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


IN Blackwood's Magazine for April, 1910, I made a passing reference to some articles from my pen which appeared in The Times in May, 1887, denouncing the American Fenian dynamiters. In reply to a question addressed to him in Parliament on the 11th of that month by Mr. . Redmond, the Prime Minister said, "If Sir Robert Anderson wrote the Times articles, his action was contrary to the rules and traditions of the Civil Service, and, so far as I know, without precedent." The Times of the 12th contained the following letter :


To the Editor of THE TIMES.

"SIR,-The unfeigned distress I feel at being censured by the Prime Minister, even in a matter so remote as the "Parnellism and Crime" controversy of nearly a quarter of a century ago, is modified by my belief that if I had had an opportunity of laying my case before Mr. Asquith he might have formed a different judgment, The main ground of his censure is that I violated the rules and traditions of the Civil Service. And upon this I should have much to say ; but without Mr. Asquith's express permission I will not lay before him what I should offer in my defence.

But will you allow me to notice the charges implied in Mr. Redmond's question ? For the mistake on which it is based I am in part responsible. When drafting my article for this month's Blackwood, I told how I once incurred Home Office censure through the smart action of a pressman in the way he reported a historical lecture of mine. And I added, 'To the present hour I do not know whether the Home Secretary was then aware of my authorship of The Times articles of May, 1887, on Parnellism and Crime.' But the typist who copied my MS. omitted the ' May' - an omission I never noticed till last Friday. My only connection with that campaign was my three articles entitled ' Behind the Scenes in America.' And a reference to those articles will make two things perfectly clear. First, they were based upon newspaper reports of quasi-public conventions in America, and upon secret Fenian documents proving that those conventions were engineered by the miscreants who promoted the dynamite outrages in this country. And here I may say that not a single statement of mine was ever refuted or even challenged. And secondly, the main purpose with which the articles were written was to thwart that dynamite campaign by letting in the light upon the proceedings of those infamous men.

" My third article leaves no doubt upon this point. The story of the jubilee dynamite plot is now public property. That plot was hatched at the Chicago Convention of August, 1886, which, as I said, Mr. Redmond attended as Mr. Parnell's representative. But who can point to any word of mine suggesting that Mr. Redmond had any knowledge of the secret sessions of that Convention, or of the secret machinations of the men with whom he was identified on the public platform ?

"The secret report of the Convention announced the intention to have ' a pyrotechnic display in honour of the Queen's jubilee,' or, in other words, as events proved, to bring about a dynamite explosion in Westminster Abbey at the great function of June, 1887. And proofs abounded that this exposure in the columns of The Times hindered a plot of far more terrible gravity even than that which was detected and thwarted by police action. Surely this was a public service of such magnitude that in view of it any breach of official propriety might be condoned.

The figment that the Fenian pamphlets I quoted were Home Office papers was fully dealt with in 1889. They were lent to me by my informant, who held them as presiding officer of a Fenian lodge, and his failure to produce them on being called upon to do so would have cost him his life. I would here refer to the letter I addressed to you, Sir, on March 20, 1889. It was only on my own terms that I ever consented to deal with informants, And when Sir William Harcourt once took me to task on this very point I wrote asking him to relieve me of all such duties. His letter in reply is set out on page 18 of my 'Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement.' That book, moreover, plainly indicated my connexion with the ` Behind the Scenes' articles, and I was definitely told that ` Everybody in Fleet Street knew that I was the author of them.' Hence it was that I referred to them in Blackwood in such a matter-of-course and incidental fashion.

"With further reference to Mr. Redmond's question I will only add that for more than a year before I wrote them I had ceased to hold the position which he describes as `adviser to the Home Office,' and that at no time did the Criminal Investigation Department render any assistance to The Times in the Parnell case. I have nothing to conceal in this matter ; and if Government will release me from the honourable obligations to reticence respecting the Secret Service work at Whitehall, my defence will be full and complete.

" I am, your obedient servant,
"April 11, Ig1o."

My old-fashioned ideas of courtesy and justice led me to assume that this appeal would ensure me a hearing if any action was taken in the matter. But in this I was disappointed ; for on April 21st my misdeeds were made the ground of an attack upon me in the House of Commons. I thereupon prepared a full statement of what I had to say in my defence ; and this I intended to publish in the present volume. But after the MS. had gone to the printer it was urged upon me that I was thus about to cumber these pages with matter which had entirely ceased to interest the public. Accordingly I recalled it, and decided to content myself with reproducing the above letter to The Times, and also the following, which was written twenty-one years ago, when I was attacked upon practically the same grounds as in the debate of last April. Part of it could not be more germane to these recent charges if it were written with special reference to them.

To the Editor of THE TIMES.

"SIR,-It is an excellent rule that Civil servants of the Crown, when publicly attacked, should leave their defence in the hands of their Parliamentary chiefs. I have always observed that rule, and I have no intention of departing from it. But when acts clone by me wholly outside the sphere of my official position are assigned as proof that I am unworthy of the office I have the honour to hold under Her Majesty's warrant, I must not shelter myself. behind the Secretary of State, for whose generous defence of me in Parliament to-day I am most deeply grateful. It is my privilege, as it is clearly my duty, to put myself right with the public immediately.

"The proper method of doing so is, I admit, by appearing in the witness-box of the Commission Court, and I feel seriously aggrieved that this has been hitherto denied me. As soon as my name was mentioned in the case I asked to be called. For that purpose I saw the Attorney-General on three different occasions, and pressed my wishes upon him and Sir Henry James with a good deal of warmth and pertinacity. And when Sir R. Webster announced what has been called `the closing of the Times' case,' I communicated with him again and received a renewed assurance that my position as a witness was entirely unchanged.

If I am right in thinking that this whole discussion is grossly disrespectful to the Court over which Sir James Hannen presides, I must plead that I am forced against my will to make myself a party to the `contempt.'

" I have already intimated that my action in relation to Major Le Caron's evidence was wholly apart from my official position as Assistant Commissioner of Police. It arose from the fact that in former years, in an entirely unofficial position, I rendered advice and assistance to the 1880 Government in matters relating to political crime. A complete explanation of my conduct would involve such an appeal to documents and details as would amount to a disclosure of the Secret Service arrangements of that period. To me, personally, the disclosure would be intensely gratifying. It would, moreover, supply a missing chapter of uncommon interest in the political history of recent years. But Sir W. Harcourt knows me well enough to feel assured that I would not, except under compulsion, say anything to embarrass ex-Ministers of the Crown, who admitted me in any measure to their confidence. Whether it is generous of him to take advantage of this in attacking me as he has done I will not discuss. It is not in keeping with the kindness I have hitherto experienced at his hands.

" For the present, at least, I will confine myself to a bare statement of the facts. I think it will suffice to satisfy even Sir W. Harcourt himself that he has wronged me. This statement, be it remembered, I expect to repeat on oath at the Commission Court.

" When Major Le Croon called on me in December, having been summoned to England by his father's death, he repeated the expression of his desire to give evidence before the Commission. He had written to me several times about this, and I had already tried to dissuade him from it. I found he was under the impression that the `prosecution,' as he called it, was a Government matter, and that I was personally interested in it. I set him right on both these points. I assured him that ` Scotland Yard' had no part whatever in the conduct of the case-had it been otherwise, the presentation of it would possibly be very different ; but that, in fact, I had never received even a hint that Government wished me to assist the Times, and I had never been as much as asked a question as to what I knew of the matters involved in the inquiry. I went on to speak of the terrible risks and penalties he would incur by coming forward, and I urged him strongly to reconsider his decision.

" The following week he came back to say his mind was made up. He could not forget, said he, that he was an Englishman ; he had gone into the conspiracy solely to serve his country, and now he would see the matter through, and face the consequences. He ended by asking me to communicate with the Times on his behalf. This I point-blank refused to do. I told him again that I had had no communications with the Times relative to the conduct of the case before the Commission, and that I would not volunteer ; all I would promise was to bear his request in mind if I should be applied to.

"This was in December. Next month Mr. MacDonald appealed tome to help him in finding a witness to prove what he called `the American part of the case.' I believe he has been generous enough to forgive me for the way I received him. If he had come to me in my official capacity, it would, according to the usual and well-established practice of my office, have been my duty to assist him. But he applied to me only as an amicus and an expert, and I sought to put him off by raising all kinds of difficulties, and insisting on unreasonable conditions. I need not give details. I mention the matter merely to mark my anxiety to keep Major Le Caron out of Court, and to explain how it was that Mr. Houston came upon the scene. After much discussion I consented to put the witness in communication with some trustworthy person to be nominated by Mr. MacDonald, under certain stringent conditions of secrecy. Next day he came back to tell me he had asked Mr. Houston to undertake the task. The much talked of `letter of introduction' was simply three lines to say that the bearer was the person I had promised to send.

"And now as to the letters. Major Le Caron's satisfaction with these arrangements was entirely destroyed by my refusal to help him in preparing his statement. He was crestfallen when I told him I could not see him again until the close of the case. He referred to my often-repeated assurance that I treated his letters as unofficial papers, and declared that he was counting on being allowed to see them, and that if this were denied him he could not 'testify' before the Commission. What was I to do ? The strictly regular course was, as Sir W. Harcourt says, to refuse to produce them until I received the inevitable subpoena. To me this was a matter of perfect indifference. But the production of these letters would have been a cause of serious embarrassment to ex-Ministers, and it was solely due to my sense of honourable obligations to them -legal obligation there was none-that I adopted the only alternative open to me. Twenty-one years' acquaintance with Major Le Caron had convinced me that he was a man of scrupulous truthfulness and integrity, and I determined to place his documents at his disposal. I shall be blamed by many for my efforts to prevent him from giving evidence, though I had several good and weighty reasons for doing so. But once he decided to go into the witness-box, my duty seemed clear. The question was not whether I should assist The Times, but whether I should set myself to thwart the Court. I may here remark that it is not true that I gave these documents either to The Times or to Mr. Houston. Neither The Times nor Mr. Houston had access to them. Those which were `handed in ' to the Court were merely manuscript copies of American Fenian circulars. Not a single one of the embarrassing letters has been produced, and if their production be now called for, as I presume it will, Sir W. Harcourt has only himself and Sir Charles Russell to blame for it. It was my anxiety to prevent it which led me to the action now complained of.

" The suggestion that I should have pleaded privilege for these manuscripts as being official documents claims notice. I might, of course, have set up such a plea, but the following facts will make it clear that I could not have sustained it without prevaricating to the verge of falsehood. The letters in question do not come within the definition contained in the Official Secrets Bill now before Parliament. They never were on record in a Government office. They were never ` filed' in a public department. I kept them at my private residence. When Sir W. Harcourt once took me to task for acting in this way with reference to my informants, I immediately asked him to relieve me of my share in the Secret Service work of the Home Office. His reply, which now lies before me, reads strangely when compared with his present utterances.

"Nor had I personally, in relation to such matters, any official position of a kind to lend an official character to the documents in question. If sometimes, through over-zeal, I placed myself 'in evidence' in any way, I was reminded that I had no `official position whatever.' When I asked for a salary from public funds, I was told it was impossible because I had ` no official position.' So entirely unofficial were my relations with the Secretary of State and the Irish Government that no intimation of them was ever given to the head of the department in which I had then recently become a `Civil servant,' and the most sustained and scrupulous care was taken to conceal from Her Majesty's Treasury the fact that I had any engagements outside that department. But now, because I happen to be in the line of fire between the two front benches in Parliament, it is contended that I had an official position all the time !

" But, it is urged, these letters were paid for by the Government. This is an ad captandum argument to which I could give a complete reply if I were relieved from the honourable obligations to reticence which now restrain me. I will only remark that giving back letters to informants is not an uncommon practice. And this discussion may do good if certain parties on both sides of the Atlantic should learn from it that they may give information to Her Majesty's Government, and receive remuneration for doing so, with the certainty that their secret will be as well kept as Le Caron's was, and that, if they like to make the condition, their communications will be treated as strictly unofficial documents and be returned to them at any time they wish to claim them.

"As regards Sir W. Harcourt's criticisms upon the discharge of ' my official duties my mouth is closed. But I want to emphasise, and I am prepared to substantiate on oath, the fact asserted by Mr. Matthews, that neither the `Assistant Commissioner of Police' nor the department which he controls has given help to The Times in the presentation of their case before the Commission.

" I am, etc.,
"March 20, 1889."

I have given this letter in extenso, lest any one should suppose that my present defence has been framed to suit the exigencies of the moment. My chief assailant at that time was Sir William Harcourt ; and in my Irish book I have recorded how generously he accepted my answer to his attack upon me. For though he was sometimes. hasty, he was always just; and he allowed me to remind him how definitely the precise question which underlay his charges had been raised when he was Home Secretary. The circumstances were these. On his taking me to task for the independent attitude I assumed in Secret Service work, and especially with reference to Le Caron and my other informants, I made no reply at the moment ; but next day I wrote to him explaining fully my position and views, and begging that as he disapproved of them he would relieve me of all such duties. I mentioned that though I had been receiving letters and reports from numerous informants for so many years, not a line in the handwriting of any one of them was filed in the Home Office. This brought me the reply referred to in my Times letter. It was as follows:

" Private.
"MY DEAR ANDERSON,-I am sorry to find from your letter that you think I have not duly appreciated your indefatigable exertions in the disagreeable duty which has fallen to you.
" I assure you that is altogether a mistake, and I pray you to dismiss it from your mind. "If we differ sometimes as to modes of procedure, that is a thing which must be looked for.
" Pray go on as you have done in your useful work, and you may rely on entire sympathy and Support from me. I am always most grateful for your reports and advice.
"Yours truly,

Though I decline to notice the sneers and, insults indulged in at my expense in the course of the debate of April 21st, it might seem wanting in respect for the Prime Minister not to offer this reply to his indictment of my conduct.

There is only one other point which I find it necessary to notice. During the debate a letter was read from the gentleman who had charge of the Secret Service in 1887, and in that letter he denied that he had had any knowledge of my Times disclosures until after the event. He is quite incapable of intentionally swerving from the truth ; and I can only account for his letter by failure of memory. Our intercourse in relation to Secret Service matters at the period in question was characterised, not by official reserve, but by the confidence and freedom of a close and intimate friendship, which lasted until two years later. Our conferences on official matters were not confined to official hours. My diaries remind me of the many evenings I spent at his house, when all our work was discussed in te1e-a-tete chats, as we sat together after dinner. I told him everything I was doing, frankly and fully, and without reserve ; and neither then, nor at any time, did he express to me disapproval of my denunciation of the dynamiters in The Times.

[ end ]