Given at the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving to mark
the end of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service,
The Centenary of the Corona Cluh and the Golden Jubilee of
Corona Worldwide - 25 May 1999.
You will have seen inside the Service paper the picture of the memorial
plaque in the Abbey Cloisters which was unveiled by Her Majesty on 23
March 1966. The tablet is dedicated to all those who served the Crown in the
colonial territories and the inscription reads "Whosoever will be chief among
you let him be your servant".
This inscription refers of course to the great sense of service and duty given
by the many thousands of members of HM Colonial Service, later HM Overseas
Civil Service, over 160 years. As the Union Jack came down on 30 June 1997 in
Hong Kong, so that Service came to an end. Today there are over 25,000
Overseas Service officers and widows, many of whom are here this morning.
We are here today to commemorate the dedicated work of such people.
This is not the time, in recalling the work of former colonial servants, to
discuss the merits or demerits of the Empire. Suffice it to say that these men and
women worked in the largest territorial empire the world has ever seen, though
in relative historical terms it was very short, compared for example with the
For much of the time there was surprising ignorance in Britain about our
Colonial Empire. Many people will have heard great tales of military exploits.
But very few would have heard of the unsung heroes who quietly got on with the
practical job of building roads and railways, running schools and hospitals, or of
creating courts where justice was dispensed.
Her Majesty's Colonial Service, which can be traced back to the introduction
of standard Colonial Regulations in 1837, was the oldest of all the overseas
services. The Indian Civil Service and the Sudan Civil Service followed later.
Throughout the 19th century it was a surprisingly small service, made up
principally of administrative officers and supported by medical and legal
officers. Nonetheless, the Colonial Service at its height in the I920's covered 40
territories, principally in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. By 1937
the unified Service was responsible for over 60 million people in 2 million
square miles of territory.
After the Second World War the Service expanded dramatically to embrace a
wide range of professional services, as British financial support was introduced
for development. To mark the rapid transition to independence of many
countries the Service was in 1954 renamed Her Majesty's Overseas Civil
Service. The newly published book On Crown Service by Anthony Kirk-Greene
provides an excellent history of the Service.
The heart of the Empire was the District Officer, supported by the
professional services. Reading the diaries of former administrators brings home
the nature and significance of their work and the kind of people who set off to
run the Empire. The most striking thing is the scale of responsibility given to
young people in the then remote regions of the world. I was the last of three
British District Officers to join the Kenya Civil Service. At the age of 24 I was
second in command of Isiolo District with a population of 70,000.
There was no such thing as a typical day for an administrator. Let them speak
for themselves. Leonard Woolf was administrator of Hambantota District in
Ceylon in the early 1900's - 100,000 people in 1000 square miles - any day he
could have been involved in customs, collecting revenue, authorising
expenditure, police, prisons, local government, roads, irrigation. Crown lands,
welfare, law and order, fisheries, wildlife, and court cases. He wrote "I worked
all day from the moment I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night, for
I rarely thought of anything else except the District and the people, to increase
their prosperity, diminish poverty and disease, start irrigation works, open
.schools.... I did not idealise or romanticise the people or the country; I just like
them aesthetically and humanly and socially".
Then there was Vincent Glenday in Northern Kenya, who, in response to an
idealisation of the District Officer, said "Cut all that out and what is left; my job;
and that is as clear as the day - to maintain law and order, to keep the wells open
and to improve the condition of the people - it is enough for me".
Then there is John Cairns who was a District Commissioner in Tanganyika in
the 1950's. He records "All day people spill into these offices, like water over a
dam, and when their problems are finished they are replaced by others...". As an
afterthought, he says "Bush living, like olives, is an acquired taste". Mr Cairns
was a Canadian. By the 1930's quite a few administrators were recruited from
In my own District in Northern Kenya in the early 60's I recall with pleasure
the sheer human warmth and humour of the Africans. Two tribes were fighting
and killing each other over a precious water hole. Imperiously I summoned the
Headman and their followers to sit under a baobab tree whilst I lectured them
angrily and probably pompously in Swahili about the need to stop fighting and
to share the water. At the end an African at the back asked a question. "Bwana",
he said, "you tell us to stop fighting. Can you explain how it is that in Europe
you have fought two world wars this century?". The game was up. I said "You
win" and they all went off in peals of laughter to share the water in peace.
Perhaps I realised in my subconscious at that moment that the Empire was
coming to a close.
I have the given the picture of the District Officer as the hub of the Empire.
But the administrator could not have done his job without the support of the men
and women professionals in the Service - agriculturists, engineers, foresters,
doctors, surveyors, lawyers, geologists, architects, school teachers, prison and
police officers to give just a few examples.
Nor should we forget today two other supporting services - firstly the
Corona Club whose closure we mark this month after a centenary of existence,
set up in 1900 to provide a dining club and meeting place for existing and
former members of the Service - and secondly Corona Worldwide whose
Jubilee we mark and which was established to support wives and children living
in overseas colonial territories and which now offers a service in over 100
Who were these people who went out to serve the Empire? What motivated
them? The late Sir Ralph Furse was the architect of the recruitment policies for
the Colonial Service this century. Personal qualities were the key - examination
results were less important than character. The personal interview was the
means of selection. Sir Ralph describes the type they were looking for, "the
challenge of adventure, the urge to prove himself in the face of hardship and
risk to health, of loneliness often and not infrequently danger; the chance of
dedicating himself to the service of his fellow men and the responsibility at an
early age on a scale life at home could scarcely ever offer".
Most of these officers, supported valiantly by their wives, set off for some
region of Africa, South East Asia, the Caribbean or the Pacific to serve the
people most of them came to love. I recall visiting a carpenter's shop in Belize
and an inscription above the carpenter read "Some carve out a career for
themselves; others just chip away". All of us in our different ways Just chipped
away. We tried to leave something for the future. Above all we wanted to be
remembered for justice, fairness and incorruptibility. It is against those
standards the Service would wish to be judged.
I was therefore struck by the tribute of the then Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, in his speech at independence. He expressed
gratitude "to the British officers whom we have known, first as masters and
then as leaders and finally as partners but always as friends". That tribute speaks
But it was the transformation of an Empire into a Commonwealth of equal
partners which can perhaps be seen as the Service's greatest legacy. Arnold
Smith, the first Secretary General of the Commonwealth, wrote in his book
Stitches in Time published in 1981 "100 years from now, I suggest, historians
will consider the Commonwealth the greatest of all Britain's contributions to
man's social and political history".
If that prognosis is anywhere near the truth then the foundations were laid by
the thousands of officers of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service. It is entirely
appropriate that we should remember them today with respect, pride and