Edward George Clarke

Sir Edward Clarke, QC (15 February 1841-26 April 1931) was a British barrister and politician, considered one of the leading advocates of the late Victorian era and serving as Solicitor-General in the Conservative government of 1886–1892. His legal career included representing Oscar Wilde in his disastrous prosecution of the Marquess of Queensberry for libel, and representing the plaintiff in the "Baccarat Case", during which Sir Edward cross-examined the Prince of Wales.


Edward George Clarke was the son of J G Clarke of Moorgate Street, London, and was born on 15 February, 1841. In 1859 he became a writer in India Office, but resigned in the next year, and became a law reporter. He obtained a Tancred scholarship in 1861, and was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1864, joining the Home Circuit. He quickly gained a high reputation at the junior bar, and made his name appearing for the defence in the two most notorious cases of 1877, securing the acquittal of his namesake Chief Inspector Clarke in the Great Scotland Yard scandal (when other senior CID detectives were convicted of corruption) and unsuccessfully defending Patrick Staunton (who had been accused of complicity in starving his sister-in-law to death) in the Penge Murder.

On the back of these successes Clarke took silk in 1880, and quickly came to be recognised as one of the leading members of the bar; he became a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in 1882, and was knighted in 1886. He also entered Parliament as Conservative MP for Southwark at a by-election early in 1880, but being unable to hold the seat at the general election later that year he was elected instead for Plymouth. He was Solicitor-General in the Conservative administration of 1886–1892, but declined office when the party returned to power in 1895 as he would have been debarred from continuing his lucrative private practice.

In 1899, Sir Edward found himself in total disagreement with his party over the government's South African policy, and he resigned his seat at Plymouth early the following year. He did not contest the general election of 1900, but returned to the House as MP for the City of London in 1906; however, he offended a section of his constituents by a speech against tariff reform in the House of Commons on 12 March, 1906, and shortly afterwards he resigned his seat again on grounds of health.

He published a "Treatise on the Law of Extradition" in 1903, and several volumes of speeches (both political and legal). His autobiography, "The Story of My Life", was published in 1918, and a biography by Derek Walker-Smith and his Grandson Edward Clarke ("Life of Sir Edward Clarke") followed in 1939.

Famous Cases

* "R v Clarke and Others, 1877" (The Trial of the Detectives). Clarke secured the acquittal of Chief Inspector Clarke, the acting head of the Detective Department at Scotland Yard, on charges of corruption. Three other, more junior, police officers were convicted, and the detective division of the Metropolitan Police was completely reorganised as a result.

* "R v Staunton, Staunton, Staunton and Rhodes, 1877" (The Penge Murder). Harriet Staunton, a mentally-disabled woman of 38, had died at Penge in Surrey, apparently of starvation. Her husband, Lewis Staunton, together with his brother, his brother's wife and his mistress (who was his brother's wife's sister) were charged with murdering her by deliberate neglect; although they were charged only with one murder, it was generally believed that they were also responsible for the death of Harriet's baby son, also by starvation. Clarke defended Patrick Staunton, the brother; although all four were convicted and sentenced to death, sufficient doubt about the strict legal position had been raised at the trial that the sentences of the three Stauntons were commuted to penal servitude for life, and the fourth defendant, Alice Rhodes, was given a free pardon.

* "R v Bartlett, 1886" (The Pimlico Mystery). Clarke defended Adelaide Bartlett on a charge of having murdered her husband by poisoning with chloroform; she was acquitted.

* "Gordon-Cumming v. Wilson and Others", 1891 (The Royal Baccarat Case or Tranby Croft Scandal). Clarke represented Sir William Gordon-Cumming, who sued eight people for slander after being accused of cheating at cards. The case was notorious because the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, had been banker during the game in which Gordon-Cumming was said to have cheated; the Prince was called as a witness, and vigorously cross-examined by Clarke. Nevertheless, Gordon-Cumming lost the case.

* "Wilde v Queensberry, 1895"; "R v Wilde, 1895". Clarke represented Oscar Wilde in his ill-advised prosecution of the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel. Queensbury being found not guilty, Clarke considered himself partly to blame for the tactics pursued during the trial, and when Wilde was subsequently arrested and prosecuted for homosexual practices, Clarke considered himself duty-bound to undertake the defence, which he did while refusing to accept a fee. Clarke was initially widely condemned for doing so, even within the legal profession, outraged as much by a barrister appearing without a fee as by their revulsion for Wilde, although opinions were later reversed. In the first trial, when Clarke’s conduct of the defence was described by the prosecuting counsel as “courageous and brilliant”, the jury disagreed; but Clarke was unable to persuade the jury in the re-trial against a guilty verdict.

* "R. v Jameson, Willoughby and others, 1896". Clarke defended Leander Starr Jameson for his organisation of the Jameson Raid. Jameson was convicted and sentenced to fifteen months in jail, but was soon pardoned, and was generally treated as a national hero.


His great-nephew, Edward Clarke, followed him into law and was number two to Frederick Geoffrey Lawrence in the defence team for suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams. [Cullen, Pamela V., "A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams", London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006, ISBN 1-904027-19-9]


* H Montgomery Hyde, "Famous Trials 7: Oscar Wilde" (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962)
* J M Parrish and John R Crossland (eds), "The Fifty Most Amazing Crimes of the Last Hundred Years" (London: Odham's Press, 1936)

External links

* [http://www.npg.org.uk/live/search/person.asp?desc=&grp=&lDate=&eDate=&occ=23%3BLaw&medium=drawing&name=&search=as&LinkID=mp00899 Pictures of Sir Edward Clarke at the National Portrait Gallery]

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