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


CHAPTER V

The Royal Commission on Railway Accidents - Treasury ways - The Royal Observatory of Edinburgh Commission - Mr. Chamberlain's Commission on Loss of Life at Sea - The importance of a good luncheon - H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh's friendship - Appointed to the Prison Commission and became a Civil servant - Relations with the chairman, Sir E. F. du Cane - The personnel of the Commission - Admiral Wyndham Hornby and a Stock Exchange story - A tribute to Sir E. du Cane - Prison Reforms : the "humanitarians" and the Prevention of Crimes Bill - More about Treasury meanness - A Secret Service Fund salary in violation of the statute - Application to Sir H. Ibbetson as to pension.

As already intimated, it was in 1877 that, on the passing of the Prison Act of that year, I entered the Civil Service. The preceding years were spent both pleasantly and profitably. As the Treasury ignored my existence, I held myself free from all the disabilities and restrictions of a Civil Service appointment. I had a fair amount of leisure, of course, and my purse profited by the use of my pen. I also served on various Government Commissions. Of the Royal Commission on Railway Accidents I have the pleasantest memories, for it was in connection with it that I made one of the most valued friendships of this period of my life. The Commission was appointed in 1874 under the chairmanship of the then Duke of Buckingham. There were irreconcilable interests represented on it, and the Chairman proved quite incapable of bringing matters to an issue. It seemed likely to end in a fiasco ; and when the Duke received an Indian appointment, the Secretary of State appealed to the Earl of Aberdeen to accept the chairmanship and try to bring the labours of the Commission to a practical and useful end.

The Home Secretary asked me to take the secretaryship, and to give my best help to the new Chairman. This was early in 1876; but some valuable time was lost owing to the characteristic action of the Treasury. It appeared that the Duke had taken my predecessor abroad with him, intending to draft the report of the Commission during his voyage to India. And when I took over the work I found the accounts in such a hopeless muddle that I could not venture to accept any responsibility for them. Lord Aberdeen accordingly called a meeting of the Commission and explained matters to his colleagues; and as the result I was directed to write to the Treasury, detailing all the circumstances, and asking for money to enable us to carry out the wishes of the Secretary of State. In due course my letter brought me a reply which was unusually offensive even for the Treasury. I put it aside and took no notice of it. Happening to meet one of my Treasury friends in the Park one morning on my way to Whitehall, we walked down together. He asked me what I was doing on the Commission. I told him I was drawing my salary with scrupulous care, but that the Commissioners had decided not to hold another meeting until I had received an "imprest" from the Treasury. That very afternoon he called on me-it was the late Sir William Brampton Gurdon-and asked me to let him take back the offensive epistle. The following week I received a letter in which, without any reference to their former effusion, " my Lords " sent me the imprest I had asked for.

When at last we met for business it looked as if the Commission would end in a wrangle; but Lord Aberdeen's imperturbable bonhomie at last prevailed. The Duke's draft report, which had been circulated to the members, was scouted ; and a series of resolutions, adopted after discussion, became the basis of a report which the new Chairman undertook to prepare during the autumn recess. The Commission met again on the 14th of November (1876) ; and on the 2nd of February following, this new report was signed.

The Royal Observatory of Edinburgh Commission, on which also I was engaged during 1876, deserves a passing notice. Every task of the kind won for me new friends, and in this connection I gained the friendship of the Royal Astronomer and Mrs. Piazzi Smythe. I should mention also the Chairman, Lord Lindsay (now Earl of Crawford), and Professor Tait ; and the acquaintance I then formed with Sir George Airy, the Astronomer-Royal, proved valuable to me afterwards in some of my literary work. One of the chief points in the inquiry was the failure of the transit instrument of the Observatory. The instrument was mounted on two stone pillars, each a monolith, let down into the rock of the Calton Hill. It was seemingly "one of the most stable things on earth with which to measure the movements of the stars." Thus it was that Professor Piazzi Smythe described it. But he went on to explain that, owing to the extrordinary nature of the stone of the piers, the heat of the little lantern which an astronomer uses in his work sufficed to warp them to such an extent as to throw the instrument out of gear. And much of the work of the Observatory had been thus rendered valueless during all the years before the mystery of the stone had been discovered.

I had remonstrated against my being appointed on such a Commission, for, as I told the Secretary of State, I did not know the difference between a transit instrument and a pump ; but I became so interested in the inquiry that at its close I was able to write the report which led to the removal of the Observatory from the Calton Hill to its present site.

This duty devolved on me unexpectedly. The Chairman of the Commission had announced his intention of preparing the report himself. But during my summer holiday I had a letter from him to say he was medically ordered to avoid all work for a while, and he asked me to relieve him of the task. He was good enough to express cordial appreciation of my draft, and accepted it without any material alteration. I had no difficulty in getting the signatures of all the Commissioners except the Astronomer-Royal, who, Lord Lindsay declared, would sign the report only out of compliment to himself; and as it was not his own drafting, that consideration lapsed. And yet he felt that the absence of Sir George Airy's signature would greatly impair its value. It was not that as an astronomer he would hesitate to endorse the proposals of the report. But he and Piazzi Smythe never could "hit it off," for as men they were as unlike as men could be. Airy therefore would have found more satisfaction in thwarting his Scottish colleague than in helping him. But I was conceited enough to promise that I would obtain his signature. So I made for Greenwich and laid the document before him. After he had read it, I talked so incessantly that I gave him no chance to ask me any questions which would have compelled me to declare myself the writer of it. Then, rising hurriedly, I said I had promised Lord Lindsay to return by such a train ; would he kindly let me go? He took up his pen and added his Signature.

In this connection I will notice also the Royal Commission on Loss of Life at Sea, although it belongs to a later date (1884), when Sir William Harcourt was Secretary of State. That Commission was the outcome of a controversy raised by a statement of Mr. Chamberlain's, as President of the Board of Trade, that the annual loss of life among the sailors on British ships amounted to one in sixty, a statement which, though based on the statistics of his Department, was vehemently scouted by shipowners. Lord Aberdeen's success on the Railway Accidents Commission led to his being asked to preside over this new Commission; and among the most prominent of its members were the Duke of Edinburgh, Mr. Chamberlain himself, and Mr. Justice Butt. Lord Aberdeen was good enough to wish for my help again, and I wrote to Sir William Harcourt, who was then away in the country, asking for the Secretaryship of the Commission. Sir William had recently done me a great injustice, and so, more suo, he replied in the kindest terms, assuring me that he would gladly comply if Sir Edmund du Cane had no objection (I was then attached to the Prison Department). Sir Edmund gave his consent most cordially, and in November, 1884, the Commission was appointed with my name as Secretary. On the change of Government in 1886, Lord Aberdeen became Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, and a new warrant was issued appointing Mr. Shaw Lefevre Chairman, and adding Admiral Sir Cooper Key and Mr. (now Lord) Heneage to the Commission. The report was presented in August, 1887.

In these pages I am dealing only with the lighter side of things, and I have no intention of discussing the merits of Royal Commissions in general, or of this one in particular. But I claim special credit for the result attained in this case. The interests represented seemed irreconcilable, and yet the discussions were amicable, and the report was signed by all the Commissioners.

For the public benefit I must reveal the secret of my success. That "an army marches on its stomach " was one of Napoleon's favourite aphorisms. And " feed the brute " was the advice the young wife received from her matronly friend, when she complained of her husband's temper. Here then is my secret. The refreshment allowance sanctioned by the Treasury was so inadequate that "sandwiches and sherry" was the stock luncheon of Royal Commissions ; and on the Railway Accidents Commission I often noticed that the members were more intractable after that repast than during the morning sitting. I proposed therefore that we should supplement the Treasury pittance by a general " whip," and have a good " sit down " repast in the Secretary's room. This was agreed to, and I made the necessary arrangements with one of the best West End caterers. The results were marked and manifest. It is not merely that having a comfortable meal and a good cigar soothes the nerves and smooths the temper, but the forty minutes' chat round the luncheon-table brought the Commissioners together socially, and this influenced their discussions in the boardroom.

To me personally this was both a pleasure and a benefit on other grounds, for I thus came to make the acquaintance of the members. I may mention specially that I thus gained the honour of the Duke of Edinburgh's friendship. For H.R.H. did not approve of hurrying over the cigar stage of the luncheon recess ; and when his colleagues rose, he usually kept me with him. On H. R. H.'s leaving to take up his command in the Mediterranean, he desired me to write to him regularly about the work; and on his return to England he did me the honour of giving many proofs that he had not forgotten me.

Unlike these temporary Commissions, the Prison Commission is a branch of the permanent Civil Service. It is a sub-department of the Home Office, and it was owing to the nature of its initial duties that it had to be constituted as a Commission. The various counties and municipalities of England were formerly responsible to provide accommodation for their prisoners. The Prison Act, 1865, maintained that responsibility, while introducing many reforms, and providing that the prisons should be open to full Government inspection by officers appointed by the Secretary of State. By the Prison Act, 1877, on the other hand, all prisons became vested in the Secretary of State, and all the responsibilities and duties of prison administration were transferred to Government, subject to inspection by committees of justices representing the former Prison Authorities. This change involved elaborate inquiries and accurate records as to the jail accommodation provided in each locality, and as to the services and emoluments of the staff. The extent of these inquiries may be estimated when I add that the prisons thus taken over by Government numbered 112, and that under Government administration this number was reduced to 6o.

Mr. (now Viscount) Cross, from whom I had received many favours, asked me to undertake these duties, as Secretary to the Commission. This preliminary task completed, I threw myself con amore into the general work of the Department. The Chairman, Sir Edmund du Cane, I had known for years as Chairman of the Directors of. Convict Prisons. And though the other Commissioners, and the Inspectors appointed under the statute, were strangers to me, we soon became close friends, and I eagerly responded to their efforts to draw me into their work and to interest me in all branches of prison administration. But I was now a " Civil Servant," and I came to appreciate the wisdom of the maxim quoted in a previous chapter, " In the Civil Service, do as little as you can, and as quietly as you can." The one man whose goodwill was of practical importance to me was the Chairman, and the more active and zealous I became in the work of the Department, the more unpleasant did my relations become with Sir Edmund du Cane. Indeed, after Sir William Harcourt came to the Home Office his bearing toward me became extremely unpleasant.

One of his special friends at last explained the mystery to me. Du Cane resented there being any communication with the Home Office on Prison matters save by himself, and, as I was in and out of the Under-Secretary's room every day -for Mr. Liddell's friendship for me never flagged-and in my Secret Service work I was frequently closeted with the Secretary of State, Du Cane was jealous of me. I changed front at once. I never visited another prison, nor did I ever do a real day's work again in prison business. When the proofs of my repentance became manifest, I received a dinner invitation from Sir Edmund. Then came week-end invitations to his house at Coombe, and we had many a country walk together, in which we talked on every imaginable subject except prisons. He was my firm friend ever afterwards, and helped me in many ways. The moral of all this may seem very immoral ; but, while I vouch for the facts, I disclaim responsibility for the use people may make of them.

Once I had made my peace with the Chairman, we were a pleasant coterie on the Commission. The Commissioners were four in number - Colonel Sir E. F. du Cane, Admiral Wyndham Hornby, afterwards gazetted a K.C.B., Mr. Perry-Watlington, who represented the county justice element, and Captain Walter Stopford, one of the "Gentlemen Ushers" in the Royal Household. His fitness for the Prison Department was that he had experience of the inside of a prison. An equivocal expression this ; but his experience was not acquired as a convict, but as a Prison Governor. He was not only a most valuable member of the Board, but a charming colleague and companion. As Perry-Watlington lived in the country, and came to the Office only as and when the work required his presence, he was kind enough to change rooms with me ; and I thus obtained one of the pleasantest rooms in the whole building.

" The Admiral," as we all called him, had the adjoining room, and he always liked to keep the door between us open. Though he was so much my senior in years, we became regular chums, and he was excellent company. He had many a yarn about his sea-service, and stories innumerable about Knowsley, where he had been " Controller" for twenty years in the days of the great Lord Derby. His Knowsley life brought him into touch with all the great Conservative leaders, and he was well posted in the political gossip of the party. And even if he had been a Civil Servant from his youth up he could not have been fonder of a chat during office hours, especially when he had anything he deemed peculiarly confidential to impart.

This reminds me of an amusing incident which may be worth recounting. " Anderson, I have something to tell you in strict confidence," he announced one morning, as he sat down in my arm-chair. And he went on to tell me, as a State secret, that the Government had a scheme on foot which was certain to benefit Turkey. He had therefore telegraphed that morning to his broker to buy some Turkish Bonds. He then went out, as I afterwards discovered, to give the same tip " in strict confidence " to a number of his special friends in the various Government offices. I was younger than I am now, and the bait took.

Turkish Bonds were quoted that morning at £8, so I decided to go in for a " deal," and I telegraphed to a stockbroker friend to buy for me. The Bonds began to go up, and one day the following week I went into the City to make inquiries about them. Failing to find the broker who had bought for me, I applied to another Stock Exchange acquaintance. He told me that in the City they could learn nothing to explain the rise, but it was evident that something was known in official circles, as one day lately a number of orders to buy had been telegraphed from the different Government offices. I cleared out at £12, and the Bonds soon fell back to their normal value.

I do not know whether this story is typical of Stock Exchange ways, but it is thoroughly typical of Whitehall, and especially of my friend " the Admiral."

I cannot close this chapter without paying my sincere tribute to the great ability of Sir Edmund du Cane, the Chairman of the Commission. Indeed, if only he had been a man of wider sympathies, and his care for prisoners had equalled his knowledge of prisons, he would have been a perfect prison administrator.

Under his rule very great improvements were effected in prisons and prison administration ; and if criminals were mere animals, nothing more need be desired in either sphere. But criminals are human beings, and they ought to be treated as such. Though I say this, I have no sympathy with the professional humanitarians. Their pestilent agitation on behalf of scoundrels who deserve the gallows so offends and irritates all thoughtful and sensible people, that it is not easy to get a hearing for urgently needed reforms in the interests of the mass of the prison population. Their campaign of calumny against me personally, I can treat with contempt, but I deplore and resent their action in hindering reforms with which my name is associated-reforms which would put an end to professional crime, and would change a prison into a reformatory in the case of the weak and the unfortunate.

Thanks to the enlightened administration of our present Prison Board, a great advance has been affected in this direction on behalf of the young. But public opinion will not justify kindred reforms in the interests of adult prisoners until the wicked are separated from the weak. Mr. Gladstone's Prevention of Crimes Bill would have brought such reforms within the sphere of practical politics ; but as the result of an agitation promoted by the professional humanitarians the Bill was turned into a measure for the relief of the professional criminals, who are their special protégés.

I will only repeat what I have often said before about prison cells. It is not that they are not large enough. They are larger and better ventilated than the "studies" provided for our boys in the older buildings of some public schools. But what distinguishes a prison cell from every other sort of apartment designed for human habitation is that all view of external nature, such as might soothe and possibly elevate the mind, is, with elaborate care, excluded. The treatment of prisoners in former times was barbarous, but it was at least intelligent. Its whole purpose was punishment, and the punishment was thorough and drastic. But in this shallow and conceited age we pride ourselves that we are not as our fathers were. Our great aim in prison discipline is the reformation of the offender ; and with a stupidity that would be amusing if the matter were not so serious, we wantonly deprive a prisoner of the good influences that God's world of nature is so well fitted to exert upon him. "The heavens declare His glory and the firmament showeth His handiwork ; " but our prison cells are specially designed to shut out their testimony ; and with the smug Pharisaism so characteristic of the age, we pride ourselves on our philanthropy, and boast of supplying our criminals with goody books, and religion (turned on like the water and the gas), to elevate and reform them.

I am no advocate for pampering and petting a criminal. It is right that the very furniture of his cell and the routine of his daily life should unceasingly impress upon him that crime brings punishment. But to shut him up in a cell where he cannot look out upon land and sky is on a par with flogging him. I would place him in a punishment cell, and flog him too, if he deserved it, and some competent authority directed it. But to make this his daily discipline is unworthy of an enlightened age. I suppose there are men so constituted, or so brutalised, that the want of a window would be a matter of indifference to them. As for myself, I think it would drive me mad.

As it concerns the public to know the causes that lead to inefficiency in the public service, I must here say something more about the Treasury. When I was invited to enter the Home Office I consulted the Irish Attorney-General, not only as to whether I should accede to the wishes of the Government, but also as to the remuneration I should claim. I accepted less than half the amount he specified, because, as Mr. Gathorne Hardy explained to me, my salary would appear in the estimates, and therefore it had to bear comparison with the other salaries of the Office. But when the change of Government occurred, and Mr. Bruce succeeded Mr Hardy as Secretary of State, the Treasury seized the opportunity to reopen the question of my services. Mr. Bruce's reply was that my duties in connection with the Secret Service were of the greatest importance to the Government. Then, said the Treasury, my salary must be charged on the Secret Service Fund. In vain did the Home Office protest that this would be a violation of an express prohibition in the statute regulating the administration of that fund. The Treasury cared nothing for an Act of Parliament if it stood in the way of gratifying their pettifogging meanness towards a public servant. I was extremely indignant, of course, but otherwise I was indifferent ; for, as previously mentioned, at that time I intended to return to the Bar. So I contented myself by reopening the question of the amount of my remuneration, and I received an assurance that my pocket would not suffer by the change.

All this was before Mr. Cross when he offered me the Secretaryship of the Prison Commission., The position, he told me, was not what he had intended, but it was the best the Treasury would allow him to give me, and he would get me something better later on. And in his last year at Whitehall he tried to make good his words, but his efforts only brought a typical Treasury epistle, to the effect that I had "no qualifications beyond what were usually found in the public service." My clerks were the pick of the whole prison service, and so I came down to their level, and no longer attempted anything that they could not do for me. And on these terms I not only secured the friendship of my official chief in the Prison Department, but I became much more free for work of a more important and interesting kind.

No one need suppose that I was personally obnoxious to the Treasury. The whole point of my story is to show how that department demoralises the public service. Its duties in relation to the budget and the revenue may be admirably performed, but its influence in regard to the Government offices is most pernicious. The pay and pension in every department are fixed, and therefore the staff are independent of the Treasury, unless when exceptional circumstances are held to entitle some individual to some special indulgence or favour. And then it is that the Treasury declares itself. Its ways are those of the low-class moneylender who ignores all appeals to justice and fair dealing. There is this difference, however. Treasury officials are gentlemen in private life, and while a poor devil who has no social influence need expect nothing but a snub, anybody who is somebody may possibly get what he wants.

The position which the Home Secretary had claimed for me would have carried with it the right to reckon five or seven years' extra service in computing my pension on retirement. I decided to do still better for myself in this respect. The day of the change of Government in 1880 I went to the Treasury about it and put my case before the Parliamentary Secretary (Sir Henry Ibbetson - afterwards Lord Rookwood). I had come too late, he told me ; he had just received orders to consider himself funclus officio at four o'clock. At that moment Big Ben struck three ; and playing on the word " minute," I said, " But you have got a whole hour, and I only want a minute." With a laugh he replied that he could not take the initiative in such a matter ; if I had brought him an official letter from the Secretary of State he would gladly have helped me, for he was fully aware of my services to Government. " I'll bring you the letter," I said. I hurried back to the Home Office ; and at ten minutes to four o'clock I handed him the letter, and there and then-it was his last official act-he wrote the minute which made my service for pension date from the day of my coming to London in December, 1867.

Let no one dismiss this as mere egotistical gossip. My object is to exemplify the baneful influence of the Treasury in the public service. On a later occasion a visit to the Chancellor of the Exchequer secured for me a much more important benefit than that which I have just described.