Hugh Childers

Hugh Childers

Hugh Culling Eardley Childers (25 June 1827 – 29 January 1896) was a British and Australian Liberal statesman of the nineteenth century. He is perhaps best known for being the politician responsible for the sinking of HMS "Captain" and for his damaging 'reforms' at the Admiralty. However he had other failures. At the War Office he made budget cuts in the period before the First Boer War. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he made a failed attempt to convert Consols, and his attempt to correct a budget shortfall led to the fall of the government.

Early life

He was born in London and educated at both Oxford and the University of Cambridge, graduating B.A. from the latter in 1850. He then decided to seek a career in Australia and in October emigrated to Victoria.


He joined the government of Victoria and served as inspector of schools and immigration agent, before becoming auditor-general in 1853. In 1852 he placed a bill before the state legislature proposing the establishment of a second university for Victoria, following the foundation of the University of Sydney in 1850. With the receipt of the Royal Assent in 1853, the University of Melbourne was founded, with Childers as its first vice-chancellor.

Return to Britain

He retained the post until his return to Britain in March 1857 and received a M.A. from Cambridge the same year.

Enters British Politics

In 1860 he entered Parliament as the Liberal member for Pontefract, and served in a minor capacity in the government of Lord Palmerston, becoming a Civil Lord of the Admiralty in 1864 and Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1865.

First Lord of the Admiralty

With the election of Gladstone's government in December 1868 he rose to greater prominence, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty. Childers "had a reputation for being hardworking, but inept, autocratic and notoriously overbearing in his dealing with colleagues." He "initiated a determined programme of cost and manpower reductions, fully backed by the Prime Minister, Gladstone described him [Childers] as 'a man likely to scan with a rigid eye the civil expenses of the Naval Service'. He got the naval estimates just below the psychologically important figure of £10,000,000. Childers strengthened his own position as First Lord by reducing the role of the Board of Admiralty to a purely formal one, making meetings rare and short and confining the Naval Lords rigidly to the administrative functions... Initially Childers had the support of the influential Controller of the Navy, Vice-Admiral Sir [Robert Spencer Robinson| [Robert] Spencer Robinson] ." [Page 14, Smith, Paul (editor), "Government and the Armed Forces in Britain, 1856-1990", pub Hambledon Press, 1996, ISBN 1852851449
Note that the original anachronistically says 'Sea Lord'; at the time the title was Naval Lord.
] "His re-organisation of the Admiralty was unpopular and poorly done."

Childers was responsible for the construction of HMS "Captain" in defiance of the advice of his professional advisers, the Controller (Robinson), and the Chief Constructor Edward James Reed). The "Captain" was commissioned in April 1870, and sank on the night of 6/7 September 1870. She was, as predicted by Robison and Reed, insufficiently stable. "Shortly before "Captain" sank, Childers had moved his son, Midshipman Leonard Childers from Reed's designed HMS Monarch onto Captain; Leonard did not survive." Childers "faced strong criticism following the Court Martial on the loss of "Captain", and attempted to clear his name with a 359 page memorandum, a move described as "dubious public ethics". Vice Admiral Sir [Robert] Spencer Robinson wrote 'His endeavors were directed to throw the blame which might be supposed to attach to himself on those who had throughout expressed their disapproval of such methods of construction'." Childers unfairly blamed Robinson for the loss of the "Captain", and as a result of this Robinson was replaced as Third Lord and Controller of the navy in February 1871. [ Online biography Robert Spencer Robinson] ] "Following the loss of his son and the recriminations that followed, Childers resigned through ill health as First Lord in March 1871." [ HMS Captain website biography of Hugh Childers.] ]


Following his resignation he spent some months on the Continent, and recovered sufficiently to take office in 1872 as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

War Office

When the Liberals regained power in 1880, Childers was appointed Secretary for War, a position he accepted reluctantly. He therefore had to bear responsibility for cuts in arms expenditure, a policy that provoked controversy when Britain found itself fighting first the Boers in South Africa in 1880 and invading Egypt in 1882.

Childers was also very unpopular with Horse Guards for his reinforcement and expansion of the Cardwell reforms. In 1 May 1881 he passed General Order 41, which made a series of improvements known as the Childers reforms.

Chancellor of the Exchequer

He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1882, a post he had coveted. As such, he attempted to implement a conversion of Consols in 1884. Although the scheme proved a failure, it paved the way for the subsequent conversion in 1888.

He attempted to resolve a budget shortfall in June 1885 by increasing alcohol duty and income tax. His budget was rejected by Parliament, and the government - already unpopular due to events in Egypt - was forced out of office. The Earl of Rosebery commented resignedly: "So far as I know the budget is as good a question to go out upon as any other, and Tuesday as good a day."

Home Secretary

At the subsequent election in December 1885 Childers lost his Pontefract seat, but returned as an independent Home Ruler for Edinburgh South (one of the few Liberals who adopted this policy before Gladstone's conversion in 1886).

He then served as Home Secretary in the short-lived ministry of 1886. He was critical of the financial clauses of the first Home Rule Bill, and their withdrawal was largely due to his threat of resignation. Nevertheless, the Bill still failed to pass, and its rejection brought down the Liberal government.


He retired from parliament in 1892, and his last piece of work was the drafting of a report for the royal commission on Irish financial relations, of which he was chairman.


Towards the end of his ministerial career "HCE" Childers was notable for his girth, and so acquired the nickname "Here Comes Everybody".

A cousin, Robert Erskine Childers, was the author of the famous spy novel "The Riddle of the Sands", and father of the fourth President of Ireland, Erskine Childers.


* "The Life and Correspondence of the Rt. Hon. Hugh C.E. Childers", Spencer Childers, 1901
* "The Educational Activities in Victoria of the Right Hon. H. C. E. Childers", E. Sweetman, 1940

External links

* [] A Portrait from the New York Public Library Archives



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