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
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
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.
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.
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