He was born in London. On graduating from the University of Cambridge, he went out to Australia (1850), and became a member of the government of Victoria, but in 1857 returned to England as agent-general of the colony. Entering parliament In 1860 as Liberal member for Pontefract (a seat that he continued to hold till 1885), he became civil lord of the admiralty in 1864, and in 1865 financial secretary to the treasury.
Childers occupied a succession of prominent posts in the various Gladstone ministries. He was First Lord of the Admiralty from 1868 to 1871, and as such inaugurated a policy of retrenchment. Ill-health forced him to resign in 1871, but next year he returned to the ministry as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. From 1880 to 1882 he was Secretary for War, a post he accepted somewhat unwillingly; and in that position he had to bear the responsibility for the reforms which were introduced into the war office under the parsimonious conditions which were then part of the Liberal creed.
During his term of office the Egyptian War occurred, in which Childers acted with creditable energy; and also the Boer War, in which he and his colleagues showed to less advantage. From 1882 to 1885 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the beer and spirit duty in his budget of the latter year brought about the government's fall. Defeated at the general election at Pontefract, he was returned as a Home Ruler (one of the few Liberals who adopted this policy before Gladstone's conversion) in 1886 for South Edinburgh, and was Home Secretary in the ministry of 1886. When the first Home Rule bill was introduced he demurred privately to its financial clauses, and their withdrawal was largely due to his threat of resignation.
He retired from parliament in 1892, and his last piece of work was the drafting of a report for the royal commission on Irish financial relations, of which he was chairman. Childers was a capable and industrious administrator of the old Liberal school, and he helped improve the naval and military administration while he was at the admiralty and war office. His own bent was towards finance, but no striking reform is associated with his name. His most ambitious effort was his attempt to effect a conversion of consols in 1884, but the scheme proved a failure, though it paved the way for the subsequent conversion in 1888.
The Life (1901) of Hugh Childers, by his son, throws some interesting side-lights on the inner history of more than one Gladstonian cabinet.
A distant relative, Robert Erskine Childers, was the famed author of the Riddle in the Sands, a clerk of the British House of Commons turned Irish revolutionary and secretary to the Irish Delegation in the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations that led the creation of the Irish Free State. Robert Erskine's son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, was the fourth President of Ireland (1973-1974).