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


From the Irish Office to the Home Office - Reminiscences of the House of Commons - Hearing H.M.'s speech on the opening of Parliament in 1861 - Captain Gosset's friendship - "Gosset's Room" - House of Commons stories - The House of Lords gallery - The personnel and ways of the Home Office forty years ago - The old Home Office and the new - Red tape at the Foreign Office and the War Office - A tribute to Sir Adolphus Liddell.

As already intimated, the Secret Service Department, which was organised in London after the Clerkenwell explosion, was intended to be temporary, and in fact it lasted only for three months. Though my sojourn in London had proved an interesting and enjoyable episode in my life, I was eagerly looking forward to returning to the Irish Bar, when I learned that the Government wished to retain my services at Whitehall. Mr. Gathorne Hardy invited me to take charge of Irish business at the Home Office, and Lord Mayo put pressure on me to comply.

I had an intelligent aversion to the Civil Service-an aversion which my experience of it has not quenched. And when asked to come to London I laid the matter before the Irish Attorney-General, and received his assurance that, so far from injuring my professional prospects, my mission would give me further claims upon him for preferment. And shortly afterwards he proved the sincerity of his words by appointing me to a Crown Prosecutorship on my circuit. I referred to him again, therefore, at this juncture ; and again he urged me to undertake the duties required of me, telling me in confidence that he expected shortly to have in his gift a principal Prosecutorship on the circuit, and that I should be remembered in connection with it.

This decided my course, and in April, 1868, I moved from the Irish Office to Whitehall. But though Mr. Warren was one of the most honourable of men, his promise was not fulfilled. When the appointment in question became vacant, he wrote to me that he could not ignore pressure put upon him against recalling me to Ireland. For a typical Treasury letter had just been received remonstrating against the cost of retaining me in London; and on this letter Mr. Hardy had placed the laconic minute, " Mr. Anderson's services are indispensable." I decided, therefore, to remain at all events until I could get called to the English Bar.

I was not insensible, moreover, to the attractions of life in London. The House of Commons always had a special charm for me. Even in the days when I was a law student at the Temple, " the Lobby" attracted me more than evening entertainments of the kind frequented by my "pals." I used to make friends with the police on duty, and by their help I obtained Members' orders for the gallery. One of their number, who, by the way, was a fellow-countryman of mine, let me in for a unique experience.

How many living men are there, I wonder, other than M.P.'s, who have entered the House of Lords along with the "faithful Commons" to hear the Royal Speech at the opening of Parliament ? My police constable friend put me up to this. "If we catch you" said he, " it's not in the House of Lords you'll find yourself ; but we'll not catch you if you do what I tell you." I did what he told me In those pre-dynamite days there was no difficulty in getting into the Lobby ; and on the 5th of February, 1861, I found myself in the middle of a group of M. P.'s who were waiting there. Presently the Speaker's stately procession to " the gilded Chamber " came along ; and as soon as the leading Members had passed, the waiting group closed in with a rush. Had I been as anxious to keep out as I was to get in, nothing could have stopped me. I was carried almost off my feet, and it was not till I found myself inside the House of Lords that I was able even to raise my hand to get my hat off my head. Some of the Members were much amused at finding me in their midst, and quizzed me about my constituency. Donnybrook Fair had attracted the notice of Parliament at that time, because of the rowdyism which led to its abolition ; and their amusement was increased when I told them I was M.P. for Donnybrook, and that my experience in the Lobby made me think myself back among my constituents.

After-events lent a special interest to that occasion. It was the last opening of Parliament at which " Her Majesty's own words" were heard from Her Majesty's own lips. For after the Prince Consort's death Queen Victoria never read her Speech in person.

When I returned to the Metropolis in 1863 the House of Commons had still greater attractions for me. My enjoyment of life in London at that time owed more than I can tell to the friendship of Captain Gosset, the Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms. I was always welcome at his dinner-table, and seldom a week passed that I did not avail myself of his hospitality-a real privilege to a bachelor living in London lodgings. But more than this, his friendship made me practically free of the Chamber. I was thus enabled to attend the historic debates of that memorable time when there were Parliamentary giants in the land, whose set speeches were classic orations of a type unknown to the present generation.

But this was not all. The majority of the M.P.'s of to-day never even heard of " Gosset's room." But in those days the Assistant Sergeant's office room was a notable institution. It was in fact a quasi social club. The etiquette which regulated it was strict. No one frequented the room without a definite invitation, but an invitation made a man free of it afterwards. It was situated in one of the inner corridors, and of course none but M. P.'s had access to it, the only exceptions being Captain Gosset's sons and one or two other immediate relatives, and myself. I was thus brought into touch with all the by-play of the House, and met the elite of its Members.

What a book I might write if only I had kept a note of the good things I heard there ! These pages seem to be running on the lines of that type of sermon that consists of a series of theses with an illustrative incident for each. The following may serve for the present " thesis." A Mr. Pim, an Irish Quaker, and one of the most estimable and courteous of men, was returned at this time as M.P. for Dublin. Like many new Members, he was eager to hear, and being deaf, he used constantly to flit about to find a coign of vantage. Robert Lowe it was who cynically remarked that he seemed morbidly anxious to throw away his natural advantages ! His movements attracted the more notice because he always wore creaking shoes. The point of my story is Disraeli's mot about him. After studying him for some time he remarked, " I thought an Irish Member was always either a gentleman or a blackguard, but he's neither ! "

And Disraeli's inquiry about another Irish Member may be worth adding here. Joseph Biggar, the Parnellite obstructionist, had marked peculiarities both of figure and gait. When Disraeli first saw him walking up the floor of the House, he looked at him intently through his eyeglass-and, by the way, he always held his eyeglass with his thumb and first finger wrapped ound it as if it were an unfamiliar sort of optical instrument-and then, turning to a friend behind him, he asked, " What is that? "

Before I dismiss the subject of " Gosset's room," I may mention that an indiscretion committed there one night very nearly brought it to an untimely end. In Gosset's absence a number of the habituds held an impromptu concert ; and owing to some one's " telling tales out of school," Grenville Murray got hold of the story, and a thinly veiled notice of it appeared in The Queen's Messenger, a short-lived racy paper of that period. The report gave what purported to be the programme, which, I remember, included a song by the late Duke of Devonshire, who was referred to as 11 that ungainly youth, Lord Larkington." The Speaker, Mr. Denison, was then getting old and crusty, and he was furious. But Captain Gosset's unbounded popularity in the House saved the situation, and the crisis was averted.

To that popularity it was that he afterwards owed his promotion. Lord Charles Russell, the then Sergeant-at-Arms, had been appointed by the Prime Minister, and when he resigned in 1875 it was assumed that the office was in Mr. Disraeli's gift, and that, as a matter of course; the Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms would succeed to it.

It transpired, however, that in sanctioning Lord Charles's appointment, the Queen had directed that future vacancies were to be reported to the Sovereign, with whom personally the patronage rested. And it was rumoured that Her Majesty intended to confer the office upon the gentleman who at present holds it. But so strong was the feeling of the House on the subject that Disraeli went to Osborne to lay the matter before the Queen. On the day of his return I went down to the Lobby to seek for news. But the Lobby was empty, and I was driven to apply to the principal doorkeeper. The subordinate officials of the House have sometimes to act as " chuckersout," but never before, perhaps, did a door-keeper act as " chucker-in." Indeed, his passing a stranger into the House, save by express orders, might in ordinary circumstances have cost him his place. But the moment he recognised me, he seized hold of me and rushed me in under the gallery ; and I was just in time to see the Premier rise to answer a question on the subject.

He began by stating, with great solemnity and in his grandest manner, that "the appointment of Sergeant-at-Arms was in the gift and entirely in the gift of H. M. the Queen, and there is no person, whatever his position in the House, who has any influence whatever in that appointment." Here he paused, and his words were received in lugubrious silence, as indicating seemingly the failure of his visit to Osborne. Then he added, "But I have been commanded by the Queen to state that, being aware of the strong, not to say unanimous, feeling of the House on the subject, H.M. as a gracious favour to Her faithful Commons has been pleased to appoint to the office the gentleman who is at present Assistant Sergeant - at - Arms." The tumultuous cheering which followed from every corner of a crowded House was a striking testimony to Gosset's popularity.

My relations with him and Lord Charles Russell made me punctilious in all my dealings with their subordinates. With them I played no tricks. But the House of Lords officials were fair game. On the last evening of the great historic debate on the Irish Church, an old friend of my father's, whom I met at dinner, spoke of his fruitless efforts to get an order for the Peers' Gallery, and declared that he would give 100 for a seat. When we rose from dinner I asked him to accompany me to Westminster. I passed with him through the lobbies and up to the gallery door, and there, with the lordliest manner I could assume, I told the doorkeeper that I should be extremely obliged if he could find a seat for my friend. Whom he took me for I never knew, but he responded effusively, and begged me to bring him in. Later on I noticed that he and a colleague were evidently discussing me, trying no doubt to make out who I was. So I thought it better to " skip," as the Yankees say ; but my friend kept his seat till the House rose. In passing out I thanked the doorkeeper in a patronising tone for his courtesy, and expressed my regret that I could not stay longer myself. I should add, perhaps, that I never got that 100 ! But this is a prolonged digression.

Most people will be surprised to hear that according to the Act of Union and the theory of the Constitution, Ireland is under the Home Office, and that the Home Secretary is the Minister responsible to Parliament for Irish affairs. What then, it will be asked, is the position of the Chief Secretary for Ireland? The answer is that, strictly speaking, there is no such office. The Minister who is thus popularly designated is "Chief Secretary to the LordLieutenant," and all official communications are supposed to pass between the Lord-Lieutenant and the Secretary of State. In theory the "Irish Office" is merely a branch of the Chief Secretary's Office at Dublin Castle-a pied-a-terre for the Irish officials while in London. All this is now practically changed ; but the theory remains, and the change has taken place within recent years. At the time of which I am speaking all important papers relating to Ireland were transmitted to the Home Office, the prescribed form of letter being " I am directed by the Lord-Lieutenant to transmit to you," &c., &c. The proposed scheme was that, instead of this cumbersome system, official papers should be " minuted " to me, and that I should, as it were, represent the Irish Office at Whitehall, and Whitehall at the Irish Office. Mr. Hardy suggested that I should be called "Assistant Secretary for Irish Business," but to this Lord Mayo objected as trenching on his preserves.

Unless a man be so degraded as to like office work for its own sake, the charm of life in a Government Department largely depends on the personne l . Practice at the Bar brings one into contact with many people whom one would not choose as companions for a wet day in a villa house. And I have known men even in high positions to whom a like remark would apply. But with such chiefs as Mr. Hardy, Mr. Liddell, and Sir James Ferguson at the Home Office, and Lord Mayo and Sir Thomas Larcom at Dublin Castle, my position was an enviable one. And with the Home Office staff my relations were friendly and pleasant.

The Chief Clerk, indeed, resented my presence, but his influence was a negligible quantity. He was a man of private fortune, who used the Home Office as a pastime. With exemplary regularity he took his two months' annual leave every autumn, and he did comparatively little during the other ten. This, indeed, was quite characteristic of the Home Office in those days. One of the senior clerks, with whom I struck up a friendship, remonstrated with me for my activity and zeal. On his first joining the Department, as he told me, the then Chief Clerk impressed on him that the way to get on in the Civil Service was to do as little as possible, and to do it as quietly as possible. And he himself prospered by acting on that excellent advice. For in due course he rose to the top ; and I may add that his tenure of the Chief Clerkship made it clear that the office was unnecessary, and it was abolished when he retired on a pension, Forty years ago work in the Home office was light, and it was left to an industrious minority of the staff. Not a few of the clerks were habitual idlers. The office hours were from 11 to 5. It was a nominal 11 and a punctual 5 ; and much of the intervening time was devoted to luncheon, gossip, and the newspapers. Matters of public interest also claimed attention, such as, for instance, the future of public men who happened to be then coming into notice. Whether Sir George Trevelyan or Sir Charles Dilke was destined to be the future leader of the Liberal party, was a frequent subject of discussion. And as a relief from such grave questions, bets were made as to whether more vehicles would pass up the street or down the street within a specified time, or as to the colour of the horses.

The room assigned to me at first was a Private Secretary's room, adjoining that of the Secretary of State, upon the main floor. But after the change of Government, Lord Macduff (now the Duke of Fife) came in as Assistant Private Secretary, and Mr. Bruce asked me to make way for him. It was while thus temporarily occupying a room upstairs among the clerks that I became free of what might be called the club life of the Office. What I then heard of past escapades prepared me for experiences that followed. One of these many stories recurs to me. One day, in Sir George Grey's time, a battle royal was raging in the Registry, and a tape-tied bundle of official papers, aimed at the head of a "pal," went through the window, and barely missed bonneting the Secretary of State as he passed out on his way to the House of Commons. This occurred at 12 o'clock on a Wednesday, and the delinquent - Nubbles was our pet name for him - forthwith took refuge in one of the smallest apartments in the building, and there he hid himself, a prey to the gloomiest forebodings, until six hours afterwards he was induced to open the door, on hearing that " the House was up," and that the Chief had gone home.

One of the older men, whose room was opposite mine, spent half his time in dodging his duns. He was in a chronic state of impecuniosity ; and toward the end of the month, when the pay-dockets were due, he had such a succession of visitors that official work was impossible. At times, indeed, he had to keep in hiding. This was easy in that rabbit-warren of a building, especially as he had an ally in the messenger on our floor, an old man of pompous manners, who had been butler in the house of a previous Secretary of State. The style in which this man played with the unfortunate creditors was a comedy worthy of the stage. Shortly afterwards our friend was discharged with a pension. He commuted his pension for a lump sum, and immediately bolted to America, without venturing to pay even a flying visit to the Office. A search of his room brought to light a number of draft wills, written of course on official paper, by which he made liberal provision for his special chums on the staff !

The ways of the place reminded me of my school days. On my arrival one morning I found a note from Sir James Ferguson's private secretary-his intimates called him " Creeper "announcing that at three o'clock precisely an old hat, lately the property of the Chief Clerk, would be kicked off from the end of the corridor, and requesting the favour of my presence. When Big Ben struck three I heard " Creeper's " cheery voice ring out, "All on side : Play ! " We all turned out, and the game began. On emerging from an unusually hot " scrimmage," I became conscious of the presence of a stranger at my side, a timid little Frenchman, who meekly inquired, "Is dis de office for de naturalisation ? " It was !

There were escapades also of another kind. During a smallpox epidemic at this time, a supply of lymph reached the Home Office; for in those days the Home Office dealt with all matters of that kind. One of the clerks-he afterwards succeeded to a Peerage-at once " requisitioned " for a new eraser, and proceeded to vaccinate himself and all whom he could induce to be operated on. The after-condition of his victims -I was not of the number-gave proof that the lymph was good !

"Making hay" in a man's room was one of the stock amusements. On coming back from luncheon one day I found every movable article of every kind which my room contained piled up on my table, and Lord Granville's private secretary - Mr. (afterwards Sir Robert) Meade - standing in the middle of the floor surveying the pyramid. He had called on some important Foreign Office business. This was too much for me. I told no tales, but I represented to the Chief that I found it very inconvenient to be upstairs, and a room on the main floor was again assigned to me.

My pen might run on indefinitely in this vein, but the foregoing may suffice to indicate what life in the Home Office was like a generation ago. In those days there were no " Lower-division clerks " or " Civil Service writers." And not even the sub-departments were housed under the same roof as the Secretary of State until after we moved into the new edifice in August, 1875. We had the place to ourselves.

Some little historic interest attaches to the old building, on account of its connection with the ancient Palace of Whitehall, on the site of which it stands. The room I first occupied looked out on a small yard which must have been within the Palace, and in that yard was an iron cistern which bore date the year after the great Fire of London. This, by the way, suggests an incursion into constitutional history. The " Whitehall " from which the Home Secretary dates his official letters is not the street of that name, but the Palace. And the title " Principal Secretary of State" does not, as people suppose, distinguish the Minister from his subordinates, but points back to the origin of the office. Originally the Sovereign dealt with affairs of State through his private secretary. But in course of time it became necessary to appoint a special secretary to take charge of such matters ; and the Secretary of State was designated H. M.'s " Principal Secretary." As State affairs have increased in volume and importance the duties have been again and again divided, and additional "Principal Secretaries of State" have been appointed to take control of special departments ; but while these date their letters from their respective offices, " Whitehall " remains the proper official address of the Home Secretary as the lineal descendant and heir of the original " Principal Secretary of State."

" The New Home Office " to which I have referred is a marvellous triumph of architectural skill. No one but a real genius could have designed a great building which, from it main plan down to its smallest detail, is absolutely unsuited to the purpose for which it was intended. The "grand staircase " ends at a half landing from which an inferior set of stairs leads to the principal floor. And a dark passage on that floor leads to the principal rooms. The Secretary of State's room was originally so ill-lighted that an important structural alteration was needed to make it habitable, and even when so altered, Sir William Harcourt fitly likened it to a railway station waiting-room. So great was his aversion to it, indeed, that he spent most of his official hours in his house in Grafton Street.

The building, as viewed from the street, contains only three floors above the basement. But as in fact there are four, one window has to do duty on two floors. The result is that the second floor rooms are like bear-pits, the windows being placed so high that no one can see the opposite houses from them, much less the street.

And in the upper rooms the windows reach but three feet from the floor. But as, in an office, light is wanted above the table and not under it, no one of these rooms could be brought into use until, at considerable cost, a skylight had been inserted in the massive fireproof roof.

Burglars trouble us at times, but we suffer from architects every day of our lives. And yet it seems incredible that the innumerable and glaring faults of that building are due to incompetence or accident. The explanation current at Whitehall was that Sir Gilbert Scott deliberately set himself to spite the Government for rejecting his original plans.

In the new building the clerks did not play football surreptitiously in the corridors, but after office hours we played tennis openly in the inner court (now choked by an iron shed). The habitues were Lushington, the Assistant Under-Secretary; Sir J. E. Moss, the Private Secretary; Charles Murdoch (afterwards Assistant Under-Secretary), and myself. Grand games we used to have, the fastest tennis, indeed, that I ever played, and one hour of it was ample exercise for a whole day.

To what extent "upstairs life" in the other Government Offices forty years ago resembled that of the Home Office I cannot aver from personal knowledge. But I can testify that all that has been written about " red tape " and " the circumlocution office " applied to those of them with which I had much to do ; though, having regard to the confidential nature of my work, I was specially introduced `to the Under-Secretaries of the various departments, and they always received me with courtesy and kindness.

This was specially notable in the case of the Foreign Office, for the Under-Secretary, Mr. (afterwards Lord) Hammond, was singularly unbending in official life. He was the very impersonation of "red tape." I am reminded of one of my visits to him. He received me promptly and kindly, as he always did, but he scouted my mission. The Irish Government wished me to obtain the Foreign Office verification of the Chief Secretary's signature to an important document, and to telegraph to Dublin when I had procured it. In Lord Mayo's well-known signature the final " o " stood apart, with a sort of curl above it. " I-I-I should have thought it was May 6," said Hammond ! My personal testimony went for nothing. The official documents in the case, which I had received from Dublin Castle, he refused even to look at. The fact that Lord Mayo was a Cabinet Minister did not matter. He could not recognise the Irish Government; he knew only the Home Office, and he could not verify the signature unless it came before him duly certified by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. In a word, he kept to the letter of the law, that Ireland was under the Home Office, and to the etiquette of the service, that he would only deal with the Under-Secretary.

At the War Office, on the other hand, the Chiefs were always ready to comply with any demand, but " the Office " was the difficulty. One morning, for example, on receipt of an urgent letter from Dublin Castle asking me to procure the attestation paper of a certain soldier, I repaired to Pall Mall, expecting to obtain it at once. But no one seemed to know where it was to be found ; and the letter which brought me the document later in the day had a postscript to the effect that they had not yet discovered which branch of the Office dealt with attestation papers!

My description of life in the Home Office when I first entered it might seem to discredit Mr. Liddell, the Under-Secretary. I wish to guard against that suggestion. It was in his reign that the reorganisation took place which inaugurated the present era of efficiency. But he had then come fresh from practising at the Bar, and he had no knowledge of a Government Office. And in those days there was no Assistant Under-Secretary ; and, as already intimated, the Chief Clerk was a cipher, so that he had no one to coach him. He was quite admirable in managing the Office. On the rare occasions when he was ruffled or vexed, his bearing realised the schoolboy's definition of righteous anger : to wit, "being angry without swearing." And if at times he used language that would spoil the sale of a Sunday School book, it betokened in his case a placid serenity of temper. And matters that might disturb the equanimity of a different type of man he disposed of with dignified calm.

I recall an incident which may serve to illustrate what I mean. A teacup storm was raging as to which branch of the Office should be charged with certain work, and a minute of Liddell's, directing the "Domestic Department" to write a certain letter, brought about a crisis. I was with him in his room when the head of that department (Knyvett, afterwards Sir Carey Knyvett) bustled in, and laying the document in question on Liddell's desk, delivered himself of an elaborate protest against the decision. His only response was a long-drawn " Oh," followed by a single word-it was a word that is never heard in the drawing-room-and then he resumed his work. After a while he rose with a beaming face, and picking up the paper, as though for the first time, he handed it back to Knyvett with, " Look here, old chap, will you get that letter written for my signature ? " Like "the venerable Jacob " in the ballad, Knyvett " smole a sickly smile," and giving me a helpless sort of look, he cleared out. That teacup storm was at an end. I might give dozens of similar incidents, but this may suffice to show the sort of man the Under-Secretary was. His imperturbable bonhomie succeeded where severity might have set the Office by the ears. But behind his bonhomie there was so much dignity, and such a sense of reserve power, that no one ever presumed upon it.

All the more remarkable this, from the fact that, not infrequently, his ways were those of a jovial schoolboy, rather than of a staid official of aristocratic proclivities. I have been on easy terms with not a few of the men under whom I have served, but none of them unbended as Liddell did. This showed itself at times even in his instructions to me in official work. His " minutes " were always written with care, and they were usually both clear and able. But much of my work was of such a confidential or personal nature that his directions were given to me either viva voce, or in private notes. And to this day I can laugh over some of these.

Here is a sample. When the Fenians were smuggling revolvers and rifles into Ireland, labelled as pianos, or butter, or cement, I proposed that the clandestine conveyance of firearms should be made an offence. The Secretary of State adopted my projet de loi, and it was referred to the Treasury Counsel (Mr. - afterwards Lord - Thring) to draft the Bill. But, instead of acting on Mr. Bruce's instructions, he wrote back a strong letter of objection and protest. Even the Magistrates, he said, would regard such an enactment as unworkable. This was referred to Bow Street, and the Chief Magistrate replied that he and his colleagues approved of the scheme, and saw no practical difficulty in giving effect to it. Liddell's minute to me on this, written on a sheet of notepaper, was in the following terms: " Thring is getting bumptious. Prepare a letter to him for my signature. Just tell him to go to and square the circle ; you know how to put it." I did !

In a similar vein it was that he received my congratulations the day he was gazetted a K.C.B. Rising from his table he faced me on the hearthrug, and presently said he, his blank stare giving way to a genial smile, " But isn't it awful rot being called' Sir'! " As a contemporary philosopher, known to fame as "Josh Billings," has said, " Gravity becomes a fool at all times ; a wise man upon state occasions." These were not state occasions, and Liddell was no fool.