Civil Service History

Rulers have always needed civil servants - and especially tax collectors.  ("And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.")

They also needed filing clerks!

"For all his flaws, King John was an assiduous administrator. He was very keen on filing, and it is the filing system that seems to have originated in his reign that formed the backbone of the record-keeping systems of English (and later British) royal government for centuries. They gradually evolved into the vast and varied collections of public records that are today in the safekeeping of The National Archives. 
This is not to say that kings before John had never kept records. There is evidence that Anglo-Saxon kings had archives of their written documents, and we know that the 12th century Exchequer (the royal finance office) kept annual records of accounts called pipe rolls; the earliest surviving pipe roll (though not the earliest to be created) dates from 1130, and there is a nearly unbroken series from 1156 until the 19th century. 3 We should perhaps not be surprised that the desire to keep track of royal finances meant the Exchequer led the way in terms of record keeping!
But it seems that it was not until 1199, after the accession of King John, that the royal Chancery, the writing office of royal government, started systematically preserving the many hundreds of letters that it issued in the king’s name every year. The letters despatched from Chancery covered a great variety of subjects and were effectively the means used by royal government to get stuff done. They range from great solemn charters making grants in perpetuity to tiny writs covering the nitty gritty of local business."

Michael Coolican's No Tradesman and No Women - The Origins of the British Civil Service offers an excellent history of the UK Civil Service from Thomas Cromwell through to the present day.   It includes, for instance, the fascinating story of the East India Company where the phrase ';civil servant' was first used.  The company set up a training college in 1796 and this establishment eventually settled at Haileybury.

As the years passed, the activities of the East India Company became increasingly governmental, and intertwined with those of the British Government in London.  Pressure grew to allow open competition for appointment by the Company, and this was important background to the parallel thinking that led to the Northcote-Trevelyan Report.  Ironically, given modern concerns, the strongest pressure came from what Michale Coolican calls the Balliol Conspiracy - a small group intent on ensuring that Oxbridge graduates could in future work for the East India Company.  Haileybury according closed in the late 1850s, to reopen a couple of years later as the 'public school' that we know today.  Trevelyan himself did not want to give up his won powers of patronage but was forced to do so, including following an intervention by William Gladstone, whilst the 1854 Northcote Trevelyan Report was still in draft.  Nevertheless, the report is now best known for establishing the rule that civil servants are appointed on merit and through open competition, rather than patronage.

The report is famously critical of the quality of the 1850s civil service and was, as a result, strongly attacked at the time by Heads of Departments and their staff.

1854 also saw the publication of the Macaulay Report on the Indian Civil Service.

Here are some interesting documents which shed light on the organisation and culture of the civil service from the early1900s. Later developments are covered in detail in the Civil Service Reform section of this website.

All the above documents assume (correctly) that the Civil Service was predominantly a male preserve until the 1960s.  This began to change after the publication of the Kemp-Jones Report in 1971.   But there had of course been a good number of impressive and ground-breaking female civil servants employed before then.  The Women in the Civil Service section of this website has a lot more information about them and about the employment of women in the civil service through to the present day..

Information about the history of Regulation and Deregulation, and of Speaking Truth to Power, may be found elsewhere in the Understanding Government websites.


Martin Stanley

Spotted something wrong?
Please do drop me an email if you spot anything that is out-of-date, or any other errors, typos or faulty links.