British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by P.F. Berry
Crown Agents
Millbank Headquarters
The Crown Agents’ office was set up, under the supervision of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, in 1831 to consolidate the activities previously undertaken by a number of agents of varying efficiency and probity. It thus coincided with the gradual and haphazard expansion of the British colonial empire, and also with the full flood of the Industrial Revolution.

The arrival of the railway age, and the massive developments in all branches of engineering and manufacturing, were harnessed to the opening-up of trade in large areas of the emerging world. These physical developments required considerable capital investment, and the Crown Agents played an active part in the flotation and management of Colonial Loans on the London Stock Market, where they were deemed to be next only to gilt-edged securities for soundness and safety.

The bread-and-butter activities of the Crown Agents in procurement and shipping, recruitment and passages, finance and banking, pension payments and the administration of Widows and Orphans schemes, all increased throughout the Victorian and Edwardian ages. From 1908 onwards, the staff were accorded the same structure and conditions of service as the Home Civil Service, and were thereafter mostly recruited from Civil Service open competitions, but their salaries and pensions were met from the Crown Agents’ own Office Fund. The discipline of having to earn one’s own keep has pervaded the Office ever since. The Crown Agents’ activities seldom made the headlines. Through two World Wars, through boom and recession. Coronations and Jubilees, they quietly pursued the unofficial motto of ‘the best interests of our Principals’ up to, and well beyond, the granting of Independence to their client countries.

It soon became apparent, however, that work for newly emergent nations was highly competitive, and the opening of a number of overseas offices was a vital and rewarding step in retaining traditional business, and in winning new business. The latter also included much work for United Nations, the World Bank and many international development agencies. The secondary banking crisis of the Seventies and the resulting loss, through poor investment, of Crown Agents’ own reserves led to the Crown Agents Act of 1979. This act, although it gave a formal legal status and constitution, did not give the Office sufficient flexibility to bid effectively for modern multi-disciplinary projects - linked often to the assembly of credit finance - in areas where the Crown Agents’ expertise would have been especially competitive. More particularly, it did not allow Crown Agents to act as agents for private clients, even those traditional utilities now privatised.

After nearly two decades of campaigning, the British Government finally approved the setting up of the Crown Agents Foundation which took from it responsibility for the Crown Agents for Overseas Governments and Administrations Limited, and applies any surplus income from Crown Agents’ activities to the furtherance of social and developmental objectives. The Foundation members come from a wide range of institutional, commercial and developmental organisations. The Secretary of State is a Special Member of the Foundation.

The penetration of new markets in new areas has long-since overtaken work for ‘traditional’ principals, but the Office takes pride in the part it has played in the waxing and orderly waning of Empire. The new Foundation is well-established and the Crown Agent enter the new Millennium with a spring in their step, to meet the challenges that await them.

Africa Map
British Empire Map, 1897
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 77: May 1999
Crown Agents Timeline


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