Erskine Childers

Childers in Boer War uniform

Erskine Childers was a loyal servant of the British Empire who went on challenge the authorities in direct and controversial circumstances.

Born in London in 1870 to an Englishman and an Irishwoman, Childers was an orphan by the age of 13 and was raised by his Anglo-Irish family in County Wicklow. He studied law at Cambridge and became a junior committee clerk in the House of Commons. He also took up sailing, learning the ropes while sailing alone in the Thames Estuary on his ‘scrubby little yacht’ Shulah. Only four years later he was sailing with his brother across the North Sea to the Frisian Islands, the location for Riddle of the Sands.

Childers contributed detective stories to Cambridge Review while at university. He wrote In the Banks of the C.I.V after serving in the Boer War in 1900, a series of letters which were published at the end of 1900. Childers spent the next two years writing Riddle of the Sands, which was published in May 1903 and was an immediate hit. It has never been out of print since.

Childers’s attitude towards Britain and the Empire became increasingly complex and troubled. He became convinced of the need for Irish independence, and in 1914 sailed his yacht Asgard from Belgium to Howth with a load of 1870 Mauser rifles bought in Germany. At Howth the rifles were handed over to Irish Volunteers. When war broke out, Childers was given a reserve commission in the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service where he principally helped with navigational training and practice. He was decorated in 1916 for service in the Admiralty – the same year as the Easter Rising in Ireland, when smuggled German rifles were used against British soldiers.

Childers near the end of his life
Childers near the end of his life

Dismayed with Britain’s repressive response to the 1916 rising, Childers moved to Ireland after the war. In 1921 he was elected to the Second Dáil as a Sinn Féin member, and in late 1921 was secretary-general of the Irish delegation at the historic Anglo-Irish Treaty meetings of 1921-22. Childers was violently opposed to the treaty, and took the republican side in the ensuing Irish civil war. He was executed by an Irish Free State military firing squad on 24 November in Dublin. His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, would later become President of the Republic of Ireland.

8 thoughts on “Erskine Childers

  1. Suggested corrections from a tiresome grandson.
    Para 2 “by age of 13 and was raised thereafter by”
    Para 4 “and in 1914 sailed his yacht, Asgard from Belgium to Howth with a load of 1870 Mauser rifles bought in Germany. At Howth the rifles were handed over to the Irish Volunteers.” Is there any evidence that the British Government knew of this at the time? If not, leave out.
    Para 4 “smuggled German rifles were used”
    Para 4 “in the fledgling Royal Naval Air Service where he principally helped with navigational training and practice.” Not an intelligence offer and not a spy.
    para 5 “and in late 1921 was secretary-general to…”….to the historic Anglo-IrishTreaty Meetings.” These ended before Christmas 1921.
    Para 5 “executed by an Irish Free State military firing squad.” This needs to be spelt out because so many people still think or assume that he was executed by a British firing squad. .


    1. Not tiresome at all! *Extremely* helpful. And exactly the kind of contribution & knowledge we’re looking for from Club members. We’ll get those amendments done asap.

      Welcome aboard. It’s an honour having you with us.


  2. Coincidence, or what? My late father also served in the Royal Naval Air Service at Calshot, in 1917. I have no details of what he did, but his service number was 244535. Possibly he even met Childers… wooah!


  3. Hi
    It was essentially a comedy club in Trinity College cambridge. The format of each meeting was a debate with the participants arguing for or against the motion as they saw fit.
    A glass box with a taxidermied magpie, standing on a tree stump, was brought out at the start of each meeting.
    Erskine stood for election and iirc was voted in as president.
    I went to Trinity in the mid-90s. There was a framed copy of a college newspaper article in the bar from his time at college describing how he had addressed a crowd out of his bedroom window as part of his election campaign. Unfortunately I seemed to be the only person who knew who the great Erskine was 😦
    That bar has been demolished now. I keep meaning to try and track down the poster.


    1. Ramzi,
      That newspaper article was most probably from the Cambridge Observer, which was edited by Erskine’s friend and fellow Trinity alumni Sir Edward Marsh (Churchill’s longstanding Secretary). At the British Library you can read the output of this brief newspaper, which from my understanding folded completely in 1895, after less than two years of trading. The out the window campaigning is absolutely true. From 1889 his digs in Cambridge were at 5 Bridge Street,0.119041,3a,90y,32.27h,104.32t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1sVlcouVDgY933UqUoiiVMZA!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x47d870be15176b49:0xd4b54fe185dbd5b5!6m1!1e1
      …so its most probably one of those windows above….


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