The British Empire Library

On Crown Service: a History of HM Colonial and Overseas Civil Services 1837-1997

by Anthony Kirk-Greene

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.J. Stockwell (Head of Department of History Royal Holloway, University of London)
In 1997, with the retrocession of Hong Kong to China, Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service (successor to the Colonial Service) was wound up after one hundred and sixty years of activity. In 1999 the Corona Club, the social club open to all members and former members of the colonial and overseas services, will close in its centennial year. To commemorate the Service and to mark its own passing the Club's committee invited Anthony Kirk-Greene to write this hook. It is, however, more than a celebratory volume. Not only does it include criticisms of the ethos and work of the Service, voiced by disaffected insiders as well as by obvious outsiders, but it is also the first history of the Service as a whole to appear since the 1960s and it enjoys advantages over even the more distinguished of its predecessors in the perspective and erudition of its author.

Anthony Kirk-Greene has flourished in two careers: for fifteen years he worked for the colonial and immediately post-colonial governments of Nigeria; for the next thirty years he was an Oxford don. During the first he administered; during the second he taught and researched colonial and African history and administration, emerging as the pre-eminent scholar of the Service. He is now Emeritus Fellow at St Anthony's College. His publications include The Transfer of Power: The Colonial Administrator in the age of Decolonization (1979), A Biographical Dictionary of the British Colonial Governor, I: Africa (1980), A Short History of the Corona Club (1990), and A Biographical Dictionary of the British Colonial Service, 1939-1961 (1991). In addition he is editor of the Radcliffe Press's series of Service memoirs and has played a leading role in the Oxford Colonial Records Project and successor projects which have amassed at Rhodes House Library an invaluable collection of private papers and oral testimonies of former members of the Colonial Service and Colonial Office.

On Crown Service is divided into two parts: the first half is a narrative history, the second provides a comprehensive bibliography and a selection of documents. The history is lavishly and most helpfully supported throughout with maps, photographs, chronological charts, lists of key people, and statistical tables showing shifting recruitment patterns, the distribution of personnel and organizational changes. The narrative runs through four periods. The first and briefest chapter covers the years from 1837 to 1899, from the moment when the first set of Colonial Rules and Regulations was issued to the scramble for Africa. The expanding Victorian empire required more and more staff, but the service that emerged lacked coherence. Rather, its principal features were variety and diffusion. An assortment of colonial services with their peculiar terms and traditions evolved in different territories; their career structures were divorced from that of the Colonial Office in Whitehall and there was minimal exchange of personnel between dependencies. (In addition, India and the Sudan had their own civil and political services which do not come within the remit of this book). Structural fragmentation was reinforced by the principle of colonial self-sufficiency: each colonial territory - not the Treasury in Whitehall - was responsible for the cost of its own colonial service.

The second chapter deals with the years of imperial consolidation from the beginning of the Twentieth Century, when Joseph Chamberlain was Secretary of State, to the outbreak of the Second World War. The acquisition of empire, particularly the undeveloped 'colonial estates' in Africa, encouraged Chamberlain to approach its administration in a more methodical and far-sighted way than had his predecessors. During the 1920's, faced with an even larger empire (resulting from the addition of Mandates) and driven by economic problems at home, Leo Amery pressed ahead with the professionalization of the Service. By the early 1930's, the inspiration of Amery at the Colonial Office, the advice of Ralph Purse ('recruiting officer to the empire'), and the recommendations of the Warren Fisher Committee had moved the Service in a new direction. Henceforth, firstly, close attention was to be given to the training of cadets; secondly, the Service was formally opened to applicants from the Dominions; thirdly, secondments (or 'beachcombing') from the Colonial Office to overseas administrations and vice versa would take place more frequently; and, fourthly and most importantly, a unified Colonial Service was set up with uniform recruitment methods and conditions of service. Nonetheless, even though these developments, together with diminishing opportunities in India, enhanced the attractions of a career in the Colonial Service, recruitment did not keep pace with demand in the 1930s when the empire continued to be run on the cheap.

The impact of the Second World War and subsequent advances towards decolonization gave rise to an apparent paradox, to which C. Northcote Parkinson drew attention in his famous Law: as empire declined and colonies achieved independence, so the staffs of the Colonial Office and the Colonial Service expanded. This was not, however, the mushrooming of bureaucracy for its own sake. On the contrary, the Second World War raised the value of empire and revived Britain's interest in it. The loss of Southeast Asian dependencies, the consequent demands made of African colonies, and the ideology of selfdetermination which was underpinned by the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations led to a much more dirigiste approach to colonial planning. With Labour in government and Arthur Creech Jones at the Colonial Office (1946-50), the British mounted a 'second colonial occupation' of Africa in order, it was said, to develop the resources of the empire for rulers and ruled alike as well as to prepare for eventual self-government within the Commonwealth. During the period 1943 to 1954 (the subject of chapter 3) the Colonial Service was transformed: not only did numbers grow but also recruits - women as well as men - came from broader spectrum of British society and there was a marked expansion of the professional and technical branches. Moreover, attitudes changed from the pre-war belief in paternalistic trusteeship with its focus on law and order to a new concept of partnership emphasising development and self-determination.

Two factors - the imminent end of empire and the perennial principle that Colonial Service officials had contractual relationships with specific territorial governments, not with Her Majesty's Government - caused controversy in the 1950's. How could the flow of recruits, particularly into the professional branches of the Service, be sustained? What would happen to staff - their jobs, their pensions - when the countries to which they had committed their careers became independent? As decolonization approached, prospective applicants were deterred, serving officers sought ways of escape, yet successor regimes cried out for experienced and expert personnel. Fear of government breakdown in Nigeria provoked tense discussions between the governor, the Colonial Office and the Treasury, in which the Colonial Office advocated, and the Treasury resisted, the direct employment by HMG of overseas staff This debate resulted in the transformation of the Colonial Service into Her Majesty's Oversea (later Overseas) Service which is the subject of the fourth chapter. A series of Parliamentary White Papers in 1954, 1956 and 1958 established terms whereby colonial officials could join what was known as the Special List which would guarantee their conditions of employment and pension rights on the one hand, and, on the other, assist the transfer of power by retaining them in post during the closing months of colonial rule or seconding them to successor regimes. At its peak in 1960 the membership of the HMOCS numbered 20,500; thereafter, officers continued to be posted to dependencies until the retrocession of Hong Kong in 1997 or, alternatively, were offered contracts on various technical assistance programmes run by the Department of Technical Cooperation and its successors.

In his assessment (chapter 5), Anthony Kirk-Greene addresses a number of key questions; What was the nature of work and life in the Service? What kind of people joined the Service? Who rose to governorships, and how? What did former members of the HMOCS do for second careers? He also considers the colonial impact on the men and women of the Service as well as their own impact on subject peoples, and identifies the associations, notably the Corona Club, which have supported former members m retirement. He argues that the pursuit of a single, permanent career of service appealed to generations of graduates and that the responsible performance of a worthwhile joh brought immense satisfaction. Examining this line a little further and echoing the contention of John Rae, former headmaster of Westminster, that for far too long Britain's education system was geared to the production of prefects rather than pirates, of administrators instead of entrepreneurs, one might ask whether the attractions of colonial service actually distracted the British from the modernization of their own society and economy. Be that as it may, by the late 1990s, as Kirk-Greene observes, not only have the opportunities for colonial service evaporated but too have expectations for life-long careers; today's graduate looks forward to frequent joh switches and a succession of short-term contracts.

One of the features of the Service was its variety which defies easy generalization or the sort of collective biography appropriate to the study of the smaller and more homogeneous Indian Civil Service. If Kirk-Greene is somewhat diffident about the possibility of writing the definitive history of the Service, he nonetheless provides enticing directions for its further study. Indeed, the second half of his book consists of a fascinating and impressively thorough classified bibliography consisting of over 1,000 titles, which is followed by more than 100 pages of documents extracted from lists of personnel, contemporary guidance notes, regulations governing recruitment and appointment, information on training, parliamentary papers on the transformation of the Colonial Service into the HMOCS, and an abridged version of the author's history of the Corona Club.

Doubtless in order to make the subject as accessible as possible, the author has refrained from annotating his historical narrative. To those who may regret this omission, it should he pointed out that the sources for the tables are given in full while the bibliography is a veritable gold mine. Some readers may contest the interpretation of wider issues, for example the significance given to Macmillan's 'balance sheet memorandum of January 1957. Others may occasionally find the layout of the documentary extracts confusing though recourse to the contents page will assist them in distinguishing between the end of one series and the start of another. All these are minor matters, however, for Anthony Kirk- Greene has triumphantly succeeded in producing an illuminating history which will be enjoyed and valued by veterans of the service, historians of empire and general readers seeking to discover who ran the colonies.

British Empire Book
Anthony Kirk-Greene
I.B. Tauris and Co.


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