative, Labour Coalition was the Irish Nationalist Party led by John Redmond. However, this party supported the government and did not function as an Opposition. After Carson, the leading figure among the Irish Unionist allies of the Conservative Party, resigned from the coalition ministry on 19 October 1915, he then became the de facto leader of those Unionists who were not members of the government, effectively Leader of the Opposition in the Commons.

When Asquith resigned as Prime Minister, Carson returned to office on 10 December 1916 as First Lord of the Admiralty,[30] becoming a Minister without Portfolio on 17 July 1917.[31]

Carson was hostile to the foundation of the League of Nations as he believed that this institution would be ineffectual against war. In a speech on 7 December 1917 he said:

Talk to me of treaties! Talk to me of the League of Nations! Every Great Power in Europe was pledged by treaty to preserve Belgium. That was a League of Nations, but it failed.[32]

Early in 1918, the government decided to extend conscription to Ireland, and that Ireland would have to be given home rule in order to make it acceptable. Carson disagreed in principle and again resigned on 21 January. He gave up his seat at the University of Dublin in the 1918 general election and was instead elected for Belfast Duncairn.[33]

He continued to lead the Unionists, but when the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was introduced, advised his party to work for the exemption of six Ulster counties from Home Rule as the best compromise (a compromise he had previously rejected). This proposal passed and as a result the Parliament of Northern Ireland was established.

In January 1921 he met in London over three days with Father O'Flanagan and Lord Justice Sir James O'Connor to try to find a mutual agreement that would end the Anglo-Irish war, but without result.[34]

After the partition of Ireland, Carson repeatedly warned Ulster Unionist leaders not to alienate northern Catholics, as he foresaw this would make Northern Ireland unstable. In 1921 he stated: "We used to say that we could not trust an Irish parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that that reproach can no longer be made against your parliament, and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority."[35] In old age, while at London’s Carlton Club, he confided to the Anglo-Irish (and Catholic) historian Sir Charles Petrie his disillusionment with Belfast politics: “I fought to keep Ulster part of the United Kingdom, but Stormont is turning her into a second-class Dominion.”[36]


Lord Carson's statue at Stormont

Carson was asked to lead the Unionists during the election to become the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. He declined due to his lack of connections with any Northern Ireland constituency (an opponent once taunted him saying: "He has no country, he has no caste"),[37] and resigned the leadership of the party on 4 February 1921. Carson was appointed one of seven Lords of Appeal in Ordinary on 24 May 1921 and was created a life peer under the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 on 1 June 1921 as Baron Carson, of Duncairn in the County of Antrim.[38]

Private life

Sir Edward Carson mural in Belfast in 2006

Carson married twice. His first wife was Annette Kirwan from County Galway, daughter of H. Persse Kirwan, a retired County Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary.[39] He had two sons and two daughters by his first wife (he described them as a "rum lot"),[40] namely:

The first Lady Carson died on 6 April 1913.[41] His second wife was Ruby Frewen,[42] a Yorkshirewoman, the daughter of Lt.-Col. Stephen Frewen. They were married on 17 September 1914; she was 29 and he was 60. They had one son:

Later years

St Anne's Cathedral; Carson's final resting place

Carson retired in October 1929. In July 1932, he had witnessed the unveiling of a large statue (sculpted by L. S. Merrifield) of himself in front of Parliament Buildings at Stormont. The statue was unveiled by Lord Craigavon in the presence of more than 40,000 people. The statue was cast in bronze and placed upon a plinth. The inscription on the base read "By the loyalists of Ulster as an expression of their love and admiration for its subject". This was the final time he visited Belfast.

State funeral

Lord Carson lived at Cleve Court, a Queen Anne house near Minster in the Isle of Thanet, Kent, bought in 1921. It was here that Carson died peacefully on 22 October 1935. The United Kingdom gave him a state funeral, which took place in Belfast at St Anne's Cathedral; he is still the only person to have been buried there. From a silver bowl, soil from each of the six counties of Northern Ireland was scattered on to his coffin, which had earlier been covered by the Union Flag. At his funeral service the choir sang his own favourite hymn, "I Vow to Thee, My Country". A warship had brought his body to Belfast and the funeral took place on Saturday 26 October 1935. Thousands of shipworkers stopped work and bowed their heads as HMS Broke steamed slowly up Belfast Lough, with Carson's flag-draped coffin sat on the quarterdeck.[43]

Styles of address


  1. John Brown, "Carson, Sir Edward, Baron Carson 1854-1935" in David Loades, ed., Reader's Guide to British History (2003) 1:227
  2. Marjoribanks, Volume One: The Life of Lord Carson, London, 1932, p. 5
  3. Marjoribanks, Volume One: The Life of Lord Carson, London, 1932, p. 6
  4. Dickson, Brice Drewry, Gavin The Judicial House of Lords 1876-2009 Oxford University Press page 755
  5. "University intelligence". The Times (36493). London. 28 June 1901. p. 10.
  6. ::History Learning Site::
  7. "Law Library".
  8. "Edward Carson and Oscar Wilde - mythic rewriting of history drives me wild". Belfast Telegraph.
  9. Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, published in 1987
  10. Kevin Grant (2005). A civilised savagery: Britain and the new slaveries in Africa, 1884–1926. Routledge. p. 110. ISBN 0-415-94901-7.
  11. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business, by Lowell J. Satre ISBN 0-8214-1626-X
  12. The London Gazette: no. 26311. p. 4314. 29 July 1892.
  13. "leighrayment.com Privy Counsellors – Ireland". leighrayment.com.
  14. The London Gazette: no. 27192. p. 3070. 15 May 1900.
  15. The London Gazette: no. 27862. p. 8891. 8 December 1905.
  16. Marjoribanks, "The Life of Lord Carson: Vol. 1", The Camelot Press, 1932 p. 68
  17. "CAIN: Issues: Politics: Cochrane, Feargal (1997) 'The Unionists of Ulster: An ideological Analysis'". ulst.ac.uk.
  18. "Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) - nidirect". 4 March 2016.
  19. The number eventually exceeded 470,000 in England and Scotland.
  20. M McNally, "Easter Rising 1916: Birth of the Irish Republic", Osprey, 2007., p.8-9.
  21. McNally, "Easter Rising 1916", p.11.
  22. known as Operation Lion, Stewart, "The Ulster Crisis", p.88.
  23. Asgard (yacht)#cite note-ring95-99-1
  24. 1 2
    • A. T. Q. Stewart The Ulster Crisis, Resistance to Home Rule, 1912–14, p.235, (Faber and Faber, London, 1967, 1979), ISBN 0-571-08066-9
  25. Brown, "Carson," p 227
  26. Stewart, A.T.Q. (1981). Edward Carson. Gill and Macmillan Ltd. p. 125. ISBN 0-7171-1075-3.
  27. Murphy, Brian P (2005). The Catholic Bulletin and Republican Ireland. Athol Books. p. 222. ISBN 0-85034-108-6.
  28. Address in Reply to His Majesty's Most Gracious Speech, HL Deb 14 December 1921 vol 48 cc5-56.
  29. The London Gazette: no. 29197. p. 5871. 18 June 1915.
  30. The London Gazette: no. 29860. p. 12118. 12 December 1916.
  31. The New York Times Current History: The European War, Volume 12 July–September 1917 The New York Times Company Times Square New York City 1917 page 224
  32. Henry R. Winkler, 'The Development of the League of Nations Idea in Great Britain, 1914–1919', The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 20, No. 2. (Jun. 1948), p. 105.
  33. "ElectionsIreland.org: Rt Hon Sir Edward Carson". ElectionsIreland.org. Retrieved 21 September 2014.
  34. "Memorandum by James O'Connor of an interview with Edward Carson"; RIA, Dublin, 1993 National Archives of Ireland file UCDA P150/1902
  35. Dudley Edwards, Ruth (29 May 2005). "Biography: Carson by Geoffrey Lewis". The Times. Retrieved 13 July 2009.
  36. Sir Charles Petrie, ‘’A Historian Looks At His World’’ (London: Sedgwick & Jackson, 1972), p. 27.
  37. Marjoribanks, Volume One: The Life of Lord Carson, London, 1932, p. 8
  38. The London Gazette: no. 32344. p. 4425. 3 June 1921.
  39. Lundy, Darryl. "p. 20873 § 208726". The Peerage.
  40. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  41. Lundy, Darryl. "p. 20873 § 208725". The Peerage.
  42. "Ruby Carson (née Frewen), Lady Carson". National Portrait Gallery.
  43. "Lord Carson's Funeral". News. The Times (47206). London. 28 October 1935. col A, p. 11.

Further reading

External links

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Parliament of the United Kingdom
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David Plunket
Dodgson Hamilton Madden
Member of Parliament for University of Dublin
With: Hon. David Plunket 1892–1895
W.E.H. Lecky 1895–1903
James Campbell 1903–1917
Arthur Warren Samuels 1917–1918
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Sir Robert Woods
New constituency Member of Parliament for Belfast Duncairn
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Legal offices
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Solicitor-General for Ireland
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Solicitor General for England and Wales
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Sir William Robson
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Attorney General for England and Wales
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Political offices
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First Lord of the Admiralty
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and Member of the War Cabinet

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Party political offices
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Irish Unionist Parliament Party

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Leader of the
Ulster Unionist Party

Succeeded by
Sir James Craig, Bt
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