Edward Russell, 26th Baron de Clifford
He became the last peer to be tried in the House of Lords, in 1935, for vehicular manslaughter and was found not guilty. He had lost his father to a road accident and had made his maiden speech calling for mandatory driving tests. He was one of four peers to have at times before 1945 supported Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.
He was born in Belgravia, London, educated at Eton College and studied engineering at Imperial College London. In 1926 he was commissioned into the 21st (Royal Gloucestershire Hussars) Armoured Car Company of the Territorial Army; he was promoted Lieutenant in 1929 and Captain in 1938. His hobby was racing cars before 1936, and he was a young supporter of fascist Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.
In 1926 in Marylebone he married Dorothy Evelyn Meyrick, daughter of 43 Club owner Kate Meyrick. Since he was nineteen, the law at the time required him to have his mother's consent to the marriage, which he knew he could not obtain due to his fiancée's association with the West End. He therefore lied about his age claiming to be 21, for which he was fined £50 by the Lord Mayor of London in the magistrates' court.
In 1928 he made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, on the subject of road safety, in which he proposed introducing mandatory driving tests for anyone applying for a driving licence. During his career in the House he also argued for speed limits to be imposed. (Both measures were introduced by the Road Traffic Act 1934.)
Trial in the House of Lords
On 15 August 1935 Russell was at high speed involved in a head-on collision which killed a 26-year-old driver in Surrey, Douglas George Hopkins and caused him injury, while driving his sports car on the wrong side of the road. When a jury in the coroner's court found unanimously that an 'accident involving others' was the cause of death, and that he had been well beyond the speed limit, the police charged him with a felony. At first he was indicted and committed for trial at the Old Bailey, until it dawned on the courts that as he was a peer of the realm only the House of Lords could try him for a felony. Since this had not occurred since 1901, when the 2nd Earl Russell was convicted of bigamy, the House set up a select committee to investigate the precedents and rules for such a proceeding.
The trial commenced on 12 December, with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, presiding, in the capacity of Lord High Steward appointed by the Crown for the occasion. The Attorney General prosecuted the case. Admission to the public was by ticket only. This was to be the last ever trial in the House of Lords, since the right of peers to be tried by their peers for felonies was abolished in 1948. (The House still has the power to try impeachments.)
Russell's defence was that Hopkins's vehicle had been travelling at excessive speed on the wrong side and that Russell had been compelled to switch lanes at the last moment to avoid a collision, only for the other vehicle to do the same. This defence was successful and he was acquitted.
Russell still faced another charge of dangerous driving, which was not a felony and therefore could not be tried in the House. He was due to be tried in the Old Bailey in January. However in view of his acquittal the prosecution abandoned their case and a verdict of not guilty was entered.
He made no more speeches in the House of Lords for nearly forty years.
Life after the trial
Following his trial in the House of Lords, Russell gave up racing cars. He transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in 1942 and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in 1943. In 1946, having reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, he joined the regular army. He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 1955 New Year Honours.
He divorced in 1973, having separated from his wife after the War, and married Mina Margaret in 1974.
He died in 1982 and was survived by his second wife and two sons by his first wife. He was succeeded in the barony by his elder son, John Edward.
- Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, the last person to be tried in the House of Lords on impeachment.
- List of trials of peers in the House of Lords
- General Register Office Births Jan-Mar 1907 St George Hanover Square dist, 1a 419
- GRO Marriages Jan-Mar 1926: Marylebone 1a 928a
- General Registration Office, Southport, Death certificate ref: Reg. Dec. Quarter 1935, Surrey North Eastern District, vol 2a p 48
|Peerage of England|
Jack Southwell Russell
|Baron de Clifford
John Edward Southwell Russell