Guinness is born on November 10, 1847 at St. Anne’s, Clontarf, County Dublin, the youngest of three sons of Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, brewer, of Dublin, and Elizabeth, third daughter of Edward Guinness of Dublin. He is not sent to public school but is taught at home by a private tutor before entering Trinity College Dublin, where he takes his degree in 1870. His father dies in 1868, leaving him a share in the brewery, and he takes over management of the business with his brother Arthur, who in 1876 sells his shares, making Edward sole proprietor.
Guinness is also prominent in municipal life, holding the offices of Sheriff of Dublin City in 1876 and High Sheriff of the County of Dublin in 1885, the year in which he is created a baronet. He is a brilliantly effective businessman, with close attention to detail and a focus solely on the brewery, to the extent of remaining independent from the rest of the brewing trade. In 1888 he bluntly tells the Country Brewers’ Association, “I have always declined to identify myself with any trade question, or to take any side in a controversy on the liquor question, and to this I must adhere.” In 1886 Guinness is floated as a public company, a superbly successful venture with applications for shares exceeding £100 million, and Edward remains as chairman until 1890, although his formal retirement in that year brings little reduction in his involvement with the company, and he continues to make the final decision on many minor matters as well as all major questions of policy.
Socially innovative, with a concern for the welfare of employees, from as early as 1870 Guinness establishes a free dispensary for his workforce and makes provisions for pension and other allowances – acts of social reform that are remarkable for the time. To mark his retirement in 1890 he places in trust £250,000 to be expended in the erection of working-class housing in London and Dublin. Both funds are administered from London until 1903, when the Dublin fund is amalgamated by the Iveagh Trust act with other schemes carried out in Dublin by Edward, who had been raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom in 1891 as Baron Iveagh of Iveagh, County Down. The funds, which increase considerably from the original amount, are thereafter managed entirely in Dublin as a separate undertaking under the name of the Iveagh Trust, still in existence in the early twenty-first century.
As one of the pioneers of the voluntary housing movement Guinness is essentially carrying on the tradition of “merchant prince and city father” established by his father and shared by his brother. Wealthy, ambitious, and resolutely unionist, he gives generous financial support to the Irish Unionist Alliance, and is also public-spirited, religious, and devoted to duty. Acknowledging that the Iveagh Trust is essentially ameliorative, he believes that major social change will only be achieved if numerous other wealthy people follow his example. He insists that gifts of money from the fund are permissible only to assist individuals to improve their condition “without placing them in the position of being the recipients of a bounty.” Numerous other philanthropic donations follow, including another £250,000 for slum clearance in the Bull Alley district of Dublin; various contributions to Dublin hospitals, particularly in 1903 and 1911 on the occasion of royal visits; and in 1907 the opening of the Iveagh Markets, situated in the Francis Street and Patrick Street areas of Dublin, are made possible with his financial backing. Generous contributions are also made to Trinity College Dublin, of which he is elected chancellor in 1908, and he donates land in Iveagh Gardens to University College Dublin (UCD).
In 1905 Guinness is raised to a viscountcy and in September 1909 the nationalist corporation of Dublin presents him with an address of thanks for his many gifts, and even discusses the possibility of offering him the lord mayoralty of the city, which he declines owing to his political affiliations. By this time he lives chiefly in England, having bought Elveden Hall in Suffolk, where he frequently entertains royalty. He also purchases Lord Kensington’s London estate and makes many donations to medical research societies in England, and in conjunction with Sir Ernest Cassel he founds the London Radium Institute, as well as donates £250,000 to the Laster Institute of Tropical Medicine for the endowment of bacteriological research.
In 1919 Guinness is elevated to an earldom and in 1925 purchases the remainder of the Kenwood estate to the north of Hampstead Heath and arranges for it to become public property, ensuring the estate will not be sold for building purposes, and also bequeaths to the nation a valuable collection of art for use in the gallery at the same location. As well as being elected a fellow of the Royal Society, he is awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Dublin and the University of Aberdeen.
In 1873, Guinness marries his third cousin Adelaide Maud, nicknamed “Dodo.” She is descended from the banking line of Guinnesses, and is the daughter of Richard Samuel Guinness, barrister and MP, and his wife Katherine, a daughter of Sir Charles Jenkinson. They have three sons, the eldest of whom, Rupert Edward Cecil Lee, succeeds his father as 2nd Earl of Iveagh.
Guinness dies at his London home in Grosvenor Place on October 7, 1927, and is buried at Elveden, Suffolk. He leaves an estate valued at £11 million.