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


CHAPTER XII

Work at Scotland Yard - The exacting demands of police duty - Antiquated methods - Red tape - Home Office ways : Liddell and Lushington contrasted - An incident of 1893 - The Liberals and Home Rule - Sir John Gray on Irish grievances - An Irish story - Arrest of two Irish M.P.'s in 1891, and a night at Scotland Yard - The new journalism, and Press "interviews" - Jabez Balfour's case - A Strand explosion.

A CYNIC might ask what the heavy side of my official life was like, if these pages represent its lighter side. Well, I suppose I am like the old lady's parrot that did so much thinking that it constantly lapsed into seriousness. But I must try to mend my ways. And yet I do not wish to convey the very false impression that amusement is the prevailing element in Police work. Both my predecessors in office suffered from the strain, and retired after five years of it. And if I was able to bear it for thirteen years, and to be "fitter" on leaving Scotland Yard than when I entered on the duties of the office, this was due mainly to a native sense of humour and an acquired capacity for turning away from anxious and engrossing work. To be able to find amusement in events of grave import is a useful relief to the mind ; but to have interests that are infinitely higher and more absorbing than sublunary matters of any kind-this, to put it on the lowest ground, is a mental tonic of inestimable value.

When the ordinary Civil Servant leaves his office in the afternoon, he has a complete respite from Government work for some seventeen hours ; and when Saturday comes round, his recess extends to more than forty hours. But Police work in London knows no such leisure. And of the two main branches of Police duty -Public Order and Crime, the latter is, of course, the more exacting. In a very real sense indeed the head of the C.I.D. is never off duty. Every crime committed in this seven-million peopled "province of brick" is reported to him ; and all cases of special urgency or importance are reported immediately, day or night. And in my time our methods were somewhat antiquated. When I first came to London, intercommunication between the various Government offices was conducted on the same system as in the days of Queen Anne. The telephone was a dream of the future, and the offices were not even connected by telegraph. And before I moved from the Irish Office to Whitehall I had two messengers in attendance on me, to carry letters and papers to and from the Home Office, This was in 1868. Soon after I went to Scotland Yard, twenty years later, the telephone was brought into use between our offices and Whitehall ; and when we moved to the Embankment it was introduced within the new building. But the houses of the Commissioners were dependent on the telegraph, and we had not yet attained to self-recording instruments. Every message, therefore, had to be spelled out letter by letter. The telegraph, though of course a necessity, was thus a thorough nuisance ; and for some occult reason I had more calls during my first year of office than at any subsequent period.

The " red tape " element in Government work is exasperating to any one who has a soul above trivialities. If one of my officers took a 'bus to Oxford Circus or the City, he could not recover the fare without a certificate under my hand. Matters of vastly greater importance were left to the discretion of a Superintendent ; and a minute bearing my initials was sufficient authority for the arrest of a burglar or a murderer. But here I had to give my signature in full on three separate forms, certifying that the charge was legitimate and the amount correct. How my predecessors tolerated such a system is a mystery to me ; but before many weeks passed I "went on strike" respecting this and similar imbecilities. I directed the Superintendents to deal with all such matters, and I announced that I would add my initials to one form, and only to one, in each case, and this without examination of the details. Sir Charles Warren was indignant. For he had to sign all the forms in full. " Yes," I said, " and that is further proof of the absurdity of the system, for the Treasury requires your certificate as Chief Commissioner, but mine is only for the Receiver of Police." That settled the matter, for not only was Sir Charles eminently sensible, but he delighted in thwarting the Receiver This matter may seem too trifling for notice here, but my object is to let the public see behind the screen of a Government office, so far as it is in the public interest to do so. Some people believe that if the country were administered by Government offices the millennium would follow : I confidently predict that the resulting millennium would not last a thousand years !

Though a well-oiled wheel does not suffer by being kept turning, a little grit will impair its usefulness. And with a hale man it is not work, but worry, that kills. The work told on Howard Vincent. And yet I often looked back with envy to his days at Scotland Yard. Scores of times have I been in the Under-Secretary's room at the Home Office when he came in to talk about some case of special interest or difficulty. But instead of Liddell, I had to do with Lushington. Now Liddell, though he never played tennis with me, or dined at my table, would always have been ready to give sympathetic advice and help ; but Lushington was a man of a different kidney. By instinct and training he was a doctrinaire Radical, and that means a good deal. I am not speaking as a party politician-for I am not, and have never been, a party man-but as a student of human nature. For my experience of men-which is not a narrow one-satisfies me that the new idea of liberty which prevails in that school is that of the Irish peasant who emigrated to New York. Said he, in a letter to his people at home, " This is a real free country ; every one does exactly what he likes, and if he doesn't, begorra, we make him do it."

But, whatever the reason, Lushington never gave me any help in my official work ; and when Mr. Monro left Scotland Yard I was thrown on my own resources to an extent unknown by my predecessors in the office. Naturally I made some grave mistakes. But no man is fit to be head of the C. I. D. if he is not clever enough to make mistakes without being caught ! And I can boast that I never incurred a word of censure for a single one of my errors ; and in one instance it was matter that cost me much distress and some searchings of heart, for it related to the safety of the Queen-I had a letter of thanks from the Home Office !

Though I was never detected when in the wrong, I was occasionally censured when in the right. Indeed, my relations with the Home Office in those days remind me of Sir William Harcourt's defence of the system on which titles and decorations are granted. " Some people," said he, " get them who don't deserve them, and some people deserve them who don't get them ; and so, on the whole, justice is done ! My old Home Office friend " the Admiral " often gave me good advice, and one of his maxims was useful. " In official life," he said, ' never defend yourself. If you are in the wrong, the less you say the better ; and if you are in the right, do like the pious coster when his moke kicked him instead of swearing, he was only sorry the poor creature knew no better ! "

The newspapers sometimes got me into trouble in this way. A case of the kind occurred in 1893. It fell upon a day that one of the London newspapers published a lecture supposed to have been delivered by me on Irish Home Rule, which was then a burning political question. Even an habitual criminal if charged with an offence is given a fair hearing before he is condemned ; but without asking me for any explanation the Secretary of State fulminated a severe censure upon me. The facts were not disclosed, for I acted on " the Admiral's " advice ; but they exemplify the terror that the new journalism has added to official life. A Literary Society connected with the Church of which I am a member had invited me to lecture on Grattan's Irish Parliament. When the evening arrived a tropical rain-storm killed the meeting, and instead of a full lecture-hall I found about a score of people. This was really a relief to me, for pressure of work had prevented my preparing a lecture, and I put them off with a rechauffé of my friend Swift MacNeill's valuable book on the subject. After the lecture some half-dozen of us had a conversation in the vestry about Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule scheme ; and in the exercise of my undoubted right as a freeborn Britisher I freely expressed my opinion of that measure. But one of our number, then known to me only as a member of the congregation, happened to be a journalist ; and by his skilful pen the lecture and conversation were woven into a coherent whole, and the result appeared next day in prominent type in the paper with which he was connected.

In those days the Liberals were very touchy about Home Rule. And with good reason. For whatever his admirers may say about Mr. Gladstone's change of front on that question, the sudden conversion of the mass of his followers was scarcely honest. There were individuals among them, no doubt, who had been wavering, and were ready at once to follow the lead he gave them ; but for a whole political party to turn right-about-face in such a matter at a day's notice-this was an event which has lowered the tone of public life in this country. And their leader offered them no bridge by which to cross from one side to the other. With incomparable ability and force he had exposed the falseness of the Home Rule agitation and the evils which its success would entail, and he never made any attempt to refute the powerful arguments he had used in warning the country against it. As a matter of fact, indeed, the narrative of Morley's " Life of Gladstone" gives proof that to the last the Liberal leader was unable to devise any safeguards against the dangers in which Irish Home Rule would involve this country.

A friend of mine tells a characteristic story of one of the pioneers of the Home Rule movement, who was a close personal friend of his. Unlike most of the present Home Rulers, Sir John Gray was a man of substance and influence in Dublin. He owned a leading newspaper, and he it was who promoted and carried the scheme which has given the Irish capital an abundant supply of water. At dinner at my friend's house one evening he was declaiming against the system by which an Irish measure of that kind cannot be carried through without an appeal to Westminster. But "gas and water Home Rule" would not satisfy them. "What would satisfy you? " my friend demanded. Gray evaded the question again and again ; but as my friend insisted on an answer, the Home Ruler at last replied with a smile, and a twinkle in his eye, "We don't want to be satisfied ! " Here is the naked truth.

An Irish story never comes amiss. After soldiering about the world, the gentleman to whom it relates left the army on his father's death, and came to settle on the Irish family property. He had married a rich wife, and he could afford to make his home comfortable. Some of the old servants were a difficulty, for to dismiss people who had been born and bred on the place was not to be thought of. The coachman was the most troublesome. The horses, he declared, were screws, the carriages were worn out, the stable wasn't fit for a cow-house, his cottage was only fit for pigs, and so on. But everything, he was told, would be put right, including a new cottage for himself. The man went home and delighted his wife's heart with the news. But after supper, as he sat by the fire, with his pipe in his month, he began growling and grumbling. " Well, whatever's wrong wid ye now ? " said the wife. " I'm a miserable man this night," he muttered ; " begorra, I haven't a single graivance left." The moral of my story will be understood by any one who will read Mr. Swift MacNeill's " Irish Parliament," or even the extracts from it given in my book " A Great Conspiracy." The grant of Gladstonian Home Rule to Ireland would soon lead to an agitation more vehement and dangerous than any which the present generation has experienced.

But here I am lapsing into the serious vein again, and I must make amends for it by recalling an occasion when I came into touch with two real Home Rulers. On the 12th of February, 1891, the Irish M.P.'s Mr. John Dillon and Mr. William O'Brien returned from France to answer a charge of political crime in Ireland. I sent officers to Boulogne to arrest them on the Channel boat. But what was I to do with them on their arrival ? Precedent and duty required that they should either be sent on to Ireland that night, or locked up in the cells of a police station. But I hold very decided views about the treatment of respectable folk on arrest. So, while the prisoners were crossing the Channel, I went to the House of Commons to see the Home Secretary on the matter. I found him in Mr. W. H. Smith's room, and with them Mr. Arthur Balfour, then Chief Secretary. And as the result of my visit I was given a free hand to act in my discretion ; but I was to deal with the case as a matter of Police, and without reference to the Secretary of State.

When the prisoners arrived, I found that they objected strongly to doing any more travelling that night. So I told them that if they would accept my hospitality I should try to make them comfortable at Scotland Yard. Mr. O'Brien's response was a peremptory demand to be conveyed to a good hotel. My rejoinder, as I left the room, was a reference to the police cells at King Street. But Mr. Dillon followed me out to the corridor and, begging me "not to mind him," expressed his appreciation of my proposal. So there and then I gave the necessary orders, and went back to my own room. Two requests followed me. The first was for permission to see their friends. This was somewhat embarrassing, but I directed that any M.P. might be admitted. The second request, which reached me just as I was leaving for home, is the point of my story. " Might they have a bottle of Irish whisky?" "Certainly," said I ; and then, remembering my order about admitting M. P.'s, I added, " Let them have two bottles." I have often shown my antipathy to Irish Home Rule ; but this was the only opportunity I had of befriending Irish Home Rulers.

It is within living memory that the new journalism has been acclimatised in this country. We all know the child's game in which one of the party is put outside the door, and the others agree upon some object in the room. The outsider has to discover that object by questions, which the insiders must answer only by " Yes " or " No." The task might seem hopeless, but a sharp child will unearth the secret in a few minutes. And once you allow yourself to be interviewed by a clever pressman your silence may be as expressive as words. A Harley Street friend of mine, who was attending Mr. Gladstone in his last illness, had an experience which exemplifies this. On leaving his patient's house one day a journalist accosted him, and walked a few hundred yards with him, plying him with questions about the illness which the nation was watching with anxiety. My friend never uttered a word except a " Yes " to one question ; but the report of that " interview " filled twenty lines of the newspaper next day.

In a case of this kind there are only two ways of escape. One is to insult the journalist by treating him as we treat a professional beggar, and refusing to talk to him or even to listen to him. The other way is that which Mark Twain has patented. For the benefit of any who may not know that great humourist's story, I will give an illustrative case to explain his method. At a time when all England was interested in the matter, a well-known pressman, who represented an important News Agency, accosted me outside my office door with the question, " Are you sending an officer for Jabez Balfour?" Now, if we had decided not to send for the man, there could be no possible reason for refusing to say so. Therefore such a reply as " You mustn't ask me that question " would have been equivalent to saying " Yes." And yet secrecy was of special importance in the case. So I invited my questioner to come to my room, and I gave him an elaborate account of the action I meant to take, and of my reasons for taking it. But as he was leaving I followed him to the door, and as I shook hands with him I said that there was one thing more which I thought he ought to know, and that was that there was not a single word of truth in what I had told him! It was not my trick, but the expression of his face which made me explode with laughter as I re-entered my room and shut the door.

.But what need was there to make any mystery in such a matter? At a friend's table I had met a gentleman from the Argentine, a near relative of a leading member of the Government, and from him I received many useful hints, indicating that secrecy was desirable. Though the Government in Buenos Ayres could not refuse the demand for the extradition of the accused, the man was a thousand miles away from the capital, and the Provincial authorities had no intention of letting him go. But the resourceful police officer to whom the case was entrusted outmanoeuvred them in a clever plot to thwart both our Government and their own. Judgment had been obtained against Balfour on civil process for debt, and the game was to seize him under a commitment order of the Provincial Court as soon as he was handed over on the extradition charge. Accordingly the prisoner was not given up until the daily train for Buenos Ayres had started. But my Inspector, having made friends with the station-master, had arranged for a " special." And yet he escaped only by a few minutes ; and before the train had covered more than three or four miles it was intercepted by the sheriff's officer, who rode out on the line, waving his writ, and signalling to them to stop. But the Inspector had taken the precaution of travelling on the engine, and he at once got between the driver and his levers, and the unfortunate sheriff was cut down by the train.

This, however, was only one chapter in the story. At a junction on the line, where a change of trains was necessary, the police had received orders by telegraph to arrest all concerned, on a, charge of homicide. But as my officer was facing the driver when the accident occurred, he saw nothing of it; and while this difficulty was under discussion he quietly got his prisoner into the second " special " which was waiting for him, and started for the coast. I may add that the relatives of the unfortunate sheriffs officer received compensation for his death.

It will be seen, therefore, that it was not without reason that I sought to baffle my journalistic acquaintance when he tried to draw me in this case. And, by the way, I have a sequel to that story. One evening shortly afterwards I was dining with the Queen's Guard at St. James's Palace, when a report was brought to me that a dynamite explosion had taken place in a court off the Strand. I sent a note to the Chief Inspector of Explosives asking him to meet me there, and our inspection satisfied us that the event was a common gas explosion. As Sir Vivian Majendie and I passed out through the cordon of police that surrounded the place, my pressman friend came forward to ask if there was anything I could tell him about the case. I gave him the facts at once, and the result of our investigation of them.

Finding presently that he was following us, I stopped again to see what he wanted. His meek appeal gave me another hearty laugh. " I beg your pardon, sir," said he, " but was it true what you told me just now?" I assured him that if he applied to me, as he had done then, to know whether I had anything to say about a case, I should alway deal frankly with him ; but if he plied me with fishing questions I would fool him to the top of his bent. I played the same game with others, and with excellent results.

From an official point of view, of course, all this was grossly improper. I ought to have snubbed all pressmen and had them "chucked out," treating them in fact as the Cabinet Ministers have treated the suffragettes. And they would naturally have declared war upon me, to the detriment of my work, whereas I had not a single enemy among the journalists of London.