Early life



We then, as a family, had to move to London. Sylvia found a charming house, 15, Cornwall Terrace, Regent’s Park. It was one of the smallest houses in the terrace, designed by Nash (although some say he design was completed by Decimus Burton,) and we were ensconced by the late spring.


In July, 1935, I was elected to the House of Commons. This meant that during the Assizes I was constantly conferring from 9 am until 10.30, in Court (with a short interval for lunch) until 5.15pm, then on the 5.25 from Liverpool or 5.45 from Manchester, reaching London at 9. Then in the House until after the 11 o’clock division, then back on the midnight train to the North, in order to begin my day again. (It was the Daily Telegraph who christened me ‘KC by day, MP by night.’)


I cannot adequately express my emotions of pride and happiness when I first entered the Palace of Westminster as of right, a Member of Parliament.


To enter the House of Commons is not merely to enter a political institution, it is coming upon a new world, complex, hazardous, inconstant, demanding and perpetually fascinating. The pride and pleasure never faded throughout the twenty years I sat in the Commons.

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Extracts from Maxwell Fyfe's memories of his early life. Click above.

It is not so much the achievements of his early life that echo through Maxwell Fyfe’s autobiography, Political Adventure. It is certainly noticeable that he achieved early and was both a young Kings Counsel and a young MP.  But it is the sheer exuberance that marks his appreciation of his life. He was, throughout his life, at odds with ’cynics,’ and there is a temptation to be overwhelmed by his description of Westminster. However, it is likely that many of those elected share more of his feelings than they care to let on. And it is certainly true that politics as a vocation should not be written off in the way it is today.  Here are some extracts:


‘Memory is a highly selective instrument. Looking back, the years of manhood present themselves in a kind of opaque mist in which certain events stand out clearly, in much the same manner that the sun picks out individual landmarks on a fitful summer day.’


‘The light plays clearly on my Edinburgh childhood. The influence of the old city was all pervading. The cobbled, dimly lit alleyways of the old town, the symmetrical splendour of the great streets, the aloof and enthralling majesty of the Castle, the semi-sinister romanticism of Holyrood squatting glumly in the midst of the most dreadful slums, the sunshine and laughter on Blackford Hill where I played and dreamed, the glorious vistas from Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, all are etched indelibly upon my memory. It came a s something of a shock when I discovered at the age of twelve that I was not the first to be enraptured by the great city where I was born and where I spent my childhood.  Scott had also played and dreamed on Blackford Hill a hundred years before:


Or listed, as I lay at rest,

While rose, on breezes thin,

The murmur of the city crowd

And from his steeple jangling loud,

Saint Giles’s mingling din.

Edinburgh and its environs were a paradise for the boy with a taste for solitude and history. The Castle, above all, was the place. I could almost hear Randolph’s men crouching under the rock, holding their breath as the English sentry played his joke on his fellow sentry and gaily cried out, “I see you!” From the postern gate I could espy Dundee scrambling in riding boots and spurs down the steep hillside, and hastening to give a last wave of his bonnet to Gordon while his trumpeters and drummers looked stiffly ahead towards Ravelston Cliffs and Clermiston Lee. It took little imagination to share the anguish of the sons of Malcolm Canmore bringing their mother’s body through the Highland picquets of Donald Bain on a dripping, misty night. I have always been a romantic, and for me the past is peopled with brave and generous spirits.’


‘We were always poor, but perfectly self-contained and happy. I assume the chronic shortage of money was responsible for the apparently curious decision – in view of my Presbyterian ancestry – to send me to the kindergarten of St Catherine’s Convent when I was four. The first service of the Free Church of Scotland in Sutherland had been held in a tent constructed out of blankets provided by my maternal grandmother after the Disruption of 1843, but the family’s Presbyterian fires must have been thoroughly banked by 1904.’


‘After the Convent I went to Watson’s when I was seven, which is, of course, the best school in Scotland, and consequently the best school anywhere. Scholarships were only given for one year, and I won my first at the age of eight, subsequently winning one each year which paid my fees for the forthcoming year. It was perhaps a hard system, but it undoubtedly made one work, and fostered both ambition and a certain amount of self-confidence.’




I had never been to London or Oxford before. Indeed, I had only paid one visit to England, a holiday at Hexham and Wark in 1913 with a distant cousin who was of great interest to me, because he had known my great-great-grandmother, born the year after Colludon. So it was an unforgettable moment when, in October 1917, I boarded the night train for London, leaving Waverley station at10 o’ clock. It was crowded with soldiers going back to France to the bloody battles that were raging. After a short look at London for the first time on the next day, I arrived at Oxford in the evening.


I was enormously thrilled. I had seen photographs but the collection of the College buildings was something which staggered my imagination. And it was with tremendous fluttering of the heart and elation that I realized that I was, though small and unimportant, a member of Balliol.


The beginning of my lifelong legal and political connection with Liverpool could not have been less inspiriting. It was raining when I arrived, and continued to rain almost without intermission for the following six weeks. I did not know a soul in this vast, cloud-enshrouded, mushy, and weeping city except for the wonderfully kind Judge Dowdall and Philip Rea (now Lord Rea and Liberal leader in the House of Lords) whom I had known slightly at Oxford.  Nevertheless, in spite of my surroundings and penury, I was immediately entranced by my work in Chambers, and my interest and excitement were further increased in the following January when the Assizes were held at Liverpool and I joined the Northern Circuit.


As to 1924, that does not present any difficulty, as in that year I got engaged on April 14th to Sylvia Harrison. To steal a phrase that Kenneth Grahame in Heaven no longer needs, our ages approximately hinged round twenty. I suppose that we looked a complete pair of infants, and it was not until the end of that year that my prospective father-in-law allowed us to fix the date of the marriage.


My wedding was the outstanding event of 1925 for me. My bride and I had only four days honeymoon because I had to get back to defend a money-lender in the Liverpool Police Court, again led by Jackson. This time the cheque was good. That was on the Monday. On the Thursday I was led by Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett and Goldie for some young men who were alleged to have kidnapped Mr Harry Pollitt at Edge Hill Station. They were acquitted.


On February 12th, 1934, I received the intimation that I had been appointed one of His Majesty’s Counsel. There remained the procedure which still, after nearly thirty years, remains fresh in my mind. In the morning I went to Ede & Ravenscroft to don the garb of an eighteenth-century gentleman in mourning, which is the Silk’s uniform – and indeed that of the judges, for I wore the same suit when I took my place on the Woolsack twenty years later. Then I went to be sworn in by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Sankey, who said to me: ‘You are very young.’