Reverend Edward G. Cobain

Edward Samuel Wesley deCobain

Was Orangeman Edward deCobain jailed for a crime he didn't commit?

Reverend Edward G. Cobain (deCobain)

The first reference to the Edward de Cobain family is in the 1820 General Directory of of Newry. “In William Street there is a Methodist chapel, which has lately been made a very comfortable place of worship. The present preachers are the Rev. George Stephenson and the Rev. Edward Cobain.”

Edward married Harriet Ann Smyth of Smythborough, Co. Monaghan.

In 1839 Edward and Harriet's 6 year old son, Edward died and is commemorated in Comber Cemetery, Country Down with the following inscription:

“Sacred to the memory of Edward G Cobain, beloved son to the Revd E Cobain, Wesleyan Minister, died 12th July AD 1839 aged 6 years.”

In 1840 Edward Samuel Wesley Cobain or de Cobain is born to the Reverend Edward de Cobain and Harriett Ann Smyth.

In 1845, Edward Cobain is listed as being responsible for the Missionary Station of Ballycastle.
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Edward Samuel Wesley deCobain (1840 -1908)

MP for Borough of Belfast (East Division)

Educated at the Belfast Mercantile Academy. Mr De Cobain held office under the Belfast Harbour Commission and as Borough Cashier (Treasurer) to the Belfast Corporation. He was also for five years Grand Master of the Orange Institution of Belfast and later Dept-Grand Master for Ireland. A Conservative “with strong democratic sympathies”, Edward sat for Belfast East from Nov 1885 until expelled from the House of Commons on 26 Feb 1892 for what the 1892 Journal of the House of Commons described as “having been charged with having committed ...gross and criminal acts of indecency .... and having fled from justice and failed to obey an order of this house ...”

Edward appears to have had a few dealings with the Court. The first record of Edward's legal woes is documented in the Freeman's Journal on January 6, 24 and 26, 1877. As the Deputy Borough Cashier to the Belfast Town Council a libel case was launched against him. The case ended when a compromise was reached between De Cobain and Mr. Lorimer, Liberal agent, Belfast. De Cobain was required to publish an apology and pay a sum of money to the funds of the Belfast Royal Hospital.

Edward became the MP for Belfast in November 1885 until being expelled from the House of Commons on February 26, 1892. De Cobain was one of three members expelled in 1891-92. The others had been convicted of a sexual offence and a fraud involving a will.

As described by Graham Robb in “Strangers”, “the first person to be prosecuted under the Labouchere Amendment had been a troublesome Irish MP, Edward Samuel Wesley deCobain, who had previously complained about the brutality of British policemen in Ireland”.

The Labouchere Amendment read: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”

As a result of the vagueness of the term “gross indecency,” this law allowed juries, judges and lawyers to prosecute virtually any male homosexual behaviour. Compared to older sodomy laws that prescribed death or life imprisonment, the law was lenient, possibly due to the wide range of acts covered. Dubbed the “blackmailer's charter,” it was famously invoked to convict Oscar Wilde in 1895. Wilde was given the most severe sentence possible under the act, which the judge described as “totally inadequate for a case such as this”[2]. The law was repealed in part by the Sexual Offences Act 1967 when homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales, with remaining provisions being deleted later.

(Source: Wikipedia)

When a warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of gross indecency with William Allen and with sexually assaulting him, Edward fled Ireland for the US on February 26, 1892.

In an article from the Irish newspaper the “Southern Star” dated Sept. 3, 1892

Some people never know when it would be advisable to retire into private life, and keep themselves as much away from public notice as possible. Mr. De Cobain is one of these, as the following paragraph from Truth will show: Mr. De Cobain, late M.P., late Grand Master of the Orange Lodge of Belfast, and late of Boulogne, as become 'an open-air preacher of the Gospel' at Brooklyn. He declined to surrender to the warrant out against him because he did not feel that “the Lord pointed out to him as the path of duty that he should meet his accusers.” I trust that the inhabitants of Brooklyn will point out to 'the preacher of the gospel' that his path of duty is not there, and notify to the foul wretch that if he continues his blasphemous performances, they will cast him into the river - a deep part. This is their path of duty.

This event even made news in the United States. An article in the Utica Herald on Tuesday, March 1, 1892, stated

“The house agreed to a motion made by Mr. Balfour that Edward DeCobain, member of East Belfast, being a fugitive from justice, be expelled from the house.”

Utica Daily Herald
(the text is highlighted in yellow)

Later, he returned unannounced to Belfast, and was found at home by the police, working on his accounts. He was arrested at his home, Hampton House, Ormeau Road.

On March 21, 1893 he was convicted and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment “with as much hard labour as his health will stand”.

It seems that Edward's legal troubles were not over as documented in these excerpts from the Belfast Timeline

September 1895
Sarah Murdock summoned E.S.W. deCobain for assaulting her. She occupied a house of which deCobain was landlord. She had paid several weeks in advance rent, but they had not been marked down in the rent book. She refused to pay more rent until the rent book was marked up properly. Mr. deCobain used very strong language to her, locking the door of the room they were in and assaulting her. Margaret Rooney was summoned to attend as witness, but did not turn up. The case was adjourned for production of the witness.

October 1895
A charge of assault against E. S. W. deCobain brought by Sarah Murtagh, 20 Primitive Street, was dismissed after hearing evidence from Miss. Laura McColl, the sister of Mr. deCobain.

Edward Samuel Wesley De Cobain died at the age of 68, September 23, 1908, Rollo House, Hamilton Road, Bangor, County Down.

1. General Directory of Newry, Armagh and the Towns of . . . For 1820; by Thomas Bradshaw [printed by Alexander Wilkinson at Telegraph-Office, Newry; 1819], pp vii-xxiii.

2. History From Headstones &tx_hfhsearchcasestudy_pi1[DATA][county]=Down&tx_hfhsearchcasestudy_pi1 [DATA][surname]=Cobain

3. The Armagh Guardian, Armagh, County Armagh, July 29, 1845 (


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Was Orangeman Edward De Cobain jailed for a crime he didn't commit?

Cartoon of Edward De Cobain

Was a Belfast MP who was given 12 months hard labour for acts of gross indecency framed? A BBC Radio Ulster documentary has chronicled the controversial life of Edward De Cobain. BBC NI's Political Reporter Stephen Walker has been following a story of power, sex and ultimately disgrace.

The new Public Records Office in Belfast's Titanic Quarter houses some fascinating documents. The archived boxes of papers and files are a treasure trove for journalists, historians and anyone interested in researching the past. It is home to many secrets.

Last month producer Robin Sheeran and I spent hours in the reading rooms going through court reports and witness statements from one of the most scandalous trials of the 1890s. We were interested in the case of Edward Samuel Wesley De Cobain, a former MP and Orangeman who was found guilty of committing acts of gross indecency. De Cobain was a colourful figure who had taken on the political establishment and surprisingly won the East Belfast parliamentary seat as an Independent Conservative in 1885. A street preacher and a Orange Order Grand Master he often made anti-Catholic statements which meant he attracted headlines and enemies in equal measure.

He antagonised the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1886 when he criticised their handling of the Belfast riots. He also came into conflict with the city's industrialists when he promoted workers rights, a stance that put him at odds with Sir Edward Harland who was Belfast's biggest employer.

Nineteenth Century Royal Avenue In 1891 the East Belfast MP's life changed forever when the police issued a warrant for his arrest. He was charged with committing acts of gross indecency with men at his Ormeau Road home and in a city centre office. A senior police officer travelled to England to interview the politician, but he could not be found. The parliamentarian had escaped to France and Spain and eventually went to the United States of America where he became a street preacher in Brooklyn.

De Cobain finally returned home after two years of exile. By that stage, he had been thrown out of the Orange Order and had been expelled from the House of Commons. The case came to court and on St Patrick's Day in 1893 his trial began. The former MP claimed he had been the victim of blackmail and his barrister alleged that the charges were as a result of a conspiracy. The court heard how the MP had allegedly kissed a number of men and touched them inappropriately. The twelve man jury took just 40 minutes to return a guilty verdict. De Cobain was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.

Over a century on, a reappraisal of the case against Edward De Cobain has raised questions over his conviction. Documents seen by the BBC contain allegations that some individuals were encouraged to make statements against the former MP and one individual was allegedly offered £500. We contacted Phil De Cobain who is a businessman in North Yorkshire. He is Edward's great-great nephew and insists his ancestor could have been the victim of a conspiracy. He said that “would be the view of the family”. He added that there was an “awful lot of contributory evidence to suggest that maybe he was framed”.

Historian Nicola Morris who has researched De Cobain's life, said the disgraced politician was convinced his enemies had conspired against him. She told the BBC that many people would have been pleased to see him in prison. She reveals in the documentary that “it is not beyond the realms of possibility that there was a set up”.

Following his conviction in 1893 Edward De Cobain's public life was over and after he was released from prison he lived away from the gaze of publicity until his death in Bangor in 1908. During his political career he was seen by many observers as a new kind of MP. He was backed by the Orange Order and supported working class unionism. He had many roles aside from being a politician and was a firebrand, a street preacher and an agitator who was not frightened to take on the establishment. Academics are divided on his contribution to Irish politics. Historian Eamon Phoenix says De Cobain had ability and amongst Conservatives and Unionists was “a potential leader”. Author and gay rights campaigner Jeff Dudgeon said De Cobain was “an outrageous hypocrite” who achieved little politically. Nicola Morris said the high point of De Cobains career was his election victory in 1885 and he is famous for being convicted rather than for his political views. However you judge Edward De Cobain, his life was certainly marked by power, scandal and disgrace. It is an intriguing episode from our Victorian past that has largely been forgotten and a fascinating story hidden in the archives that is worth re-telling.

“A very Victorian sex scandal.” BBC Radio Ulster, Sunday 18 September 13:30.

Edward de Cobain Update, Sept. 2011

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Cobain family tombstone