Colonial Office

The Colonial Office was a government department of the Kingdom of Great Britain and later of the United Kingdom, first created to deal with the colonial affairs of British North America but needed also to oversee the increasing number of colonies of the British Empire. Despite its name, the Colonial Office was never responsible for all Britain's Imperial territories; for example protectorates fell under the purview of the Foreign Office, British India was ruled by the East India Company until 1858 (thereafter being succeeded by the India Office as a result of the Indian Mutiny), whilst the Dominions were later carved out as the Empire matured.

It was headed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, also known more informally as the Colonial Secretary.

First Colonial Office (1768–1782)

Prior to 1768, responsibility for the affairs of the British colonies was part of the duties of the Secretary of State for the Southern Department and a committee of the Privy Council known as the Board of Trade and Plantations.[1]

In 1768 the separate American or Colonial Department was established, in order to deal with colonial affairs in British North America. With the loss of the American colonies, however, the department was abolished in 1782. Responsibility for the remaining colonies was given to the Home Office, and subsequently (1801) transferred to the War Office.

War and Colonies Office (1801-1854) and Second Colonial Office (1854–1966)

The War Office was renamed the War and Colonial Office in 1801, under a new Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to reflect the increasing importance of the colonies. In 1825 a new post of Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies was created within this office. It was held by Robert William Hay initially. His successors were James Stephen, Herman Merivale, Frederic Rogers, Robert Herbert and Robert Henry Meade.[2]

In 1854, the War and Colonial Office was divided in two, and a new Colonial Office was created to deal specifically with the affairs in the colonies and assigned to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Colonial Office did not have responsibility for all British possessions overseas: for example, both the Indian Empire (or Raj) and other British territories near India, were under the authority of the India Office from 1854. Other, more informal protectorates, such as the Khedivate of Egypt, fell under the authority of the Foreign Office.

The increasing independence of the Dominions – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa – following the 1907 Imperial Conference, led to the formation of a separate Dominion Division within the Colonial Office. From 1925 onwards the UK ministry included a separate Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs.

On 16 April 1947 the Irgun placed a bomb at the Colonial Office which failed to detonate.[3][4] The plot was linked to the 1946 Embassy bombing.[5]

After the Dominion of India and Dominion of Pakistan gained independence in 1947, the Dominion Office was merged with the India Office to form the Commonwealth Relations Office.

In 1966, the Commonwealth Relations Office was re-merged with the Colonial Office, forming the Commonwealth Office. Two years later, this department was itself merged into the Foreign Office, establishing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Colonial Office had its offices in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Main Building in Whitehall.

The Colonial Office List

From 1862, the Colonial Office published historical and statistical information concerning the United Kingdom's colonial dependencies in The Colonial Office List,[6] though between 1926 and 1940 it was known as The Dominions Office and Colonial Office List.[7] It later became known as the Commonwealth Relations Office Year Book and Commonwealth Office Year Book. In addition to the official List published by the Colonial Office, an edited version was also produced by Waterlow and Sons.[8] It can be difficult to distinguish between the two versions in library catalogue descriptions. For example, The Sydney Stock and Station Journal of 3 December 1915 commented:[9]

This used to be the "Colonial Office Journal," but it looked – or sounded – too official, so they changed it to "The Colonial Journal." But it is still edited by Sir W. H. Mercer, K.C.M.G., one of the Crown Agents for the Colonies, but it is printed by Waterlow and Sons, London Wall. It comes as near to being an "Official publication" as possible, but we'll assume that it isn't.


See also


  1. Colonial Office, The Canadian Encyclopedia
  2. Roy MacLeod (13 February 2003), Government and Expertise: Specialists, Administrators and Professionals, 1860–1919, Cambridge University Press, p. 168, ISBN 978-0-521-53450-5
  3. "Time Bomb Found in London after British hang Gruner as Terrorist in Holy Land". Google News. St. Petersburg Times. 17 April 1947. Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  4. "Police Say Woman Bomb "Planter" Now in Custody". The Age. A.A.P. 13 June 1947. The woman, who is a Jewess, claims French nationality. Officers of the special branch of Scotland Yard who have been investigating Jewish terrorist activities are satisfied the man who made the bomb is also under arrest.
  5. "EUROPE-WIDE SEARCH FOR MAN WHO MADE BOMB". The Argus (Melbourne). A.A.P. 19 April 1947. Retrieved 26 May 2018. The bomb was of the same type as that used in the explosion at the i British Embassy in Rome last year and in several other outrages by Jewish terrorists.
  6. Great Britain. Colonial Office (1862–1925), The Colonial Office List for [year], London: Harrison and Sons; Great Britain. Colonial Office (1946–1966), The Colonial Office List, London: H.M.S.O.
  7. Great Britain. Office of Commonwealth Relations (1926–1940), The Dominions Office and Colonial Office List for [year], London: Waterlow & Sons, Ltd..
  8. See, for example, "Publications received: The Colonial Office List", The Queenslander, Brisbane, p. 3, 26 June 1915.
  9. "The Colonial Journal", The Sydney Stock and Station Journal, p. 4, 3 December 1915.

Further reading

  • Beaglehole, J.C. (1941). "The Colonial Office, 1782–1854". Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand. 1 (3): 170–189. doi:10.1080/10314614108594796.
  • Egerton, Hugh Edward. A Short History of British Colonial Policy (1897) 610pp online
  • Laidlaw, Zoë. Colonial connections, 1815-45: patronage, the information revolution and colonial government (Oxford UP, 2005).
  • McLachlan, N. D. (1969). "Bathurst at the Colonial Office, 1812–27: A reconnaissance∗". Historical Studies. 13 (52): 477–502. doi:10.1080/10314616908595394.
  • Manning, Helen Taft (1965). "Who Ran the British Empire 1830-1850?". Journal of British Studies. 5: 88–121. doi:10.1086/385512.
  • Shaw, A. G. L. (1969). "British Attitudes to the Colonies, ca. 1820-1850". Journal of British Studies. 9: 71–95. doi:10.1086/385581.

Primary sources

  • Bell, Kenneth Norman, and William Parker Morrell, eds. Select documents on British colonial policy, 1830-1860 (1928)

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