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F.E. by Himself: Birkenhead’s Best Ripostes

F. E. Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead is probably best remembered as one of Winston Churchill’s closest friends and political allies. 

Judge Willis: “Mr Smith, have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon-the great Bacon-that youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions?”

F.E. Smith: “Yes, I have. And have you ever heard of a saying of Bacon-the great Bacon-that a much-talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?”

Judge Willis: “You are extremely offensive, young man.”

F.E. Smith: “As a matter of fact, we both are; but I am trying to be, and you can’t help it.”

Judge Willis: “What do you suppose I am on the Bench for, Mr. Smith?”

F.E. Smith: “It is not for me, your honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence.”1

[F.E. told a heckler on a campaign stump that he should remove his cap when putting a question.]

Heckler: “I’ll take off my boots if you like.”

F.E. Smith: “Ah, I knew you’d come here to be unpleasant.” 1

F.E. Smith (addressing his constituency): “And now I shall tell you exactly what the Government has done for all of you.”

A woman in the gallery: “Nothing!”

F.E. Smith: “My dear lady, the light in this hall is so dim as to prevent a clear sight of your undoubted charms, so that I am unable to say with certainty whether you are a virgin, a widow, or a matron, but in any case I will guarantee to prove that you are wrong. If you are a virgin flapper, we have given you the vote; if you are a wife, we have increased employment and reduced the cost of living; if you are a widow, we have given you a pension- and if you are none of these, but are foolish enough to be a tea drinker, we have reduced the tax on sugar.” 1

High Court judge presiding in a sodomy case: “Could you tell me what do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?”

F.E. Smith: “Oh, thirty shillings or two pounds; whatever you happen to have on you.” 2

Lady Astor: “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

F.E. Smith: “I were married to you, I’d drink it.” 3

F.E. Smith: “Winston is a man of simple tastes-he is quite easily satisfied with the best of everything.” 3

1. All three entries from Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990, 111-12 First published 1937.

2. The Times, 23 May 2006, Law Supplement, 7.

3. Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself, London: Ebury Press, New York: Public Affairs, 2008, 532, 579. (WSC and F.E. were so closely linked that two of Churchill’s most famous alleged quotes are reliably thought to have originated with his friend, who was very quick off the cuff, as these examples suggest.)

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