Edward Smith-Stanley, Twelfth Earl of Derby


As Edward Smith-Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby, dined with friends one evening in 1779 at his home near to Epsom Downs, the conversation turned to horse racing. Little might he have imagined that he and his racing acquaintances were about to establish one of the most famous horse races in the world - the Epsom Derby.

The 12th Earl of Derby by George Keating
Edward Smith Stanley, 12th Earl of Derby by George Keating,
published by William Austin, after Thomas Gainsborough.
Mezzotint, published 20 May 1785 NPG D35034
Image source © National Portrait Gallery
Note: The colour and contrast of this cropped image have been adjusted.

Edward Smith-Stanley was born in 1752 in Preston, the son of James Smith-Stanley (also known as Lord Strange) and Lucy Smith. Lord Strange was an MP for Lancashire for 30 years. Lord Strange's marriage to Lucy, who came from a very wealthy family, meant that young Edward received a significant inheritance on his father's death in 1771 as well as succeeding to the title of Lord Stanley. Edward became the 12th Earl of Derby in February 1776 on the death of his grandfather.

The ancestral home of the Stanley family was located in Knowsley, Lancashire. Edward's uncle by marriage, General Burgogyne, resided in a country house called The Oaks, in Woodmansterne near Epsom Downs. Edward subsequently took over the lease of The Oaks.

During the late 1700's, large, elegant, and sophisticated garden parties were very much in fashion. One of the most extravagant events of the time was held to celebrate Edward's marriage to Elizabeth, the beautiful daughter of the Duchess of Hamilton, in June 1774. Even Parliament was suspended for the day so that senior politicians could attend the festivities. No expense was spared and a temporary pavilion, including a ballroom and dining room, was built for the occasion at Edward's house, The Oaks.

The Pavilion Ballroom at The Oaks by Charles Grignion
The Pavilion Ballroom at The Oaks by Charles Grignion
Image source National British Library
Note: The colour and contrast of this cropped image have been adjusted.

The marriage produced three children, however Elizabeth had been a reluctant bride and the relationship had an unhappy ending. Elizabeth began an affair with the 3rd Duke of Dorset, a notorious womaniser, leaving Edward and their children for her lover in 1778. Edward refused to divorce his wife thus preventing her from remarrying. Her liaison with the Duke of Dorset eventually broke down and Elizabeth lived in disgrace, an outcast from society, until her death in 1797.

Following the break-up of his marriage, Edward courted the Irish actress Elizabeth Farren for many years and she became his companion. Very shortly after his first wife died, he married the vivacious Miss Farren and they lived happily together until her death in 1829.

The Stanley family had a long tradition in Parliament. Both his grandfather and father had been MPs and his grandson, the 14th Earl of Derby, was Prime Minister on three separate occasions. Although Edward was an MP for Lancashire for a short period his political career was unremarkable. His attention lay elsewhere.

Horse racing, gaming and gambling were a preoccupation of the upper classes and the Derby family were no different. The 7th Earl established a horse race in the Isle of Man and other members of the family were sponsors of various race meetings. Edward's father had been a member of the recently formed Jockey Club.

Edward continued the tradition with a great love of horse racing and cock-fighting, aided of course by his considerable wealth. He acted as a steward at Epsom races and would entertain friends at his home nearby during race meetings. One of those races was named the Oaks Stakes after Edward's country house and was first run in 1779. The race was for younger horses and proved to be a success.

Following that first Oaks Stakes, Edward celebrated with friends at his home near Epsom Downs. In that group was Sir Charles Bunbury, chairman of the Jockey Club and a leading light amongst the racing fraternity. As they celebrated the success of the Oaks Stakes, it was decided to hold another even shorter race the following year. Edward, the 12th Earl of Derby, and Sir Charles apparently tossed a coin to determine who the race would be named after. Edward won the toss and the world famous race - The Derby - was born and has been run every year since 1780 (although during the two world wars the race was run at Newmarket). At least Sir Charles had the consolation of owning the winning horse on that first Derby day.

The Derby at Epsom, 1821 by 	Theodore Gericault
The Derby at Epsom, 1821 by Theodore Gericault
Image source via Wikipedia

Edward returned to live in Knowsley, Lancashire following the death of his second wife. He died there in October 1834 and was buried in the family vault in Ormskirk. His legacy - one of the world's most famous horse races - lives on.

Paul Le Messurier © February, 2017

Draper, P. (1864). The House of Stanley.
Jones, M.W. (1979). The Derby: A Celebration of the World's Most Famous Horse Race.
Langford, P. (1998). A Polite and Commercial People of England 1727 - 1783.
Mortimer, R. (1962). History of the Derby Stakes.