Never retract, never explain, never apologise. (attrib Benjamin Jowett, 1893 December)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 30 20:05:25 UTC 2010

Several quotations exist that employ a telegraphic style in which the
word "never" is repeatedly invoked. The subphrase "never explain" is
usually included in the sequence:

Never retract, never explain, never apologise. (attrib B. Jowett, 1893 December)
Never retreat, never explain, never apologise. (attrib B. Jowett, 1893 December)
Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let them howl. (attrib
friend of B. Jowett, 1895 May)
Never complain and never explain. (attrib Benjamin Disraeli, 1903)
Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologize. (John Arbuthnot
Fisher, 1919 September 5)

Benjamin Disraeli and John Arbuthnot Fisher are associated with the
last two sayings, respectively. In this post I am going to examine the
first three quotations which are attributed to Benjamin Jowett who was
a prominent educator and Master of Balliol College, Oxford. These
three quotations antedate the earliest known appearances of the other
two quotes.

In 1897 scholars examined the letters and memoranda of Benjamin Jowett
and found a collection of maxims that he recommended for statesman. I
think that Jowett's notes are important in understanding the origin of
the quotations above. The time period given for the notes is from 1873
to 1876 [JOW]:

[JOW]:  1897 [1873 to 1876 is the date range given for the notes by
the authors], The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett, M.A., Master of
Balliol College, Oxford, Volume 2 by Evelyn Abbott and Lewis Campbell,
Page 78, John Murray, London. (Google Books full view)

       Maxims for Statesmen and others

'Never quarrel.               Never fear.
Never explain.               Never drudge.
Never hate.                    Never spare.
Never fret.                      Never tell.
Never disappoint.         Never detract.
Never fail.                       [Illegible]'

This early foundational collection suggests that Benjamin Jowett was
important in popularizing the blueprint of quotations that string
together a series of injunctions using "never", particularly sayings
that include "never explain". More direct evidence appears in Cornhill
magazine in 1893 in a profile of Jowett written shortly after his
death [CRN]:

[CRN] 1893 December, The Cornhill Magazine, Memories of the Master of
Balliol, Page 597, Smith, Elder, & Co., London. (Google Books full

It is true the Master always felt that nothing succeeded like success,
and would say pithily, 'Never retract, never explain, never apologise'
- nay, would sometimes run risk of being looked upon as of the world
worldly in his precepts to those who were just starting on their walk
in life.

The journal Littell's Living Age also ran a profile of Jowett that
includes a quotation. The table of contents indicates that the story
is originally from Cornhill Magazine, but the Jowett's quotation has
been altered by changing one word: "Never retract" becomes "Never
retreat". Note that neither of these terms is on the list in Jowett's
notes, but these attributions give evidence that the list was not
exhaustive [LLA]:

[LLA] 1893 December 30, Littell's Living Age, Memories of the Master
of Balliol (from Cornhill Magazine), Page 823, Littell and Co.,

It is true the Master always felt that nothing succeeded like success,
 and would say pithily, "Never retreat, never explain, never
apologise" ...

The third quotation above attributed to Jowett builds on the first
one. In 1895 a friend of the Master named Lionel Arthur Tollemache
wrote an article reminiscing about the man. The article and a later
book contain the quote [JOWT1] [JOWT2]:

[JOW1] 1895 May, The Journal of Education: Supplement, Recollections
of Jowett: A Fragment by L. A. Tollemache, Page 302, Oxford University
Press, London.

 [JOWT2] 1904, Benjamin Jowett: Master of Balliol by Lionel A.
Tollemache, Page 117, Edward Arnold, London. (Google Books full view)

On another occasion he said to me: "A friend of mine of great
practical ability told me that he has laid down for himself three
rules of conduct. Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let
them howl." Jowett repeated these paradoxical maxims with a
characteristic laugh, which seemed at any rate not to mark

So, there is evidence that Jowett said the third quotation, but he
attributed it to another person. Who was the friend of "great
practical ability"? Some observers in 1895 suggested that the friend
did not exist, and the quote was really from Jowett himself [JOW3]:

[JOWT3] 1895 June 16, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Stories of Jowett, Page
7 of Part 2 (GB Page 23), Cleveland, Ohio (GenealogyBank)

Some very interesting "Recollections of Jowett," by the Hon. A L.
Tollemache, appear as a supplement to "The Journal of Education."...
Sometimes Jowett would veil his semi-ironical expressions of opinion
behind "a friend." ... "he said to me: 'A friend of mine of great
practical ability told me that he has laid down for himself three
rules of conduct. Never retract. Never explain. Get it done and let
them howl.' Jowett repeated these paradoxical maxims with a
characteristic laugh, which seemed at any rate not to mark

This reassignment of the quotation to Jowett has repercussions today.
In 2010 some of the large online databases, Thinkexist, Quotesdaddy,
and Brainyquote, credit Benjamin Jowett with the saying. The phrase is
popular enough that it resonates as a rallying cry and attributions
have accumulated. Suffragist Nellie McClung and Canadian politician
Agnes Macphail are also credited with versions of the saying.

I think that the friend of "great practical ability" that Jowett
connects to the quotation did exist. He was probably referring to
education administrator James Kay-Shuttleworth. More precisely, the
phrase "Get it done and let them howl" comes from Kay-Shuttleworth.

The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett contains a discussion of the
time period from 1846 to 1854 in which Jowett was involved in
University and Civil Service reform. Ralph R. W. Lingen, a friend of
Jowett, was also involved in educational reform, and he recorded a
saying that he heard from James Kay-Shuttleworth [JWKS]:

[JWKS] 1897, The Life and Letters of Benjamin Jowett by Evelyn Abbott
and Lewis Campbell, Volume 1 of 2, University and Civil Service Reform
1846-1854, Page 185, John Murray, London. (Google Books full view)

Sir J. Kay-Shuttleworth had said to Lingen, who was serving under him,
with reference to some change, 'Get it done; let the objectors howl.'

Trying to "Get it done" was not easy. Kay-Shuttleworth spent some time
convalescing from a nervous breakdown and resigned his position as the
first Secretary to the Committee of Council on Education in 1849 at
the age of 45 [KAY].

[KAY] 1968 June, British Journal of Educational Studies, Page 138,
Vol. 16, No. 2, Blackwell Publishing. (JSTOR)

In 1897 three terms from the original long list of "nevers" are
conjoined, and the result is a maxim attributed to Jowett [QR]:

[QR] 1897 April, The Quarterly Review, Review of: The Life and Letters
of Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College by Lewis Campbell and
Evelyn Abbott, Page 341, Volume 185, Number 370, John Murray, London.
(Google Books full view)

Mindful of his own pet maxim, 'Never fret, never fear, never explain,'
he simply asked for 'a little ink' and complied.

I will end this post with the year 1903 as the sayings attributed to
Jowett are further combined and permuted to create new variations.
Here are four examples. The first combines sayings one and three and
appears without attribution in an advertisement for a piano seller in
Louisiana [PWA]:

[PWA] 1903 June 14, The Daily Picayune (Times-Picayune), Advertisement
for Philip Werlein, Page 4, Columns 3-5, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Never retract, never explain, never apologize. Go ahead and do it and
let them howl.

Another citation in 1903 permutes the order of "never" terms and
applies the edict to the "world of finance" without attribution [RPB]:

[RPB] 1903 June 28, The Sunday News Tribune (Duluth News-Tribune),
Women Are Winning Their Way in Commercial Life by Rebecca
Pineo-Boyington, Page 5, Column 2, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank)

Some one has said, that "In the world of finance, we never explain,
never retract, never apologize," but we get the things done and let
the others howl;

A third instance in 1904 is delivered by a speaker at an education
conference held in Richmond, Virginia. The saying is used by W. W.
Stetson, and he attributes it to an "English clergyman." Since Jowett
was a clergyman and an influential theologian the speaker is probably
referring to Jowett [CL1]:

[CL1] 1903 April 22-25, Proceedings of the Conference for Education in
the South: The Sixth Session, The Concentration of Schools and
Transportation of Pupils: Open Discussion Remarks by W. W. Stetson,
Page 94, Issued by the Committee on Publication, New York City.

It was an English clergyman who said, "Never explain, never apologize,
never retract, get the thing done and let them howl." (Laughter and

The fourth instance occurs at another education conference in 1903 in
Boston, Massachusetts. But the individual popularizing the expression
is once again W. W. Stetson. He attributes the saying to a
"distinguished English clergyman" [CL2]:

[CL2] 1903 July 6-10, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the
Forty-Second Annual Meeting, National Educational Association, Held at
Boston, Massachusetts, "School Surroundings" by W. W. Stetson
[Stenographic report], Page 97, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

There come times in the administration of the school, in the working
out of those problems given us to solve, when it is necessary for us
to follow the advice given us by a distinguished English clergyman
when he said: "Never explain, never apologize, never retract; get the
thing done and let them howl."

Finally, the expression "Never complain and never explain" is first
associated with Benjamin Disraeli in the printed record in 1903. The
Gladstone biographer, John Morley, describes a dinner in the 1830s
attended by two major figures of British history: William Gladstone
and Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli does not utter the quotation at the
dinner. Instead, the biographer attributes the saying to him and says
he will use it at some unspecified later time. Disraeli died in 1881
and I have not found, as yet, any direct evidence that he used the
phrase [DGLD]:

[DGLD] 1903, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone by John Morley, Pages
122-123, Macmillan and Co., London [Norwood Press, Norwood,
Massachusetts]. (Internet Archive)

What Mr. Gladstone carried away in his memory was a sage lesson of
Lyndhurst's, by which the two men of genius at his table were in time
to show themselves extremely competent to profit, — 'Never defend
yourself before a popular assemblage, except with and by retorting the
attack; the hearers, in the pleasure which the assault gives them,
will forget the previous charge.' As Disraeli himself put it
afterwards, Never complain and never explain.

The online Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and the Yale Book of
Quotations give this 1903 citation as the first instance of the phrase
attributed to Disraeli (or anyone).

Of course, Benjamin Jowett was not the first to link together a
staccato series of "never this, never that, never the other". For
example, the poet Robert Browning included the verse "Never brag,
never bluster, never blush" in his poem 'Mr Sludge, the "Medium"'
collected in Dramatis Personae in 1864. Yet, the inclusion of the term
"never explain" may be distinctive to Jowett.


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