Edward Russell, 26th Baron de Clifford
He was the last peer to be tried for a crime in the House of Lords. He inherited his title aged two when his father was killed in a road accident. Coincidentally, his trial before the Lords in 1935 was for vehicular manslaughter.
He was 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, and he was a young supporter of fascist Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.
In 1926 he married Dorothy Evelyn Meyrick. Since he was only nineteen, the law at the time required him to have his mother's consent to the marriage, which he knew he could not obtain. He therefore lied about his age, 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 killed a 26 year old man in Surrey, Douglas George Hopkins, in a head-on collision while driving his sports car on the wrong side of the road. When a jury in the coroner's court unanimously held Russell responsible, 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 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.
However this incident brought an end to his campaign for speed limits and driving tests, and he made no more speeches in the House of Lords for nearly forty years.
Life after the trial
These were not the last judicial proceedings in which Russell was involved. In 1936 he sued The Spectator for libel, settling out of court. He was also named as a co-respondent (alleged adulterer) in a divorce case. However his own marriage survived.
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 as Baron de Clifford 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 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