HL Deb 16 April 1918 vol 29 cc694-702

LORD WEARDALE rose to call attention to the treatment of Mr. Eugene Wolff, an accredited representative of the Finnish Republic, by the British authorities on the occasion of his intended return to his own country from his official mission to the Allied Powers; and to ask His Majesty's Government—

  1. 1. Whether the Government is aware of the complete absence of courtesy shown to Mr. Wolff by the Alien Department of the Home Office.
  2. 2. Whether the Government has been informed as to the arbitrary action of the Naval authorities at Lerwick, the gross treatment of Mr. Wolff by the Admiral in command of the. Naval Forces there, and his detention without justification during six days in a common cell in the fortress; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must offer my excuses to the House for dealing with a personal matter, or at all events one affecting an individual, at this somewhat serious moment; but it seems to me necessary that attention should be called to the very high-handed proceedings and action of—I suppose we must call them—subordinate officials in their treatment of distinguished foreigners who have occasion to pass through this country, which action often has most unfortunate results for our relations with those foreign countries. I may, perhaps, remind the House of what happened in the case of Mr. Tehitcherine. I am no friend of Mr. Tehitcherine, and certainly I do not share his views, but his maltreatment in this country was notorious, and he went back to Russia with a sense of grievance of which, I am afraid, we are reaping the disadvantages to-day in the very widespread dissatisfaction which exists there with regard to that matter.

The particular instance to which I wish to call the attention of the House to-day is regarding Mr. Eugene Wolff, and I have put the Question on the Paper in order to obtain information upon the subject. Let me state the facts. When some four months ago the Finnish people declared their independence—which, I admit, was only accepted in a qualified sense by the Bolshevik Government—the Provisional Government set up in Finland sent over a very representative deputation to the Allied and neutral Powers in the West for the purpose of obtaining its recognition. They arrived here, and were received, I am bound to say, with the greatest courtesy by the Foreign Office. Their representations were listened to and examined, and although it was impossible to give them recognition at once it was admitted that it was a matter worthy of being carefully considered, and hopes were held out that recognition would soon be given. The deputation then proceeded to France and to other countries, and the French Government at once recognised the Finnish Government. The mission was, therefore, more or less at an end.

I should here like to say this, because it has some bearing on the points which I wish to make. All these gentlemen, although very distinguished Finns, have been cut off from all communication with their own Government ever since they left their country, and they therefore cannot be held responsible in any degree whatever for any of the reflections that might be made upon the conduct of that Government in the interval. Their mission being completed, most of them remained, and are remaining, I believe still, in Paris; but one of them, Mr. Eugene Wolff—and it is his case to which I wish to call attention— came over to this country on his way back to Finland. I have had the honour of Mr. Eugene Wolff's acquaintance for some years. He was a very distinguished member of the old Finnish Diet, and took a leading part at a time when the Diet was permitted to exercise some authority, before that authority was entirely abolished under the old régime. Being a very prominent man, he was naturally selected as one of the representatives of the Finnish Government to this country. He is well known here. He is a merchant in a large way of business, chiefly, I believe, in connection with wood pulp, and he is widely known in commercial circles in the City of London. He is a member of a leading London club, and has a large and wide acquaintance among all classes of people in this country. He is well known for his Anglophile proclivities. Such is the gentleman who came over here on his return to Finland and applied to the Foreign Office for a passport to enable him to return.

I ought to say at once that he has not the smallest complaint to make of his treatment by the Foreign Office, who throughout treated him with courtesy and consideration, and when it came to applying for a passport they facilitated his application in every possible way. He was then passed on to the Permit Office and what I believe is called the Alien Department of the Home Office. There he was treated in a quite different fashion, with rough discourtesy. He was kept waiting two hours, as though he were a very suspicious person: and at last, after a very long period, he obtained the facilities he required and was told that he might go on to Aberdeen that night, and that room would be found for him on a steamer leaving in a day or two. He accordingly proceeded to Aberdeen, and was kept, quite naturally, a few days before the steamer started. He went on board and eventually the steamer proceeded on its voyage. He hoped that when he awoke in the morning he would find himself at his destination, Bergen, instead of which it appears that the steamer, for some reason or another, had found it necessary to stay off the Orkneys just by the harbour of Lerwick. When he came on deck he found the cliffs of Lerwick in the distance.

Being a gentleman who happens to be fortunate enough—I wish many of us did it—to keep a diary, he took his seat on deck and proceeded to write up his diary. While he was engaged in doing so—there was no concealment whatever about it—somebody, apparently a detective in plain clothes, touched him on the shoulder and said. "You must not write." He replied, "I did not know that. I am sorry. I will not write." Accordingly, he put his diary back into his pocket. Then, having field-glasses, he took them out to look at the cliffs, and the same person said to him. "You must not use your glasses." He replied, "I was not aware of that. I am sorry. I saw other people using their glasses, and I did not know that I was committing any offence." Then the man said to him, "If you use your glasses they will be taken away from you and returned to you at Bergen." "All right," he said, and he handed over the glasses to the man and returned to his cabin.

By and by Mr. Wolff was called into the captain's cabin, and there he found a young naval lieutenant. I wish to be perfectly fair in giving my description of the proceedings. This naval lieutenant behaved with the most complete courtesy and in the most kindly manner, and Mr. Wolff has nothing but praise to speak of him. This naval lieutenant said that, under instructions, he was called upon to make an examination of Mr. Wolff's person. He proceeded to search him, to open all his luggage and take his papers away, and eventually he took him ashore with his baggage. Mr. Wolff was then taken to an hotel. Being an accredited representative of a Government with which we are supposed to be. in friendly relations, he not unnaturally asked that communication might be opened with London, or at all events, if that were not possible, that he might see the Admiral in command of the unit. They said that this was not possible then, and that he might see him on the following morning.

Accordingly, the following morning the Admiral arrived. He began to treat Mr. Wolff as a suspected criminal, and, I am bound to say—I will use language suitable to the occasion—began to browbeat him, distinctly to browbeat him. Eventually, although my friend Mr. Wolff—and I speak with personal knowledge of the man—is an exceeding quiet and self-possessed man who never said a single word to which any kind of exception could be taken, he was, under the instructions of this Admiral, taken up to the fortress of Lerwick. It was found that the fortress was fully occupied, and he was taken to a cell which at that moment was occupied by a drunken sailor. The drunken sailor was taken out, and Mr. Wolff was thrown into the cell. There was nothing but a plank bed in this cell. There this gentleman had to wait for six days, as if he were a most dangerous criminal. He repeatedly asked to be allowed to communicate with London, but he was told that, as a suspected person, he was not allowed to telegraph. But after four clans a captain of the Navy, accompanied by the same lieutenant, came to him and said that an answer had been received from the Admiralty—and this is why I am afraid I must hold the Admiralty responsible for what occurred—and that the Admiralty insisted that he should continue to he imprisoned. I assume that they knew how he was kept in prison in this cell.

After six days of this treatment he was brought up, almost like a caged animal, by four detectives. Here we are, talking about the waste of man-power; yet four able-bodied men of fighting age were detailed to bring up this very dangerous person to London. He was brought before the authorities of Scotland Yard, and I need not say that the authorities there, having examined all his papers, read his diary, looked into everything he possessed, and heard all the evidence that was alleged, were obliged to admit that, there was no ease whatever against him.

I venture to say that treatment of this sort, unless it is properly exposed and apologised for, is likely to do us an infinity of harm with foreign States. What will be the effect in a country like Finland, with which we hope in future to have pleasant and friendly relations, when a gentleman of this position and character returns to his own country and g yes an account of the treatment which he has received? I really think that I am justified in occupying for a few minutes the attention of your Lordships, and in asking the Government categorically to give the answers to the questions which I have propounded, and, if possible, to give me a complete report of the proceedings in connection with the affair of Mr. Wolff.


My Lords, I have no doubt that the noble Lord has brought this matter forward in the interests of his friend Mr. Wolff. I very much doubt, however, whether he is wise in Mr. Wolff's interests, in making public the circumstances of his case. The noble Lord has drawn a picture of a distinguished foreigner on a diplomatic mission who, he says, has been treated with gross discourtesy and bad manners by a number of high-handed subordinate Government officials; who was treated with rudeness at the Home Office; who was detained for no reason at all at Lerwick; who was kept in a cell for six days; who was then sent to London like a eaged animal; who was examined in London, and, no case whatever being found against him, was accordingly dismissed. That is the case which the noble Lord has put before the House. The picture is entirely false. I do not, of course, suggest for a moment that the noble Lord is purposely giving a wrong account of the facts. He is telling what has no doubt been told to him, and I am certain he believes that the picture which he has given to your Lordships is a true one. But I must be allowed to correct the picture, and-to state to your Lordships what the facts of the case are.

Mr. Wolff, far from being a much injured and perfectly innocent individual, had abused the diplomatic position which he occupied, and had been guilty of two very serious breaches of the law of this country. Mr. Wolff was found to have taken sketches of the coast defences at Lerwick—what the noble Lord described as merely writings in his diary were, in fact, sketches of the cliffs and approaches to the harbour in Lerwick—and he was also found to be carrying correspondence from this country, thus evading the censorship. Far from there being no case against this gentleman, those are two very serious offences which render him liable to prosecution. When this was discussed by the naval authorities at Lerwick they at once informed the Admiralty that this gentleman had been detained, and asked for instructions. The Admiralty at once wired back that Mr. Wolff was to be sent to London in a first-class carriage—that is what the noble Lord described as being treated like a caged animal and that he was to be treated with every courtesy. When he came to London he was examined. by the Naval and the Scotland Yard authorities; he was confronted with the sketches which had been taken from him, Which he admitted having made—of course, he urged that he had made them quite innocently and inadvertently—and was also accused of having carried correspondence which, as I have said, was evading the censorship of this country. He at the same time made serious complaints as to the manner in which he was treated, and the cell in whiéh he was placed at Lerwick.

Now, although the facts which I have mentioned show that this gentleman had been guilty of quite serious offences I should be extremely sorry to think that, whatever the circumstances, he had been treated in a brutal or inhuman manner by any of the authorities. I am unable to accept as correct. the facts as stated by the noble Lord, or even as stated by Mr. Wolff himself, until I have further information, because, many of Mr. Wolff's other facts which I have been able to check prove to be quite incorrect. A report has been called for from the senior Naval officer at Lerwick. I am sorry to say it has not arrived. I had hoped it would have arrived so that I might communicate its contents to the House. Until it comes to hand I can only say that the matter is being investigated—the matter, that is to say, of his treatment at Lerwick. Until that report is received. I am unable to give the noble Lord any further information.

With regard to the first part of the noble Lord's Question, here I can only speak on behalf of the Home Office, who have supplied me with information regarding this case. This is what I am told about that part of the proceedings. It is not the case that Mr. Wolff was treated with complete absence of courtesy on the part of the Home Office. What occurred on the occasion of his visit to the Home Office was briefly as follows. It was necessary for him to obtain a special permit to embark for Norway, and for this purpose to follow the usual procedure in such cases—namely, to attend at the Permit Office in Downing-street for the usual inquiries to he made, and then at the Home Office to obtain the actual permit. He called at the Home Office, and on being referred to the Permit Office objected strongly, and apparently considered that the permit should have been issued immediately on demand. His case was dealt with by the Department with the utmost expedition, and he was given priority over other applicants; and from his first entering the Home Office to his departure with the permit, including the visit to the Permit Office, not more than half an hour elapsed. He was, as I have said, treated with every consideration and received all possible courtesy. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of his attitude towards the Home Office officials, who were only doing their duty and who met with considerable rudeness from Mr. Wolff.


My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted a few comments on the statement made by the noble Earl, in, doubt upon the authority of the information submitted to him by the officials concerned. I only hope that in the report which the Admiral is about to make of the treatment accorded to Mr. Wolff at Lerwick, some indication will be given of the famous sketch of the approaches which Mr. Wolff is supposed to have made. I have seen this sketch; it is a mere outline of the cliffs. I am told that the cliffs at Lerwick are of a remarkable character, and surely a man like Mr. Wolff may make a sketch of their outline without being suspected of any nefarious intention.

With regard to the correspondence that he carried, it has been examined by the authorities and they are aware of its entirely innocent character. The reason for the correspondence being sent in that way is the following. Everybody knows that in the present condition of Russia large numbers of Russians have been obliged to leave their homes, and their whereabouts are unknown. Consequently all sorts of people who are anxious to know the whereabouts of their friends are unable to address their letters to them in the ordinary way, because they have no addresses to which to send them. I may say that the letters are open to inspection, if necessary. It is, therefore, a very natural thing for persons going to the countries where these people are thought to have gone to be asked to seek them out and to deliver this perfectly innocent correspondence, which is merely asking as to their whereabouts and well being.

I cannot for one moment admit that the facts alleged by the noble Earl in any way justify the treatment of this gentleman as a common criminal, his being shot up in a cell for six days, and receiving the brutal treatment that Mr. Wolff received. I regret extremely that the noble Earl, in the interests of this country, did not take the opportunity to make some sort of excuse which would justify us, or at all events put us in a better position, in the eyes of public opinion in Finland, rather than allow this grievance to continue to exist as a real sore between the people of Finland and ourselves.