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The Lighter Side of My Official Life
by Sir Robert Anderson, 1910.
Full text below.


CHAPTER IV

The change of Government in 1868 - Mr. Henry Bruce as Secretary of State - Revival of Fenian activity - Michael Davitt's life-story - Activity in revolutionary circles in 1870 - Informant " Maxwell " - Count d'Orsay's death - "The Waterloo Bridge mystery" of 1857 - Life in lodgings : with Charles Reade and Mrs. Seymour - Reade's literary work - A buttered egg supper - J. A. Froude and his view of the Irish Question.

As I review the earlier years of my life in London, I wish to keep silence about all matters of a specially confidential nature, and at the same time to avoid loading these pages with mere gossip and trivial details. I am the only survivor of those who had knowledge of the graver matters to which I allude ; and while the disclosure of them now would lend sensational interest to my story, it would serve no useful public purpose. Apart from these, indeed, incidents abounded which might, with a little dressing up, afford material for a novel. I was in a position, moreover, to know all that was worth knowing in the sphere of ordinary Police work at Scotland Yard. For Sir Richard Mayne had placed the detective department at my disposal ; and as I soon gained the confidence and good-will of the officers, they not only helped me loyally in my inquiries respecting political crime, but spoke to me without reserve about their " cases " and all ordinary Police business. All this, however, is ancient history, and the years in question shall be dismissed with no more notice than is necessary to preserve the sequence of my narrative.

At that time I had no intention of abandoning the profession of my choice, and it was not till ten years later that I entered the Civil Service. My immediate objective was admission to the English Bar. For though a sceptic both by temperament and training, I have long held a firm belief in the capacity of Irish agitators to impose upon English statesmen-a belief that is shared by all Irishmen, not excepting the agitators themselves--and, as I anticipated the evils which agitation has in fact brought upon Ireland, I wished to be free of the Law Courts at Westminster as well as in Dublin.

I may here say once for all that, though called to the English Bar, I never engaged in Court practice in England. For every time I tried to break free from Government work something occurred to make me postpone the crisis. Mr. Liddell's friendship had much to do with it. He had a magnetic influence over me; and he always urged me to remain at Whitehall, assuring me again and again that I was " certain to get something good." When the change of Government occurred in December, 1868, I seriously contemplated going back to Ireland. Not on the score of party politics-for I have never been a party man-but because, as I have already said, my friendly relations with my official chiefs weighed much with me, and on that account I feared a change of masters. " I don't know how you feel, but I'm devilish miserable," was Liddell's greeting to me the day the change took place. But it is not the wicked only who are disquieted in vain. For the change of masters served only to bring me new friends. And as regards the political element involved, I cannot but contrast the change of December, 1868, with that of December, 1905 ; for Mr. Bruce at once announced that he was satisfied that everything approved by Mr. Hardy must be right, and all was to go on as usual in the Office.

Not that he was a weak man. He was in fact one of the best Home Secretaries of my time; a man of judgment and discretion, a thorough gentleman, a good lawyer, and a pleasing speaker. But on the staff of two of the leading newspapers there were certain Government officials who, for some reason or other, were his enemies. One of them was a Metropolitan Police magistrate, and the other was still more closely connected with Scotland Yard ; and the persistent efforts of these journalists conveyed to the public a wholly false impression of Mr. Bruce's adminstration of the Home Office. He was prejudiced also by appointing as his Private Secretary a man who, though clever and amiable, was wanting in tact and common sense.

The absurd Fenian scare which followed " the Clerkenwell explosion " naturally led to a revival of Fenian activity. Ricard Burke, who instigated that outrage, was succeeded by Michael Davitt as " arms agent " to the conspirators, and, unlike most of their paid officials, he served them honestly and well. So much so, indeed, that during the year 1869 the illicit introduction of arms into Ireland became a matter of anxiety to the Irish Government. And such is the fatuity of Government methods and ways, that this very time was chosen by the War Office to sell off stores of discarded rifles. The Fenians were thus enabled to purchase at " knock-out " prices better arms than had ever been carried by British troops in actual warfare ; and quantities of these were smuggled into Ireland for the use of the rebels. We were aware of what was doing ; but there is a great difference between getting information and obtaining evidence for a treason-felony prosecution, and it was not till February, 1870, that Davitt and his partner in the business fell into our clutches.

Davitt's life-story is not without interest. When he was but twelve years of age an accident in a Lancashire cotton mill cost him the loss of one of his arms. Being thus unfitted for manual labour, he hawked newspapers for a stationer in a small Lancashire town. And it was while thus engaged that he was drawn into the meshes of Fenianism. At the time of his conviction, therefore, he was personally of no account whatever. But his good conduct as a prisoner, and his evident desire to use any opportunities allowed him of self-improvement, attracted the notice of Mr. William Fagan, the Visiting Director, who encouraged and helped him in many ways. His influence with the convict was all the greater because he was a fellow-countryman of his and a co-religionist. And as the result the Davitt of the Land League was a very different man from the ignorant fellow who was sent to penal servitude in 1870. As so many hard things are said about the discipline of convict prisons, it deserves to be recorded that it was in a convict prison that Davitt acquired his fitness for the part he afterwards played as Parnell's ally in the Irish land war, and he freely acknowledged this upon occasions.

The year 1870 was marked by a good deal of activity in revolutionary circles. And the break up of the French Secret Service Department, on the fall of the Empire, brought me much useful and interesting information. For several of the secret agents of the Surete came to London, and some of them applied to me for employment. Among them was one of the most remarkable men I have ever met in this sort of work. Maxwell was the nom de guerre I gave him. His physique, and notably his head, might have gained him a living as an artist's model. He spoke many languages, and his experiences as a revolutionist, and afterwards as a Police agent, would have made a thrilling story.

Some of the matters he disclosed to me have an historic interest. Count d'Orsay was supposed to have died of spine-disease and a carbuncle in the back. As a matter of fact the carbuncle was a euphemism for a bullet aimed at the Emperor as they were walking together in the gardens of the Elysee. The facts were carefully suppressed, but Maxwell was in the secret. I received confirmation of this afterwards from the Chef de la Surety in Paris. The matter had a peculiar interest for me, as my father was Lady Harriet d'Orsay's lawyer, and the Count valued his friendship. Among his gifts to him, now in my possession, was a tortoise-shell and gold snuff-box bearing an exquisite miniature of Louis XVI.

Another of Maxwell's disclosures will be of interest to thousands of Londoners who have passed middle age. Of all the London horrors of our time, none ever made a greater sensation than the "Waterloo Bridge Mystery" of 1857. On one of the buttresses of the bridge a carpetbag was found on the morning of the 9th of October of that year, containing certain mutilated fragments of a human body. The evidence given at the inquest made it clear that a foul and brutal murder had been committed, but no clue could be discovered to the identity of either the victim or the assassins. Maxwell gave me the facts in full detail. And inquiries made through the Foreign Office and Scotland Yard brought confirmation of all the main points of his story.

The victim was an Italian Police agent who had been sent to London on a special mission. Posing as a revolutionist, he put up at a house in Cranbourne Street, Soho, frequented by Italians of that class. Revolutionists are proverbially suspicious of one another, and a glaring indiscretion cost the man his life. He not only preserved a letter of instructions about his work, but carried it in his pocket ; and this letter his companions got hold of by searching his clothes when he was asleep. As he mounted the stairs the next night in company with some of his fellow-lodgers, he received a blow on the head that stunned him, and his body was dragged to the basement. There he recovered consciousness, but a brief struggle was quickly ended by the use of the assassins' knives. They proceeded to cut up the body, and several nights were spent in efforts to get rid of the remains by burning them. This, however, proved a tedious and irksome task, and it was decided to jettison the rest of the corpse in the river.

One of Maxwell's last visits to me was marked by a dramatic incident which illustrates what secret service work at times involves. The time had come when I could no longer make use of him, and I wrote to tell him so. He called by appointment at my private house, and seated in my dining-room he deliberately announced his intention of committing suicide. For if only he were out of the way, he said, he could rely on friends to help his wife and daughter. At the same time he asked me to accept some valuable papers in return for my kindness to him. " You are going to kill yourself, leaving your wife and daughter to charity in a strange land ? " I asked. He assented with imperturbable calmness.

"Then," said I, "I'll write you down a coward and a scoundrel." He sprang at me like a wounded tiger. His fingers twitched convulsively, and he seemed about to grip me by the throat. I was standing on the hearthrug with my hands behind my back, and, without moving a muscle, I looked him steadily in the face. Presently all the passion died out of him, and falling back into his seat he utterly broke down. I left the room for some ten minutes, and on my return I handed him the papers he had brought me ; and when he came back to me a week later, I found that, as I hoped, he had abandoned all thought of self-destruction.

I have alluded to my making the acquaintance of literary men of note at this time. The circum stances in which I came to know one of the number are so characteristic of the man that I am tempted to record them. Life in London lodgings is not usually deemed ideal, but my experiences in that regard were pleasant. And after living for a brief interval in the Westminster Palace Hotel as a member of the " Crown Club " -the acorn from which grew the oak of the "St. Stephen's," now palatially housed opposite the clock tower at Westminster-I decided to return to lodgings. Accordingly I engaged rooms in Park Lane in a house rented by a house-agent who used the ground-floor as his office. But the day before I was to take possession he called on me at Whitehall and appealed to me to waive my right to the rooms, as his former tenant had changed plans and wished to remain with him. That very afternoon, he added, he had been commissioned to let some exceptionally nice apartments at Albert Gate, overlooking Hyde Park would I consent to look at them ? I consented, and at once went off to view the house he indicated.

I was received by a charming matronly lady, and the rooms shown me were as charming as herself. Paintings worth thousands of pounds adorned the walls, including Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of the Chevalier d'Eon. I suggested that they would probably expect a higher rent than I was prepared to pay. How much was I prepared to pay? she asked.

I named the amount asked for at Park Lane, and without another word the matter was settled. I was amazed that folk so wealthy should let lodgings, and that, too, without even requiring a reference from me. But I had no fears of my portmanteaux being seized by bailiffs in a house that held such art treasures, and I moved in next day. Not till then did I discover that the house was Charles Reade's, and that my charming landlady was Mrs. Seymour.

No one who knew the great novelist, or who has read his " Life," needs to be told who Mrs. Seymour was. With ringing laughter she afterwards gave me the whole story. Reade had received a letter from some relatives for whom he had no love, to say they were coming to town to sponge on him. He fumed and stormed. " Put the rooms on a house-agent's books," he exclaimed, " and write and tell them you have done so, and that they mustn't come." Having thus delivered his soul, he went off to Oxford, where his fellowship at Magdalen afforded him a pleasant retreat. Two hours afterwards Mrs. Seymour had carried out his wishes, I called and engaged the rooms. Finding me there on his return to town set him fuming even worse than before. He wouldn't have lodgers in his house, he declared, and I must be turned out at once. But Mrs. Seymour knew how to manage him, and I was left in possession. For a time, however, he ignored me. The first advance he ever made was his writing me the following note, on hearing that the dog had disturbed me in the night:

" I am truly concerned to hear that the wild beast which governs and oppresses this house kept you awake with his howling last night ; I heard him, but owing to the echoes of this spacious mansion, could not divine where our tormentor was.

" Should this recur, please entice him into your room and leather him. This has always a soothing influence on him. But indeed I shall endeavour to restrain his wanderings in future, at all events during the small hours."

This was a " Dear Sir" ; but before long we struck up a friendship, and I received many kindnesses from him. So much so, indeed, that he used to lend me his own pet room when I invited men to dinner, and sometimes he joined my party. It was the room he had built in his garden abutting on Hyde Park. In that same room, by the way, looking out on " the trees of the nation," as he phrased it, is laid one of the chief scenes in " A Terrible Temptation."

Reade's literary work was a rare combination of genius and plodding. A brass scuttle which stood by the fireplace held the illustrated and other papers which reached him week by week. From these he culled anything that took his fancy, and the cuttings were thrown into a companion scuttle, to be afterwards inserted in scrap-books, and duly indexed. Materials for his novels and plays were thus supplied or suggested. The accuracy of his descriptions of events and places was phenomenal. Frederick Locker once told me that he read " Never too Late to Mend " while at the gold-diggings in Australia, and as again and again he looked up from the book to view the scene so graphically portrayed in its pages, the vividness and accuracy of the description amazed and delighted him. Had Reade ever visited Australia ? No bribe, I told him, could tempt the great novelist to cross the ocean. I was once asked to put before him a very flattering proposal for a lecture tour in America. I gave him the particulars, ending by naming the proffered fee of I forget how many thousand pounds. " Tell them to make it millions," was the only answer he vouchsafed to it.

Though I couldn't write " Never too Late to Mend," I could make " buttered eggs " ; and as Reade watched the operation in my room one night, his looks and words suggested that he thought the cooking more wonderful than the writing. We had met at the hall door on his return home very hungry from a theatrical supper, at which, as he explained, there was a division of labour, he doing the talking and the others the eating. In his handkerchief he had some baked potatoes, purchased at a stall which stood nightly in the street opposite his house ; and his apology for not offering to share them with me was that in his room he had neither knife, fork, nor plate. So I begged him to come upstairs with me, and I disclosed to him the contents of my cupboard, which included all that was needed for an impromptu supper, not excepting a loaf and butter, eggs, a saucepan, and an Etna. As already intimated, the process of making scrambled eggs excited his admiration, and from that hour I believe he regarded his lodger as a personage.

It was in Ireland that at this time I made the acquaintance of Mr. Froude, the historian. For some years he rented Lord Lansdowne's charming summer cottage on the Kenmare River ; and while living at Dereen he struck up a friendship with special friends of mine, whose beautiful homes on the Kerry side of the estuary I used to visit during.my summer trips to Ireland. The acquaintance thus formed led to my becoming a contributor to Frazer. Among my papers I find the following letter from Mr. Froude, and I reproduce it here because it is as applicable to the misgovernment of Ireland to-day as when it was written a generation ago. It refers to an Irish article of mine to which he gave the place of honour in one number of the magazine :

" I entirely agree with you about the Government policy, which is in fact abdicating command, and leaving the mutinous part of the crew to manage the vessel. At present the only good which can be done is to enforce the law rigidly, and to place in all situations of trust and confidence in the country those who are loyal to the connection between England and Ireland (Catholic or Protestant), and no others. Unfortunately the surest road to favour has been disloyalty."