Original documents on reforming the civil service in Victorian England

I fell down an internet worm hole having picked up on a social media post about the civil service from times gone by.

Now 1955 is relatively modern as far as this blog goes, but it still pre-dates computers and is inevitably embedded in a mindset (that of Empire) that the Second World War found to be more than wanting. By that I mean the disaster that was the Fall of Singapore in 1942 that caught the 1st & 2nd Battalions of the Cambridgeshire Regiment, as well as local artist and author Ronald Searle.

The Internet Archive and digitised very old documents

One of the best archive projects online is the Internet Archive which at the last count had some 330billion pages in its system. Libraries and archives across the world continue to upload out of copyright publications and documents, and it’s free to access. The Wellcome Library is one such institution and to my pleasant surprise had uploaded nearly 80 years worth of public health reports for the Borough and later City of Cambridge. So I went on a hunt to see what documents about the civil service had been uploaded.

Northcote Trevelyan

The Report into a Permanent Civil Service – often referred to as the Northcote Trevelyan report of 1854/5 is generally regarded as the document that led to the creation of the modern civil service. Martin Stanley has digitised it here. Further reports from the 20th & 21st Centuries are in this list. He has further resources on his site https://www.civilservant.org.uk/

The expansion of Britain’s colonies was one of the incentives that led to the report and the creation of the modern civil service. Such reforms however don’t take place in a vacuum. All too often when we think of the stereotype of how history is taught at school – and recalled by the general public, it’s through lists. It remains controversial to this day – think of the recent controversy in 2013 of changes to the National Curriculum that academic historians opposed, accusing the then Education Secretary of reducing the subject to lists of monarchs, politicians, and officers. What the lists cannot tell you is the stories behind them – and the contested ideas and their advocates that shaped them.

What the newspapers show

The British Newspaper Archive has only scanned 5% of its entire collection going back over 200 years, but even then it has pulled out over 200 articles containing the phrase ‘Permanent Civil Service’ from between the years 1850-59. Several of the newspapers actually printed the report ***in full***

From the British Newspaper Archive

Above – the Morning Chronicle in the British Newspaper Archive. The nature of newspapers at the time was that they were very text-heavy and made for very dense reading. There was also a significant amount of syndication, so a news article on a court case or a session in Parliament will be recorded identically in Cambridge as it would in Carlisle.

Contested ideas

It’s easy to forget that at the time the authors were writing, it was only 70 years after the American and French Revolutions. That’s the equivalent of the gap between today and the end of World War 2. Think of how WW2 is still in the public’s conscience (as well as that of the media and political classes).

Debate in Parliament on barring patronage in civil service entrance
Above – summary in a local newspaper 1854

…and note that not everyone was happy with the report’s conclusions.

Some of those criticised were not happy

The Internet Archive has a growing number of original source documents on the administration of what would become the British-administered Indian Civil Service. George Campbell’s 1853 outline of a proposed government and policy is one publication that pre-dates Northcote Trevelyan. The documents that raise the shortcomings of the time are ones I find particularly interesting. Not least because they seldom led to immediate changes and improvements alone. It’s only later on that we see changes being made once sufficient pressure has been brought to bear. Charles Henry Cooper’s demand that the Vice Chancellor’s prison for women in Cambridge – the hated Spinning House be shut down, took half a century to implement.

The creation of competitive entry didn’t stop with the civil service. It contributed to the growing movement for formal education across the country – Charles Mann making this case in 1857. Note 13 years later the Education Act of 1870 brought in compulsory primary education for the first time. This was also happening at a time of reform and expansion of municipal councils – modern local government. Following the creation of modern local councils as a result of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, There was, what one eminent group of mid-20th Century politicians and academics described in their centenary book as A Century of Municipal Progress. The table at the back of that book lists every Act of Parliament that empowered and also gave responsibilities to local councils to improve towns and cities.

The reforms approved by and enacted by Parliament also led to a series of annual reports being laid before Parliament. This is the Third Report of the Civil Service Commissioners dated 1858. There’s a big data crunching exercise for someone to do with those reports!

What did civil servants need to know?

With the report adopted, there emerged a market for guides to would-be applicants for the civil service exams. This was a particular opportunity for graduates of Oxford and Cambridge who had gone into teaching. This book from 1855 covering history and geography is one example. Some were also written by serving civil servants – such as this guide on political and general geography. Guides on mathematics (Such as this one on arithmetic ) through to spelling and the use of language (such as this one from 1868) were also published, giving a snapshot into the demands of working life as well as of the culture of the institution.

Relevance to today

I remain of the view that the toughest examination I’ve ever had to undertake was the Civil Service Fast Stream Assessment Centre back in November 2006. At the end of that day of multiple assessments – written, spoken, and one group exercise. A few of us stopped off at a pub by the Department for Transport afterwards. I said that I don’t think I could have prepared any better than I did for that examination, and that if I didn’t pass it was because I was genuinely not good enough. With an attrition rate of 95% I was astonished to have gotten to the assessment centre stage, so was gobsmacked to find out that I had passed.

Over the next few years I would come across scenes modelled by the assessment centre – challenges that would become increasingly familiar as we sought to reconcile the seemingly conflicting demands of the roles.

The world is a strikingly different place geopolitically compared to 2006. Today’s civil service assessments need to reflect that – whether the challenges of a post-Brexit world, the frenzied world of political social media, the climate emergency, and the massive shock and continued anxiety & uncertainty created by the current public health emergency.

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