Introduction: VI, Administrative standards and corruption

Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837. Originally published by University of London, London, 2006.

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'Introduction: VI, Administrative standards and corruption', in Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837, ed. R O Bucholz( London, 2006), British History Online [accessed 15 July 2024].

'Introduction: VI, Administrative standards and corruption', in Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837. Edited by R O Bucholz( London, 2006), British History Online, accessed July 15, 2024,

"Introduction: VI, Administrative standards and corruption". Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837. Ed. R O Bucholz(London, 2006), , British History Online. Web. 15 July 2024.

Administrative Standards and Corruption

The very idea of courts is practically synonymous in the popular mind with lax administrative standards, sinecurism and corruption. It is true that the routine of household business does not seem to have weighed heavily on any principal officer and only a portion of those who served at lower ranks, particularly during the first century of the period. Thus, Earl Poulett concluded his brief career as first lord of the Treasury to become lord steward in May 1711 with the observation `I confess to you one has prepared me to have a most delicious taste of the ease and leisure of the other'. (fn. 1) Department heads seem to have been allowed considerable discretion as to how much effort to put into their positions, though some, such as Vice Chamberlain Coke or Lord Steward Talbot, clearly took their duties quite seriously. (fn. 2)

Below this level, pure sinecures were few towards the beginning of the period, though work for the servants in the public rooms and catering subdepartments was made relatively light by division of labour and quarterly attendance. Most subdepartments and societies of officers seem to have come to informal agreement amongst themselves that some of their number would do the bulk of the work for all. Thus a list of grooms of the great chamber and pages of the presence drawn up around 1685 distinguishes between those who `have constantly wayted' (ten grooms and two pages) and those who `live in the Country & Seldome wayte' (four grooms and two pages). Such arrangements seem to have been common throughout the period. (fn. 3) Often, allowances were made for diplomatic or military service. However, some positions were more suitable for this kind of flexibility than others, as Lord Steward Ormond informed Philip Bickerstaffe in January 1669, soon after his promotion to the clerkship of the woodyard:

So long as you were Clerke of the Larder the Officers of the Greencloth did in my Absence give you leave to absent your selfe from Court and to serve his Majesty in the comand wherein you now are; But you now being risen to a higher degree and to be sworn into a place that will require your attendance As I have been carefull to preserve your Succession so you must be carefull in the Execution of your place and therefore I require your present attendance. (fn. 4)

Illness or age were other factors often leading to the use of deputies. (fn. 5) Periodic calls from department heads for servants to perform their proper attendance and other disciplinary measures suggest that the failure to do so was occasionally a serious problem. (fn. 6) On the other hand, the similarly frequent requests from household servants for leave of absence and other evidence of attendance indicate that periods of waiting were for most a matter to be taken seriously. (fn. 7)

The most demanding work required of household officers was performed by effective clerks and by the personal body servants of the monarch. The former is demonstrated by the amount and range of paperwork produced by the lord chamberlain's secretariat, the clerical staff of the board of green cloth and the clerk of the stables. (fn. 8) The latter can be seen in the careers of dedicated bedchamber servants such as William Chiffinch, Arnold Joost van Keppel, later Earl of Albemarle and Abigail, later Lady, Masham. Each was required to maintain an almost constant attendance upon his or her respective sovereign for years at a time. (fn. 9)

Prior to Economical Reform, the number of sinecures seems to have grown, especially below stairs. This was caused by the gradual reduction in the number of diets provided for, and therefore by, the household. Thomas Gilbert's 1782 report on the lord steward's department is riddled with the designation `sinecure' under his remarks on the function of each office. (fn. 10) The years following this inquiry saw a serious attempt to cut costs by eliminating such positions. The result was, indeed, a leaner, more efficient household. This, combined with the increasing Treasury demands for reports, estimates, accounts and other paperwork, raised the pace of work for clerical officers, in particular. (fn. 11)

Turning to the issue of official corruption, the possibilities for the exploitation of non-established perquisites and for outright peculation varied in proportion to the degree to which household officers were responsible for matériel. Thus, servants in the public rooms and stables were mainly disciplined for insubordination or nonattendance. (fn. 12) It was in supply and catering departments such as the great wardrobe, robes and below stairs that the most dramatic and costly such perquisites were exploited and abused. As indicated above, repeated investigations of the great wardrobe, in 1667–8, 1711, 1718 and 1728, found that rules to control expenditure were often flouted and were largely ineffective even when enforced. (fn. 13) Below stairs, the abandonment of purveyance at the Restoration meant that servants from each catering subdepartment often undertook the task of supply. (fn. 14) That is, the officer responsible for weighing, preparing and accounting for provisions was often their purveyor as well. This, combined with the rights to waste, command and remains allowed to virtually all officers and servants in this department, made possible gross abuses of the monarch's trust. It seems to have been notorious at the beginning of the eighteenth century that the clerks of the kitchen appropriated to their own board the choicest of delicacies intended for the royal tables. In 1707 the board of green cloth discovered a series of `very scandalous & notorious frauds' by which officers in the larder and scalding house routinely took in provisions far in excess of what was needed, yet served inferior dishes and cuts of meat to the royal tables in order to claim and sell, or perhaps eat, the `waste'. (fn. 15) In 1760 William Bray, commissioned by Lord Steward Talbot to uncover abuse, found that the officers of the pastry ordered excessive amounts of goods, turning this subdepartment into `a shop from which they sell to all the neighbouring nobility and gentry round about at the expense of his Majesty'. (fn. 16) In the stables, the master of the horse discovered, in 1769, that servants had likewise been buying and selling, keeping and letting the King's horses, chaises, harness and carriages. (fn. 17) Nor was outright theft unheard of. (fn. 18)

Household discipline was rarely severe. Most examples of peculation or neglect of duty and nearly every example of insubordination in the household records was punished by suspension rather than dismissal. In the vast majority of cases that suspension was ended by the submission of the offender and the promise not to repeat the offence. (fn. 19) Dismissal seems to have required a persistent flouting of minimal expectations, as when, in 1786, one William Fullor was sacked as porter to the green cloth, `he having absented himself for upwards of two years without leave'. (fn. 20) It is difficult to know whether these mild punishments had their effect. The impression created by the administrative record is that there were few repeat offenders, but this may be more indicative of the steady decay of that record over the course of the period.


  • 1. See Bucholz, pp. 144–9; Beattie, pp. 173–80. The passage of 6 Anne, c. 3, which decreed that all public officers (including household servants) were to remain in office for 6 months after the death of the reigning monarch, probably increased the chances of retention.
  • 2. HMC Downshire, i pt. ii, 894: Poulett to Sir William Trumbull, 30 June 1711. See Lord Suffolk's similar reasoning upon seeking the stewardship in exchange for his secretaryship of state in 1778: Corr. of George III, iv, 239. On the other hand, in 1800 Lord Falmouth sought to trade his captaincy of the gentlemen pensioners for the chief justiceship in Eyre south of the Trent because the latter required less attendance: Later Corr. of George III, iii, 373–4 and n. 4.
  • 3. For Coke, see Bucholz, pp. 45, 118. For Talbot, see below and LS 13/117 pp. 1–62; LS 13/179–80.
  • 4. LC 5/145, entry of 14 July 1685. Towards the end of George II's reign was drawn up a `State of His Majesty's Messengers in Ordinary disposd into Four Classes Viz.t Those capable of every Service. Those only capable of attending on the King's Waits. Those who are only employed in one particular Service, or live with Noblemen and have never waited. And those who through Age and Infirmitys are rendered quite incapable of further Service': LC 5/162 pp. 94–5. See also Bucholz, pp. 122–3; Pegge, pt. iii, 73; LC 1/15 no. 1156.
  • 5. MS. Carte 160 f. 26: Ormond to Bickerstaffe, 11 Jan. 1669. For other examples of military or diplomatic service leading to substitution or deputization, see LS 13/253 f. 29v; Bucholz, pp. 122–3.
  • 6. Bucholz, pp. 105–6, 122 and n. 34; LC 5/154 p. 236; LS 13/174 p. 140; LS 13/175 ff. 70, 102r–v; LS 13/267 f. 79v; Old Cheque Book, p. 51; Corr. of George III, iv, 31–3.
  • 7. Bucholz, pp. 121–2 and n. 30; LC 5/161 pp. 5, 49, 166, 279; LS 13/281 f. 20v; MOH LB E p. 200.
  • 8. See, for example, LC 5/152 p. 19; LC 5/156 p. 254; LC 5/160 p. 134; LS 13/116 ff. 73, 80, 81v, 83r–v, 89v, 90v, 91; LS 13/175 ff. 12v, 15r–v, 24v, 31, 33v, 48; The Wentworth Papers 1705–1739, ed. J.J. Cartwright (1883), pp. 205, 231–2, 248, 292, 345; Add. MS 22226 ff. 193v, 199; ibid. 31144 ff. 294, 318, 385, 405–6, 412v; Walpole Corr., xxv, 226; ibid. xxxviii, 55, 61, 62, 74; Corr. of George III, vi, 461; Later Corr. of George III, iv, 293; Somerset, p. 237.
  • 9. These are contained in the LC and LS series in the PRO and the MOH series in the Royal Archives, Windsor.
  • 10. D. Allan, `The Political Function of Charles II's Chiffinch', Huntington Library Quarterly, xxxix (1976), pp. 277–90; S. B. Baxter, William III and the Defence of European Liberty 1650–1702 (New York, 1966), pp. 273, 327, 348–52, 364; Bucholz, pp. 123–4.
  • 11. LS 13/180 ff. 95–100.
  • 12. See, for example, MOH LB E pp. 184, 190, 443–5.
  • 13. However, messengers of the chamber and marshal's men were frequently guilty of additional abuses, such as allowing prisoners to go free, pursuing their charges too eagerly or violently, inflating bills, even smuggling: see Beattie, p. 121; LC 5/155 p. 306; LC 5/161 p. 366; LS 13/116 ff. 51, 73, 79, 88, 102; LS 13/117 pp. 12, 17.
  • 14. See above, pp. xxxii–xxxiii.
  • 15. LS 13/170 f. 148; Beattie, pp. 81, 90–4, 196; Beveridge, i, 323–5.
  • 16. Beattie, pp. 87–8, 94–5; LS 13/175 ff. 48v–50. For other similar incidents, see LS 13/170 f. 49v; LS 13/177 f. 35; LS 13/281 f. 10. It is probably significant that complaints about the quality of food and drink served at the royal tables were common throughout the period: LS 13/114 p. 15; LS 13/117 pp. 176, 220, 244, 252; LS 13/118 pp. 35–6; LS 13/170 f. 14; LS 13/281 f. 48.
  • 17. Beattie, pp. 89, 93. These discoveries led to the abolition of supply by officers: see Beveridge, i, 320–5.
  • 18. MOH PB 1 p. 89.
  • 19. LS 13/116 f. 60; LS 13/117 p. 26; LS 13/170 f. 173.
  • 20. Examples of insubordination, suspensions and restoration to service may be found in LC 5/154–62; LS 13/116–18; LS 13/170–83.
  • 21. LS 13/117 p. 100. For previous misbehaviour by Fullor, see ibid. p. 46. For a similarly protracted case, see Beattie, pp. 176–7 and n. 5.