Erskine Childers

This biographical article was written in 2010 as a contribution to Esme Miskimmin’s 100 British Crime Writers which is going to be published by Palgrave in 2014.

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“Erskine Childers” by Chris Routledge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Erskine Childers (1870-1922)

Author of The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service (1903), an early spy novel which became hugely popular in Britain during the years leading up to the beginning of World War 1. Its basic premise, that a German invasion of the British Isles was imminent, made it highly topical, placing it at the centre of a national debate about Britain’s international position and its imperial decline. The Riddle of the Sands was also a milestone in the development of the spy thriller, since its blend of fiction with verifiable details made it a precursor to the work of espionage writers later in the twentieth century, including Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and Len Deighton. Childers, who was a clerk in the House of Commons in Westminster, later became an Irish Nationalist. Childers is often credited as the originator of the modern spy story, which Julian Symons describes, in reference to Joseph Conrad, as the ‘political detective story’.

Robert Erskine Childers was born on June 25th, 1870, in Mayfair, London. His father, Robert Caesar Childers, was a translator who specialised in Oriental languages, and his mother, Anna, came from the wealthy, protestant, Barton family, who owned Glendalough House in County Wicklow, Ireland. Both Childers’ parents were dead by the time he was 12 years old, and he and his four siblings were sent to Ireland, where they lived comfortably at Glendalough. Childers was educated at Haileybury College, a boarding school in Hertfordshire, and later at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied law and edited the university magazine the Cambridge Review.

Childers was a keen sailor and during school and university vacations he spent much of his time sailing off the Wicklow coast. After graduation, in 1895, He took a job as a House of Commons clerk, partly because he was at that time a British patriot, but also with the idea that he could spend the long parliamentary recesses sailing. Interestingly, while his cousin, Hugh Childers, MP, campaigned for Irish Home Rule, Erskine Childers was, in this period, firmly against Irish independence.

By the late 1890s Childers was an experienced sailor, with his own yacht, a 30-foot (10 metre) sloop, Vixen, which he sailed to the North Sea coast of Germany and to Scandinavia. Information and material gathered on these voyages would later provide detail for Riddle of the Sands. However, as Brett F. Woods explains in his essay ‘Pen and Sword: The Enigma of Erskine Childers,’ the beginning of the Boer War in South Africa brought a temporary halt to Childers’ sailing adventures, and proved to be a turning point in his life.

Childers volunteered for the Army, and served in South Africa until a foot infection forced him to leave. Woods speculates that it was conversations with Boer prisoners that first made him doubt the validity of British imperial rule. Later, on his return to Britain, and his job in the Commons, his doubts became more concrete.

The Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the Sands can be seen as being part of a Victorian tradition of adventure stories that included writers such as Rider Haggard, but the addition of the spy plot was new. The story concerns two men, Davies and Carruthers, who embark on a yachting holiday to the German Frisian islands. There they find a hidden German naval base which turns out to be part of a  plan to invade England. The story is further complicated by the revelation that the base is being run by an Englishman. When Davies falls in love with the traitor’s daughter, the situation becomes even more difficult. Both characters change with their experiences, Davies emerging as a practical man of action, while Carruthers is transformed from a deskbound civil servant, into a plausible secret agent. Julian Symons sums it up thus: ‘[T]he whole story has immense charm, vivacity, and an underlying idealism that takes for granted the way in which an honourable man must behave’ (Symons, p. 217).

However, the book also appealed to a growing xenophobia in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century, and to a prevailing sense of Britain being under threat from unscrupulous foreigners and hidden traitors. It is a celebration of Britain and the moral qualities that apparently underpinned the Empire, but it is also conscious of the ease with which empires come and go, and of the conflicting viewpoints of occupier and occupied.

Childers’ sailing experience plays a significant part in the novel, much of which is concerned with the details of navigating the Frisian coast, and sailing a small boat in difficult, rock-strewn waters. This combination of factual description with fictional adventure is arguably the novel’s most lasting legacy. It helped shape both the spy novel, and crime fiction more widely, over the following century and beyond. The novel has been adapted for film on two occasions, in 1979 and 1987.

Irish Nationalism

By 1914 Childers had given up the idea of standing for election as an MP in the British parliament. He was by then a well-known supporter of Irish home rule, and, just two weeks before the war began, used his yacht, Asgard, to smuggle German guns into Ireland, where they were used, in 1916 Easter Rising, against British soldiers. Nevertheless, Childers spent the war working for British Naval Intelligence and received the Distinguished Service Cross (D.S.C.) in 1916. He was later recruited as a navigator and observer in naval air reconnaissance missions and was one of the earliest recruits to the Royal Air Force when it was formed in 1918.

When the war ended Childers committed himself to the cause of Irish independence, and was elected as Sinn Fein representative for County Wicklow in 1921. He was a senior secretary to the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, though he favoured full independence rather than the free state. Already a traitor in England, he joined the Irish Republican Army and was arrested at Glendalough carrying an unauthorised firearm, a capital crime under martial law. He was court martialled and executed by firing squad on 24 November, 1922. His son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, served as President of the Irish Republic from 1973 until his death in 1974.

Further Reading/Sources

Price, Leonard. The Tragedy of Erskine Childers (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007).

Ring, Jim. Erskine Childers: A Biography (London: John Murray, 1997).

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (London: Faber, 1972; revised edition, 1985).

Seed, David. ‘Spy Fiction’ in Martin Priestman (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) pp. 115-134.

Woods, Brett F. ‘Pen and Sword: The Enigma of Erskine Childers’, in Richmond Review, 2003. Available online at (accessed 22 July, 2010).

Creative Commons License
“Erskine Childers” by Chris Routledge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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