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Edward Carson, Baron Carson

Edward Henry Carson, Baron Carson, PC, Kt., KC (often known as Sir Edward Carson or Lord Carson) (9 February 185422 October, 1935) was a leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Lord Carson held numerous positions in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom and pursued a career as a senior barrister and a judge; he become one of seven "Law Lords". Upon his death, in 1935, he was one of the few non-monarchs to receive a United Kingdom state funeral.

Early life

Edward Carson was born at 4, Harcourt Street, Dublin. He was from a wealthy Presbyterian family; his father was an architect. The Carson family were of Scottish origin and Edward's grandfather originally moved to Dublin from Dumfries in 1815. Legend has it they were of Italian extraction, the name being Carsoni. Lord 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. He was one of six children (four boys and two girls). Edward was educated at Portarlington School, Wesley College, Dublin 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.

As a Barrister

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. Lord Carson was also an acknowledged master of the appeal to the jury by his legal wit and oratory He was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1889.

Oscar Wilde

In 1895 he was engaged by the Marquess of Queensberry to lead his defence against Oscar Wilde's libel action. This meant his job was in effect to prosecute Wilde, who had been his contemporary and rival at Trinity College. When Wilde heard of his appointment, he remarked "No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old friend". Carson's cross-examination of Wilde is a supreme example of a battle of wits.

Cadbury Bros.

In 1908 he 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.

The articles alleged that George's son William had gone to São Tomé in 1901 and seen for himself the slave conditions, and that the Cadbury family had decided to continue purchasing the cocoa grown there because it was cheaper then 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 one farthing in damages in a case described as one of Carson's triumphs.

The Winslow Boy

Carson was also the victorious counsel in the 1910 Archer-Shee Case, on which Terence Rattigan based his play The Winslow Boy. He was the model for the barrister Sir Robert Morton in the play.


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 as a 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. He was appointed Solicitor-General for England on 7 May 1900, 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.


With the passage of Parliament Act in 1910, the Unionists faced the loss of the House of Lords' ability to thwart the passage of the Irish Parliamentary Party's new Home Rule Bill. When Sir James Craig and other leading Unionists asked Carson, who was their most effective speaker, to assume their leadership, he accepted. Carson was a natural choice but was not ideal because the vast majority of Irish Unionists came from Ulster, with which Carson had no special connection. Carson disliked many of Ulster's local characteristics and, in particular, the culture of Orangeism, although he had become an Orangeman at nineteen. He stated that their speeches reminding him of "the unrolling of a mummy. All old bones and rotten rags. Carson campaigned against Home Rule. He spoke against the Bill in the House of Commons and organised rallies in Ireland. At one rally, Carson told a crowd of 50,000 that a provisional government for "the Protestant province of Ulster" should be ready, should a third Home Rule Bill come into law.

On 28 September 1912 he was the first signatory on the Ulster Covenant, which bound its signatories 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, and received a large arms cache from Germany in April 1914. 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.

Carson addressed 250,000 supporters in Liverpool in September 1912 where the local Unionists held a torchlight procession to the city's Sheil Park. Carson also addressed 30,000 supporters in Wallsend on Tyne in October 1913; and anything up to half a million in Hyde Park, London in April 1914. Carson also drew tens of thousands of supporters out on to the streets in Glasgow, Durham, Manchester, Blackburn, Dundee, Norwich, Leeds, Edinburgh, Inverness, Plymouth, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bolton, Ipswich, Truro and Herne Hill, amongst other places in Britain, between 1911 and 1914.

Indeed, a simple head count would suggest that his campaign in Britain to rouse support for Ulster was numerically more impressive than Gladstone's famous Midlothian campaign.

The Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons on 25 May 1914 by a majority of 77 and due to the Parliament Act of 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, Herbert Asquith's Liberal government prepared to send troops to Ulster. This sparked the Curragh Incident on 20 July. Together with the arming of the southern 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. 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.

Cabinet member

On 25 May 1915, Asquith appointed Carson Attorney-General when the Coalition Government was formed after the Liberal government was bought down by the Shell Crisis. He resigned on 19 October, however, citing his opposition to Government policy on war in the Balkans, which had left two British and one French division in Salonica instead of being dispatched to support the Serbs who were being attacked by Austria from the north and Bulgaria from the east.

Carson then became the leader of those Unionists who were not members of the government, effectively Leader of the Opposition in the Commons. When Asquith resigned, he returned to office on 10 December 1916 as First Lord of the Admiralty, becoming a Minister without Portfolio on 17 July, 1917.

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.

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 1918. He gave up his seat at the University of Dublin in the 1918 general election and was instead elected for Belfast Duncairn. 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. 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." His warnings were in vain.


Carson was asked to lead the Unionists during the election to become the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Carson declined due to his lack of connections (an opponent once taunted him saying: "He has no country, he has no caste") with Ulster 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 effectively created a life peer on 1 June, 1921 as Baron Carson, of Duncairn in the County of Antrim.

Private life

Lord 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. He had two sons and two daughters by his first wife (he described them as a "rum lot"), namely:

  • The Hon. William Henry Lambert Carson, born 2 October 1880
  • The Hon. Aileen Carson, born 13 November 1881
  • The Hon. Gladys Isobel Carson, born 1885
  • The Hon. Walter Seymour Carson, born 1890

The first Lady Carson died on 6 April 1913. His second wife was Ruby Frewen, 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

Lord Carson retired in October 1929. In July 1932, he had witnessed the unveiling of a large statue (sculptored 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 the 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. Shops and factories closed down and the shipyards were silent as HMS Broke steamed slowly up Belfast Lough. Video footage of Lord Carson's funeral can be viewed here

Titles from birth to death

  • Edward Carson, Esq. (9 February 1854-1889)
  • Edward Carson, QC (1889-1892)
  • Edward Carson, QC, MP (July 1892-7 May 1900)
  • Sir Edward Carson, QC, MP (7 May 1900-December 1905)
  • The Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Carson, KC, MP (December 1905-1 June 1921)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lord Carson, Kt. PC (1 June 1921-22 October 1935)



  • H. Montgomery Hyde, Carson (Constable, London 1974) ISBN 0-09-459510-0
  • A.T.Q. Stewart The Ulster Crisis, Resistance to Home Rule, 1912-14, (Faber and Faber, London, 1967, 1979), ISBN 0 571 08066 9
  • A.T.Q. Stewart, Edward Carson (Gill and Macmillan Ltd, Dublin 1981) ISBN-10: 0717110753
  • Geoffrey Lewis, Carson, the Man who divided Ireland, (Hambledon and London 2005), ISBN 1-85285-454-5

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