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Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 6, Colonial Office Officials 1794-1870. Originally published by University of London, London, 1976.

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The Colonial Office owed its origin to the rearrangement of the duties of the secretariat which took place in 1794. Since 1782 there had been two Secretaries of State, commonly known as the Home and Foreign Secretaries. The former, in addition to home affairs, was responsible for war and the colonies. In 1794 a third secretaryship of state was created and conferred upon Henry Dundas who was transferred from the Home Office to fill it. The original intention had been that Dundas should take charge of both war and the colonies but, in the event, his responsibilities were confined to war while the colonies remained for the time being under the authority of the Home Office. (fn. 1)

Dundas immediately brought together a group of officials to assist him in the conduct of his duties. Three of these, Nepean (Under Secretary), J. Chapman and Gordon (Clerks) were transferred from the Home Office. In the following year the establishment of the office of Secretary of State for War was fixed by order in council at a Secretary of State at £6000, one Under Secretary at £1500, a Chief Clerk at £1000, five other Clerks with salaries ranging from £150 to £650, a Private Secretary at £300 and two Office Keepers and a Housekeeper at £100 each. (fn. 2) Shortly afterwards the staff on the establishment began to be supplemented by other officials paid out of the contingent fund. These included two Office Porters and a varying number of Extra Clerks. Some of the Extra Clerks were engaged on a purely temporary basis; from 1798 it was the practice for a small number to be employed permanently. (fn. 3) In January 1799 the salary of the Under Secretary was raised to £2000 with provision for an increase to £2500 after three years' service. In December of the same year the appointment of a Précis Writer with a salary of £300 was authorised. In February 1801 it was provided that the salary of the Chief Clerk should increase from £1000 to £1250 after five years' service. (fn. 4)

In August 1801 responsibility for the colonies was finally transferred from the Home Office to the office of Secretary of State for War which henceforth came to be generally known as the Colonial Office. The Counsel for Colonial Business, whose principal duty was to report on colonial laws and who had been attached to the Home Office, now passed under the authority of the third Secretary of State. No other transfer of staff was involved. (fn. 5) Some degree of reorganisation within the department was necessary. This gave rise to the appointment of an additional Chief Clerk to take charge of war business. This post did not form part of the establishment and its holder was paid out of the contingent fund. (fn. 6) Later in 1801 two ordinary Clerks were added to the establishment, thus bringing the number of such Clerks up to seven. A further increase to eight was authorised in 1805. (fn. 7)

In October 1806 the number of established Clerks was raised to eleven while in December of the same year the appointment of a second Under Secretary was authorised to replace the additional Chief Clerk for war business. (fn. 8) In March 1807 an annual allowance of £200 was made available out of the contingent fund for a Librarian. (fn. 9) In December 1807 the number of established Clerks was raised to twelve, while in 1809 an arrangement was made for the remuneration of such Clerks to increase in proportion to the length of their service, provision being made for £80, £200, £300 and £400 to be added to their salaries after successive periods of five years' service. (fn. 10) In 1814 an annual allowance of £200 was made available out of the contingent fund for a Translator. (fn. 11)

In 1816, following the end of the Napoleonic War, substantial reductions were made in the staff of the department. The offices of Under Secretary for War and Précis Writer were discontinued and the number of established Clerks reduced from twelve to eight. The five permanent Extra Clerks were discharged although the two who held the additional posts of Librarian and Translator were allowed to retain those appointments. (fn. 12) In 1817, in response to criticism made by the House of Commons, the period of service required of the Under Secretary before he became entitled to the addition of £500 to his salary was extended from three to seven years. (fn. 13)

In 1822 parliamentary pressure for economy led to a comprehensive revision of the establishment. (fn. 14) The salary of the Under Secretary was fixed at £2000 without any provision for an increase for length of service. The previous arrangement under which a particular salary had been accorded to each Clerk with provision for increases after successive periods of five years' service was discontinued and replaced by a system according to which the Clerks were divided into grades to which salary scales with regular annual increments were attached. The Chief Clerk retained his special position with a scale ranging from £1000 to £1250. The remaining nine Clerks were divided into three grades, three Senior or First Class Clerks with salaries ranging from £600 to £800 with provision for the most senior to rise to £900, three Assistant or Second Class Clerks with salaries ranging from £350 to £545 and three Junior or Third Class Clerks with salaries ranging from £150 to £300. (fn. 15) It was laid down that Clerks should rise according to seniority to the head of their class but that they should not be promoted to a higher class without an express appointment by the Secretary of State. The office of Private Secretary was retained and that of Librarian was incorporated into the establishment for the first time.

In 1824 the establishment was again revised. One Clerk was added to each grade and the offices of Registrar and Assistant Librarian created. At the same time the office was largely remodeled, no fewer than eight new Clerks being appointed. (fn. 16) To about this date is traceable the arrangement whereby the work of the department was divided into four geographical areas. (fn. 17) In February 1825 the number of Senior Clerks was increased to five and the position of the Registrar, G. L. Wilder, was clarified. Appointed a supernumerary Senior Clerk in 1822, he was made Registrar on the creation of that office. The salary attached to that post was, however, considerably lower than that of a Senior Clerk. Wilder was, therefore, given the special office of second Clerk on the establishment 'acting as Registrar' with the rank and salary of a Senior Clerk. At the same time the office of Counsel was regulated. Previously this official had not been a full member of the department. He was now placed on the establishment with a salary of £1500. (fn. 18)

In July 1825 the office of second Under Secretary, which had been discontinued in 1816, was revived. The tenure of earlier Under Secretaries, who had usually been members of the House of Commons, had been governed largely by political considerations. The revived office was understood to be permanent and non-political in character. Although the terms 'Permanent' and 'Parliamentary' were not officially applied to the two Under Secretaries until 1831 the distinction dates in fact from 1825. This appointment occasioned a further modification of the establishment. The number of Senior Clerks was reduced to four while an addition of one was made to each of the classes of Assistant and Junior Clerk. With the object of obviating the necessity of employing Extra Clerks in the ordinary business of the office a new grade of three Assistant Junior, or Fourth Class, Clerks was created with a salary scale ranging from £100 to £150. At the same time the office of Précis Writer was revived and an Assistant Registrar appointed. Finally additional annual allowances of £150 were made available for the Clerks who were to act as Private Secretaries to the two Under Secretaries. (fn. 19)

In spite of the expedient of creating the grade of Assistant Junior Clerk, it proved impossible to avoid employing Extra Clerks on a permanent basis. In 1828 the department began to recruit such Clerks who were paid salaries of £100 out of the contingent fund and who, after a probationary period of twelve months, were eligible to be placed on the establishment at the next vacancy. Originally known simply as Extra Clerks they came in the course of time to be designated 'Supernumerary Extra Clerks' or 'Probationary Clerks'. These Clerks, who usually numbered five, formed a pool from which appointments to the establishment were invariably made until 1849. (fn. 20) They are to be distinguished from the Extra Clerks who were employed as Copyists and paid at daily or weekly rates and who were placed under the direction of a permanent Superintendent in 1835. (fn. 21)

In 1831 the salary of the Secretary of State was reduced from £6000 to £5000 and a differentiation was made between the salaries of the Permanent and Parliamentary Under Secretaries, the former being fixed at £2000 and the latter at £1500. (fn. 22) In 1833 the clerical establishment was reorganised. The office of Chief Clerk was abolished and the number of Senior Clerks was fixed at five, the Registrar, G. L. Wilder, being fully absorbed into the grade. At the same time the upper limit of the Senior Clerks' scale was raised to £1000 in consideration of the abolition of the colonial agencies to which Clerks in the Colonial Office had formerly aspired and the office of Précis Writer was abolished. Shortly afterwards the office of Assistant Registrar was also abolished and its holder appointed a Junior Clerk. (fn. 23)

In 1834 the Secretary of State was authorized to select a person on the establishment to exercise supervision over the routine business of the office who was to be designated Assistant Under Secretary and to serve without additional remuneration. This post was filled by the Counsel, James Stephen, who held it until his promotion to the office of Permanent Under Secretary in 1836. The office of Counsel was then amalgamated with that of Permanent Under Secretary. (fn. 24)

In 1835 Elliot, one of the more promising younger Clerks, was selected as Secretary to the commission of enquiry into the state of Canada. Thus was initiated the practice whereby Clerks were from time to time seconded to duties outside the office. (fn. 25) In 1836 another able Clerk, Murdoch, was promoted directly from the grade of Assistant Junior to that of Assistant Clerk in recognition of the special responsibilities which had been entrusted to him. In 1839 it was held that this promotion had been improperly made as it had not been authorized by order in council. Murdoch was thereupon reduced to the grade of Junior Clerk with an allowance. Shortly afterwards the discretion of the Secretary of State in making promotions was enlarged by repealing that provision of the order in council of 1822 which required promotions to be made only from the grade immediately below. (fn. 26) In practice, however, promotions continued to be made almost invariably on the ground of seniority. (fn. 27)

In 1840 the office of Chief Clerk, which had been abolished in 1833, was revived while in 1843 the duties of Précis Writer were assigned to Murdoch, now an acting Senior Clerk. (fn. 28) In 1846 the office of Assistant Under Secretary was reconstituted and accorded a salary of £1000, half of which was to be borne by the Colonial Land and Emigration Board of which its holder was also to be a member. At the same time Murdoch was appointed a supernumerary Senior Clerk. The order in council which authorised these arrangements also provided that, as vacancies occurred, the number of ordinary Senior Clerks should be reduced to four and the grade of Supernumerary Clerk should be abolished. (fn. 29) These two regulations were, however, revoked in the following year. (fn. 30)

In January 1847 the arrangement made in connection with the office of Assistant Under Secretary lapsed when Rogers, its holder, was confined to the work of an Emigration Commissioner, retaining, however, the responsibility for reporting on colonial laws which had been entrusted to him on his original appointment. (fn. 31) In November of the same year Merivale was appointed an Assistant Under Secretary but this was a purely temporary measure pending the completion of the arrangements for the retirement of Stephen from the office of Permanent Under Secretary. The appointment ceased when Merivale succeeded Stephen in the following year. Also in November 1847 it was arranged that Murdoch, the Précis Writer, should exchange places with Elliot, the former Clerk and now Chairman of the Colonial Land and Emigration Board. Elliot was appointed to the new permanent office of Assistant Under Secretary with a salary of £1500. Murdoch's place as Précis Writer was filled by Strachey, a former official of the East India Company, with a salary of £1000. (fn. 32)

In 1848 a new establishment was promulgated for the department. This formally incorporated the offices of Assistant Under Secretary and Précis Writer and also authorised the appointment of a Registrar. The number of Clerks in each of the grades of Senior, Assistant and Junior Clerk was fixed at five. The decision to abolish the grade of Supernumerary Clerk, which had been foreshadowed in 1846, was put into effect. Henceforth all new recruits were to be appointed immediately to the establishment as Assistant Junior Clerks who were to number eight. Their confirmation was, however, to depend on a satisfactory report from the Permanent Under Secretary after a probationary period of one year. (fn. 33)

During the course of the year 1849 the Colonial Office was investigated by a committee of enquiry composed of Merivale, the Permanent Under Secretary, Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and W. Gibson Craig, one of the Junior Lords of the Treasury. The principal recommendation of the committee was that steps should be taken to separate the mechanical from the intellectual work of the office and that the former should, so far as practicable, be entrusted to Copyists to a much greater extent than hitherto. The committee also recommended that the clerical establishment should in future consist of only two grades and that promotion from the junior to the senior grade should be made solely on the ground of merit. Appointment to the establishment should be dependent on success in a qualifying examination. The committee urged that the post of Chief Clerk should be abolished as a distinct office and that the number of Senior Clerks should be reduced, as vacancies occurred, to four, each of whom should superintend one of the branches into which the work of the office was divided. They recommended that the duty of reporting on colonial laws, which had been transferred to the Colonial Land and Emigration Board in 1847, should be resumed by the Colonial Office. Finally the committee drew attention to the poor quality of the accommodation allocated to the department and recommended that urgent measures should be taken to rectify it. The Secretary of State, Earl Grey, rejected the proposal for the abolition of the chief clerkship and that relating to the responsibility for examining colonial laws. Otherwise he gave general approval to the recommendations of the committee. (fn. 34) However, no immediate steps were taken to put them into effect.

In 1852 a Clerk of Parliamentary Papers was appointed. This was not an established post, its holder being paid out of the contingent fund. At the same time the office of Superintendent of Copyists was absorbed by that of Registrar. (fn. 35) On the outbreak of the Crimean War the Secretary of State assumed responsibilities as Secretary of State for War which he had not exercised since the end of the Napoleonic War. This development necessitated the appointment of an additional Assistant Under Secretary for War and of an additional Senior Clerk. However, these arrangements were of only temporary duration since in June 1854 a separate office of Secretary of State for War was established to which the Assistant Under Secretary and four Colonial Office Clerks were transferred. (fn. 36)

In 1856 arrangements were made for candidates for clerkships in the department to be examined by the Civil Service Commissioners. On receiving their certificates from the Commissioners, new entrants were required to serve a period of six months' probation before being confirmed on the establishment. (fn. 37) In 1857 the starting level for the salaries of the Senior Clerks was raised from £600 to £700, the number of Assistant Clerks was increased from five to seven while that of the Assistant Junior Clerks was reduced from eight to five. In 1860 provision was made for an increase of one in the number of Junior Clerks and of two in that of the Assistant Junior Clerks. (fn. 38) In 1867 the office of Legal Adviser was created with a salary of £1200. At the same time, the number of Senior Clerks was reduced from five to four. (fn. 39) In 1868 an Accountant was appointed. (fn. 40)

Substantial changes were made in the establishment in 1870. The office of Legal Adviser was abolished and replaced by that of second Assistant Under Secretary. The office of Précis Writer was also abolished while an additional Assistant Clerk was substituted for the Librarian, Assistant Librarian and Registrar. The clerical organisation of the office was fixed at five Senior Clerks with salaries ranging from £700 to £1000, one of whom was to have the title of Chief Clerk together with an additional allowance, eight Assistant Clerks with salaries ranging from £350 to £600 and thirteen Junior Clerks with salaries ranging from £100 to £300. The grade of Assistant Junior Clerk was discontinued. (fn. 41) No other changes were made in the establishment before the end of the year 1870 which marks the terminal point for the period covered by these lists.


  • 1. For the origin of the Colonial Office, see Young, Colonial Office, 8-11; D. J. Murray, The West Indies and the Development of Colonial Government (Oxford 1965), 10-12. Young also provides a detailed account of the development of the establishment up to 1830. For the office generally during the period covered by these lists, see R. B. Pugh, 'The Colonial Office', Cambridge History of the British Empire, iii (Cambridge 1959), 711-68 and The Records of the Colonial and Dominions Offices (London 1964); J. W. Cell, British Colonial Administration in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The PolicyMaking Process (New Haven 1970), 3-44; R. C. Snelling and T. J. Barron, 'The Colonial Office and its permanent officials 1801-1914', Studies in the growth of nineteenth-century government, ed. G. Sutherland (London 1972), 139-66. For the department in the period immediately following, see B. L. Blakely, The Colonial Office 1868-1912 (Durham, N.C. 1972). Letters of appointment of Under Secretaries and Clerks are in General Entry Books (CO 324) which also contain the letters from the Colonial Office to the Treasury on establishment matters. Information relating to promotions and office organisation generally are in Establishment Miscellanea (CO 878) and Supplementary (CO 537). Salary Books 1795- 1860 and Accounts of the Contingent Fund 1795-1870 are in Accounts Miscellanea (CO 701). Full lists of the establishment are included in the Colonial Office List, published annually from 1862.
  • 2. CO 701/1 f. 1; order in council 27 Feb. 1795 (CO 878/1 ff. 3-13).
  • 3. CO 701/1 passim.
  • 4. Orders in council 23 Jan. and 4 Dec. 1799, 18 Feb. 1801 (CO 878/1 ff. 18-24).
  • 5. Murray, West Indies and Colonial Government, 10-12; Young, Colonial Office, 11-12. In 1804 the responsibility for paying the salary of the Interpreter of Oriental Languages, or Arabic Interpreter, was transferred from the Home to the Colonial Office. For this official, see Officials of the Secretaries of State 1660-1782, comp. J. C. Sainty (London 1973), 48.
  • 6. Young, Colonial Office, 15; CO 701/1 f. 29.
  • 7. Orders in council 12 Dec. 1801, 11 Jan. 1805 (CO 878/1 ff. 26-7, 34).
  • 8. Orders in council 8 Oct. and 3 Dec. 1806 (ibid. ff. 38-40).
  • 9. CO 701/1 f. 63.
  • 10. Orders in council 18 Dec. 1807, 28 June 1809 (CO 878/1 ff. 42-5).
  • 11. CO 701/2 f. 8.
  • 12. Order of Earl Bathurst 8 Feb. 1816 (CO 878/1 ff. 50-1). The salary of the Under Secretary for War was discontinued 5 July 1816 (CO 701/9).
  • 13. Order in council 24 July 1817 (PC 2/199 pp. 578-9).
  • 14. Order in council 28 March 1822 (CO 878/1 ff. 52-72).
  • 15. In the event this scheme was not strictly adhered to since one supernumerary Senior Clerk and two supernumerary Assistant Clerks were appointed, leaving only one Clerk in the junior class. The Colonial Office never adopted a consistent terminology to describe its Clerks. For the sake of consistency the terms Senior, Assistant and Junior Clerk have been used throughout these lists.
  • 16. Order in council 19 March 1824 (CO 878/1 ff. 83-4); Young, Colonial Office, 68.
  • 17. Young, Colonial Office, 54-5. For the later history of these arrangements, see Pugh, Records of the Colonial and Dominions Offices, 9-11. The responsibilities of the various branches of the office are fully listed in the Colonial Office List from 1862.
  • 18. Orders in council 2 Feb. 1825 (CO 878/1 ff. 87-8, 91).
  • 19. Orders in council 5 July and 2 Aug. 1825 (ibid. ff. 93-7).
  • 20. CO 324/146 pp. 191, 203; CO 701/2 f. 152; CO 878/2; Young, Colonial Office, 97-8.
  • 21. CO 701/3 f. 59. Copyists are not included in these lists.
  • 22. Rept. of Select Committee on Reduction of Salaries 1831 (HC 322 p. 7 (1830-1) iii, 451); TM 15 April 1831 (HC 375 pp. 3-4 (1830-1) vii, 494-5).
  • 23. Orders in council 3 April and 9 Dec. 1833 (CO 878/1 ff. 99-100, 105-6).
  • 24. Order in council 17 Sept. 1834 (ibid. ff. 107-10); CO 324/147 pp. 261-4. For the manner in which the duties of the Counsel were carried out after 1836, see B. A. Knox, 'The Provision of Legal Advice, and Colonial Office Reorganization, 1866-7', Bull. Inst. Hist. Research, xxxv (1962), 178-97.
  • 25. Other instances were: Murdoch, Civil Secretary to Governor General of Canada 1839-42; Sargeaunt, Colonial Secretary, Natal 1853-8, Lieutenant Governor, St. Vincent 1859-60; Legh, Assistant Secretary, Malta 1851-5; Birch, Colonial Secretary, British Columbia 1864-6; H. T. Irving, Colonial Secretary, Jamaica 1866-9.
  • 26. Orders in council 29 Aug. and 21 Oct. 1839 (CO 878/1 ff. 111-16).
  • 27. Rept. of Select Committee on Miscellaneous Expenditure 1848 (HC 543 pt. i, pp. 158-9 (1847-8) xviii, pt. i, 222-3).
  • 28. Order in council 29 Jan. 1840 (CO 878/1 ff. 121-9); CO 878/2 no. 17. Murdoch's position was regulated by order in council 20 Nov. 1845 (CO 878/1 ff. 130-2).
  • 29. Order in council 19 May 1846 (CO 878/1 ff. 133-40). For the Colonial Land and Emigration Board, see F. H. Hitchens, The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission (Philadelphia 1931).
  • 30. HC 42 p. 4 (1847-8) xlii, 4.
  • 31. CO 324/148 pp. 336-42; Knox, 'Provision of Legal Advice', 182.
  • 32. CO 878/2 no. 40; Rept. of Select Committee on Miscellaneous Expenditure 1848 (HC 543 pt. i, pp. 157-61 (1847-8) xviii, pt. i, 221-5); HC 42 pp. 1-4 (1847-8) xlii, 1-4.
  • 33. Order in council 15 April 1848 (CO 878/1 ff. 141-7).
  • 34. Cd. 1713 pp. 47-65 HC (1854) xxvii, 79-97.
  • 35. CO 701/4, payment to J. T. Miller from 31 Dec. 1852. Nunes, the former Superintendent, was app. Registrar on the same day.
  • 36. Order in council 29 March 1854 (CO 878/1 ff. 150-1); CO 324/151 pp. 275a, 288. The Clerks transferred were Talbot, Pennington, H.A. Greene and Thelluson (CO 324/151 p. 330).
  • 37. CO 324/152 pp. 55-6, 65-71, 106-11, 154-6.
  • 38. Orders in council 25 June 1857, 26 Oct. 1860 (CO 878/1 ff. 152-8).
  • 39. Order in council 2 Feb. 1867 (ibid. ff. 159-61); Knox, 'Provision of Legal Advice', 185-96.
  • 40. Lewes, app. March 1868 (COL (1869), 258).
  • 41. Order in council 31 March 1870 (CO 878/1 ff. 162-5).