British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Anthony Kirk-Greene
The Colonial Office
Colonial Office, Downing Street
That the Colonial Office (CO) was separately recruited and staffed from the Colonial Service has always puzzled students new to the bureaucracy of Empire. True, now and again colonial governors were found from within the CO, and from the 1930s a number of new appointments in the Assistant Principal grade were seconded from the CO to serve one or two tours as junior administrators in the colonial territories, including in the Provincial Administration. This 'beachcombing' exercise was reciprocated by short-term, mid-seniority Colonial Service secondments to the CO. (The attachment to the CO of serving Governors was a wartime experiment). Following the easy advent of air travel after 1945, CO staff at all levels were able to visit the colonies on a scale unheard of before the war. By now the CO was palpably in touch with its field Colonial Service, to the benefit of both parties.

From time to time proposals were considered to amalgamate the two into a single Service, or perhaps to adopt the Foreign Office (FO) model of officers serving alternatively between home and abroad postings. While none of these ideas came about, in the end the FO 'won out'. When the CO was closed in 1966, not only did responsibility for the remnant HMOCS (Her (or His) Majesty's Overseas Civil Service) pass first to the new FCO but it was also responsible for the appointment of the Governors and Administrators of Britain's remaining territories, now often drawn from within the ranks of the Diplomatic Service.

The Colonial Office
Gilbert Scott Building
In one shape or another, the Colonial Office was one of Britain's most senior ministries. In 1660 a Council of Foreign Plantations was set up to oversee colonial affairs, namely the settlements in North America and the West Indies. A Secretary of State for the Colonial Department was appointed in 1768 but in 1801 the Departments of War and of the Colonies were merged. It was not until 1854, following the expansion of the colonial empire in South East Asia and the Far East, that the separate post of Secretary of State for the Colonies was established. The huge increase in African affairs at the turn of the century, and later the post-World War I addition of the mandated territories, confirmed the CO as one of the most important ministries (by 1939, over 300,000 dispatches and letters were annually registered in the CO). A further change took place in 1925, when the affairs of the self-governing Dominions were transferred from CO jurisdiction to a separate Secretaryship of State for Dominion Affairs, albeit within a single Dominions and Colonial Office. The joint establishment was separated in 1947. In 1961 provision of technical assistance was transferred from the CO to the new Department of Technical Co-operation, which in 1964 became the Ministry of Overseas Development (later the ODA).

Until the 1930s, the structure of the CO was characterised by its Geographical Departments: for example, Ceylon and Pacific, Eastern, Mediterranean, Middle East, West Indian, East & Central African, and West African. As the complexity of the inter-war world grew, the newcomer Subject Departments began to dominate CO business, such as Personnel, Social Services, Public Relations, with a whole Economic and Einancial Division and another responsible for all Colonial Service matters. By the mid-1950s there were thirty-one Departments in the CO.

Go Away and Think About Hong Kong!
Great Smith Street
Besides this specialization in the distribution of business, the CO was assisted by a large number of advisory committees and of Advisers to the Secretary of State. The latter included such posts as Medical Adviser, an Inspector-General of Colonial Police, and Agricultural, Forestry, Fisheries and Veterinary Advisers, etc., by 1945 some twenty in all. In the CO's final year the total of advisory bodies and associated Institutions reached the fifty mark, among them the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Anti-Locust Advisory Committee, the Overseas Nursing Association, and several committees on Education.

Right from the end of patronage for appointments to the Home Civil Service in the 1860s the CO attracted many of the best candidates in the annual Civil Service competition. Equally interesting, many of the new entry assigned to other departments managed to secure a transfer after a few years to the CO. In the 1950s the Permanent Under Secretary at the CO (PUS) was supported by two Deputy Under Secretaries, eight Assistant Under Secretaries, twenty Assistant Secretaries, thirty Principals, and an establishment of over a hundred executive staff.

A career analysis of the topmost CO staff reveals an interesting difference between officials and the politicians in charge. Longevity characterized the former; short termism was prevalent among the latter. There were no more than 21 Permanent Under Secretaries in the 141 year life of the post at the CO (1825-1966), only six holding the office between the inaugural Robert Hay (1825) and Sir Robert Meade (1892-97). Sir Hilton Poynton, the last PUS, held the post for seven years. Sir George Gater and Sir Cosmo Parkinson played cox-and-box between 1937 and 1947. Only one PUS ever came from within the Colonial Service, Sir John Macphenson (1956-59), though Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby) came from the Indian Civil Service via the Governor-Generalship of the Sudan.

Go Away and Think About Hong Kong!
As for the political appointments, 56 politicians held the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1854 and 1966. Joseph Chamberlain was in the post for a record eight years; several, like Harcourt, Amery and Lennox-Boyd, held it for five years. J.H. Thomas was Secretary of State three times and Malcolm MacDonald twice, while there were four changes in 1955 alone and five over the CO’s final five years. Rare among politicians, Alan Lennox-Boyd looked on the CO as a goal in its own right and not just a step on the way to higher Cabinet office. In the 20th century, two Prime Ministers had earlier been at the Colonial Office, Bonar Law and Winston Churchill, and one (Harold Macmillan) had been Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The Chancery of the Order of St. Michael and St. George was at the Colonial Office. From 1900 every PUS but one was appointed GCMG.

For many years the Colonial Office was splendidly located in Downing Street, first at No. 12 and then from 1875 in the new Gilbert Scott building. World War II brought much ‘out-housing’ for the CO. For most readers, it is Church House and Sanctuary Buildings in Great Smith Street that they will recall. After 1947, decolonization made sure that the grandiose scheme for a new CO on the central site of the old Westminster Hospital never saw the light of day.

The CO has attracted far more scholarly attention than the Colonial Service. Among insider accounts, one of the most readable as well as authoritative is Sir Cosmo Parkinson’s intimate memoir The Colonial Office from Within (1947). With one notable exception, most of the leading Secretaries of State are covered in biography or autobiography; a regrettable gap remains - Creech Jones. The Colonial Office may be said to have done its Colonial Service proud.

Africa Map
British Empire Map, 1897
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 77: May 1999
Secretaries of State
Colonial Secretaries
Additional Articles by Author
The District Officer in the African Colonial Novel
For Better or for Verse?
New Gubernatorial Profiles and Pedigrees
The Colonial Service Training Courses Article


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe