Institute of Historical Research



J.M. Collinge

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'Introduction', Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 9: Officials of Royal Commissions of Inquiry 1815-1870 (1984), pp. 1-8. URL: Date accessed: 18 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The evidence produced by royal commissions of inquiry, freely available in the printed parliamentary papers, has been quarried by historians of modern Britain as assiduously as any other primary source. Yet the administrative history of royal commissions has been curiously neglected. (fn. 1) The most detailed contemporary sources on the institution and administration of royal commissions of inquiry were produced in response to requests from members of the House of Commons for information on their expense, and are to be found amongst the parliamentary papers. (fn. 2) Nearly every royal commission of inquiry appointed between 1815 and 1870 is listed in these papers. The information sought and provided in each paper however is different. Names of officials, for example, are sometimes given and sometimes not, and the source is extremely difficult to use if information is required as to the service of a particular individual on a number of different royal commissions. The papers of royal commissions of inquiry have not survived in large numbers. (fn. 3) But evidence as to the manner in which royal commissions were administered by the central departments of state is plentiful. (fn. 4)

A royal commission of inquiry in the period 1815-70 could be composed of a single commissioner with no subordinate staff or of a large group of commissioners backed up by assistant commissioners to gather information in the country, a secretary to conduct correspondence and a body of clerks to assist him. The subject of inquiry could range from the management of an individual prison to the provision of primary education throughout England and Wales. This introduction, therefore, can only describe some of the administrative procedures common to all commissions of inquiry and point to some of the changes experienced during the period.

Until 1854 the Home Secretary was the sole secretary of state responsible for the appointment of royal commissions inquiring into English and Welsh subjects. After 1854 the newly created Secretary of State for War took responsibility for the appointment of commissions inquiring into military affairs. (fn. 5) All commissions of inquiry listed in this volume were appointed either by letters patent under the great seal or by warrant under the royal sign manual signed by a secretary of state. Until 1842 letters patent under the great seal were invariably used. From 1842 until 1847 both methods of appointment were used, apparently indiscriminately. In the next six years all commissions were appointed by warrant under the royal sign manual. In June 1853 this apparently settled appointments policy was broken when the Corporation of London Commission was appointed by letters patent under the great seal. Thereafter for a period of twelve years both methods were again used indiscriminately. Following the appointment of the Marriage Laws Commission in March 1865, all commissions were appointed by warrant under the royal sign manual, which after 1870 continued to be the preferred method of appointment. All commissions authorised after 1854 by the Secretary of State for War were appointed by warrant under the royal sign manual.

It is difficult to believe that any coherent policy governed the choice of instrument of appointment. It could be imagined that in 1853 the Corporation of London Commission (61) was appointed by the high authority of letters patent under the great seal to guard against opposition to the invasion of chartered rights. Yet the Oxford and Cambridge University Commissions (54, 55) involved a similar threat to chartered institutions and both had been appointed in 1850 by warrant under the royal sign manual. It is equally plausible that the Home Office Clerk drawing the Corporation of London Commission consulted the document of appointment of the Municipal Corporations Commission of 1833 (16) and by chance copied a warrant which required to be passed under the great seal. Only chance or confusion can be offered as explanations for the appointment on 22 August 1853 by letters patent under the great seal of a Commission to investigate Birmingham Borough Prison (63) when eight days later the same Commissioners were appointed by warrant under the royal sign manual to investigate Leicester County Gaol (65). Similarly no rational explanation can be offered for the appointment in February 1862 of a Mines Commission (100) by warrant under the royal sign manual and a Children's Employment Commission (101) by letters patent under the great seal.

The various Charities Commissions appointed between 1818 and 1835 (5) were hybrids: created by statute which empowered the King to appoint commissioners by letters patent under the great seal. This unusual and seemingly unnecessary statutory authorisation probably arose because in 1818 the government took over an opposition bill, in which charity commissioners would have been named. The clause naming commissioners appears to have been replaced by one empowering their appointment and thus securing patronage and some control over the commission to the government. (fn. 6) It was also found necessary in 1867 to give statutory authority to the Home Secretary to appoint Examiners to serve under the Trade Unions Commission (121) to investigate acts of intimidation or outrage committed by trade unionists.

Some form of report was produced by every commission listed here. (fn. 7) The ability of dissenting commissioners to submit comments or minority reports with the main report lessened the possibility of commissions being paralysed by internal disagreements. In one instance in 1868, however, disagreements between two of the three Pollution of Rivers Commissioners (113a) caused the Home Secretary to revoke the commission and replace it by an entirely new one. (fn. 8)

Changes of government rarely disturbed commissions of inquiry. It was unsurprising that the new Whig government in 1830 should keep in being those commissions already in existence (5, 9, 10, 11, 12) as many of them had been conceded to opposition pressure. A more decisive precedent was set in 1834-5 when the short-lived Conservative administration retained the Municipal Corporations Commission (16) and also appointed a Commission on Punishments in the Army (20) to which the outgoing Whig administration had committed itself shortly before its fall. (fn. 9) The two entirely new commissions appointed by the Conservatives in 1835 (19, 21) were also retained by the restored Whig administration, although in the case of the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Commission, the Conservative ministerial members resigned and were replaced by their Whig successors (19). Thereafter changes of government had very little effect, although in 1868 the Sanitary Laws Commission appointed by the Conservative administration only two weeks before its fall was substantially remodelled, both in terms of its powers and its membership, by the new Liberal government (132a, b).

Until 1855 the expenses, including the salaries of the officials, of the majority of commissions of inquiry were defrayed from civil contingencies, and no estimates were required to be presented to the House of Commons. Specific provision was made in the statute authorising the appointment of Charities Commissioners for the salaries of its officials to be met from the consolidated fund (5a). In 1828 the Treasury required the Home Office to lay before the House of Commons estimates of the expenses of the Common Law and Real Property Commissions. (fn. 10) This practice was followed in the case of seven other commissions (5b, c, 16, 18, 25, 29, 33, 48) in the next twenty years. (fn. 11) In 1855 the Treasury decided that both it and Parliament had insufficient control over the expenditure of commissions, and required that in future annual estimates be sent in the case of all commissions of inquiry. These were laid on the table of the House with the civil service estimates and the expenses of all commissions of inquiry were thenceforward met from the distinct vote for temporary commissions and not from civil contingencies. (fn. 12) Salaries of the officials of commissions of inquiry were paid in the usual way by the Exchequer until 1834, by the Paymaster of Civil Services from 1834 to 1849 and thereafter by the Paymaster General.

Although the frequency of appointment of commissions rose very steeply in the period 1815-70, from an average of slightly more than one a year in the period 1815-46 to almost four a year thereafter, the costs to the state rose much less steeply as there was a decline, beginning as early as 1830, in the number of commissions employing salaried commissioners. The decline was strongly approved by the Treasury but seems to have owed as much to a change in public morality and to a widespread desire to limit the costs of government as to the imposition of Treasury control, which only became fully effective in the 1850s.

By the 1860s the Treasury could state with complete accuracy that 'members of royal commissions are understood to render their services gratuitously'. (fn. 13) Yet of the twelve commissions appointed before 1830, half employed salaried commissioners. The lawyers serving on the Officers of Courts of Justice, Common Law and Real Property Commissions were awarded salaries of £1,200. Those raised to the bench or appointed to legal office while serving on these commissions either ceased to draw salary or resigned (1, 9, 10). The barristers serving on the Charities Commission were awarded salaries of £1,000 (5a). The engineers and doctors serving on the Metropolitan Water Supply Commission were salaried at the lower rate of £800 (8). The remaining Commissioners, composed in the main of members of both houses of Parliament and office-holders, received no form of remuneration. (fn. 14)

The ban on the payment of salaries to members of both houses of Parliament and office-holders was gradually extended in the period after 1830 to almost all commissioners. The Whig government appointed in 1830 continued the payment of salaries of £1,200 to the Common Law and Real Property Commissioners but made sure that the commissions should complete their work speedily and managed to secure unremunerated labour from them both after the commissions had technically closed (9, 10). The salaries of the stipendiary Charities Commissioners, reappointed in 1831 after a break of over a year, were reduced from £1,000 to £800 (5b). Of the fifteen new commissions which the Whig government appointed in the period 1830-41, only four employed paid commissioners. The Children's Employment in Factories and the Municipal Corporations Commissioners, both of whom were expected to report in a matter of two months, were remunerated at the rate of £100 a month. (fn. 15) Two of the four County Rates Commissioners, who were not Members of Parliament, were awarded allowances of £800 (18), and two of the four Children's Employment Commissioners, who were not already in receipt of salaries as Inspectors of Factories, were awarded allowances of £500 (29). The Conservative administrations, 1834-5 and 1841-6, were no more generous. The thirteen commissions which they appointed, contained only a handful of paid commissioners: the single Commissioners appointed to investigate Midland Mines and the Framework Knitters were remunerated at the rate of £50 a month (32, 35); eight of the thirteen Health of Towns Commissioners received 3 guineas a day whilst actually employed on the business of the commission and seven of them accepted an additional payment of 50 guineas for 'special services' (33).

After 1846 payments to commissioners became very rare indeed. The Shipping Dues and Pollution of Rivers Commissioners received salaries of £800 (59, 113); and there can be little doubt that they were employed virtually full-time on their investigations. (fn. 16) Two of the Commissioners inquiring into the Health of the Metropolis were awarded small allowances of £300 and £200. (fn. 17) The Salmon Fisheries Commissioners were awarded allowances of £350, despite strong opposition from the Treasury (96). Exceptionally the Treasury accepted without a struggle the payment of £2,000 to W. H. Walton, a member of the Common Law (Pleading) Commission, as they considered that his services were totally distinct from his official duties as a Master of the Exchequer Court (53).

Despite its belief that commissioners should serve in an honorary capacity, the Treasury was, however, prepared to allow payments to be made to prevent their suffering loss owing to their service. The payment of subsistence and travelling expenses when commissioners were required to be absent from home on their investigations clearly fell into this category, and was rarely resisted by the Treasury. (fn. 18) Payments to professional men as compensation for professional earnings relinquished were less readily granted, although the Treasury did concede the principle that to a professional man 'loss of time is a loss of income'. (fn. 19) On several occasions in the 1850s payments calculated at a daily rate were made to barristers, who were appointed to commissions because of their expertise in taking and assessing evidence, to doctors and to engineers (e.g. 63, 65, 66, 72, 87). But the Treasury frequently queried them and such payments were not made regularly in the 1860s (see only 107).

The employment of assistant commissioners, to collect evidence but to play no part in the drawing of reports, undoubtedly made it more easy to employ honorary commissioners. (fn. 20) Yet assistant commissioners were not used frequently; nor were they highly paid. The Whig administrations 1830-41 employed them on three occasions. (fn. 21) The large body of Assistant Poor Law Commissioners were unsalaried, although like all other assistant commissioners they were allowed subsistence and travelling expenses (13). The Assistants to the Handloom Weavers and Children's Employment Commissions were awarded allowances of £100 (25, 29). After the period of reform and innovation in the 1830s, commissions inquiring into uncharted areas of social policy became uncommon and assistant commissioners were not needed for another two decades. In the period 1858-70 large-scale social investigations were undertaken again and assistant commissioners re-appeared. The Popular Education and Schools Commissions employed respectively twelve and fourteen Assistant Commissioners for short periods at a rate of £50 a month (84, 110). The Commissions on Children's Employment and the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture employed respectively three and five Assistant Commissioners for periods of five and four years at salaries of £300 (101, 123). The two groups of three Examiners employed with statutory authority by the Trade Unions Commission were required to be barristers of not less than ten years' standing and were paid at a higher rate, the first Examiner receiving 1,000 guineas and the second and third 300 guineas (121). The Friendly Societies Commissioners wished to appoint a similar group of barristers, with judicial functions and compulsory powers, to take evidence on their behalf, but the bill authorising their appointment was withdrawn. They therefore employed four 'lay' Assistant Commissioners with salaries of £300 (135).

With the exception of all single-member commissions and some other small or short-lived commissions, it was usual for a royal commission of inquiry to employ a secretary. Instruments appointing commissions either named the secretary or empowered the commissioners to appoint one. No great significance should be read into the choice of the method of appointment. In both cases it would appear that consultations were held between the secretary of state and the chief commissioner. It seems probable that if a secretary had been agreed upon before the instrument was drawn, his name was included in it; if not, the appointment was left to the commissioners. In one instance in 1827 the Metropolitan Water Supply Commissioners objected to the Secretary chosen and appointed by the Home Secretary on the grounds that he had no experience of civil engineering and were able to secure the appointment of their own nominee (8). No other instances of dispute have been discovered. If a secretary left office during the course of a commission, his successor was usually but not invariably appointed by the same method as his predecessor. (fn. 22)

The great majority of secretaries were remunerated. Because the amount of work demanded of them varied so greatly, the Treasury was unable to establish a fixed scale for their payment and separate decisions had to be taken on each individual case. Some were paid quarterly, others received an allowance when the commission's work was completed. As in the case of commissioners, the highest salaries were paid in the earlier part of the period under review. Parkes, the Secretary of the Municipal Corporations Commission (16), who claimed to have worked daily from ten o'clock until late every night, (fn. 23) received £1,200 for the first year of his service; Dealtry, the Secretary of the Officers of Courts of Justice Commission (1), was awarded a salary of £1,000; and several others received salaries of £800. (fn. 24) By the 1860s salaries of £500 or £600 were generous. The Board of Trade when submitting recommendations in 1865 for the salary of Pole, the Secretary of the Railway Charges Commission (111), clearly believed that £800 was the maximum salary that a secretary could then be paid. (fn. 25) Pole was awarded a salary of £800, but no other secretary appointed in the 1860s attained it.

Relatively few secretaries were drawn from the ranks of the civil service. Four commissions drew their secretary from the Board of Trade (21, 44, 47, 122); three from the Treasury (22, 62, 126); two from the Home Office (24, 52); and one from the Foreign Office (130). Almost all commissions dealing with the army were served by War Office officials or by army officers. (fn. 26) Occasionally a retired civil servant acted as secretary to a commission. Following the abolition of the General Board of Health in 1858, its Assistant Secretary, J. F. Campbell, spent most of the next thirteen years in the service of three commissions (89, 100, 117). On one occasion service as a clerk in a royal commission led to promotion to a secretaryship: Fletcher, who had been Chief Clerk to the Municipal Corporations Commission, was strongly recommended by its Secretary, Parkes, to the Under Secretary at the Home Office, and was consequently appointed Secretary to the Handloom Weavers Commission. (fn. 27)

The nineteenth-century civil service was small and, at least in the first half of the century, very few civil servants dealt directly with the sorts of issues which commissions of inquiry were investigating. Aid had to be sought from outside. Scholars and academics served as secretaries to most of the commissions dealing with educational issues. (fn. 28) Engineers were used occasionally when technical subjects were being investigated. (fn. 29) But the most frequently used professional group were lawyers, usually barristers rather than attorneys, who acted as secretaries to more than half the commissions which are listed here. Several barristers served more than one commission. C. K. Murray, for example, the Chief Secretary to the Master of the Rolls 1821-4, was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Chancery Commission (7) in 1824. He was appointed Principal Secretary to Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst in 1827 and served as Secretary to the Ecclesiastical Courts Commission (12) appointed in 1830. The salary from this office and from a stipendiary magistracy, to which he had also been appointed in 1830, presumably helped to maintain him when in November 1830 Lyndhurst, and Murray with him, lost office. In 1835 Murray resigned his stipendiary magistracy to become Secretary to the Ecclesiastical Duties and Revenues Commission (19), a post which led directly to his being appointed Secretary to the permanent Ecclesiastical Commission created by statute in 1836. (fn. 30) In a later period J. H. Patteson served four commissions of inquiry and T. F. Kent served three but unlike Murray did not gain permanent employment in the civil service. (fn. 31) Murray's rise was indeed unusual, for few commissions of inquiry led to the creation of a permanent body to which its secretary might be appointed. But undoubtedly service on a commission of inquiry brought its secretary to the notice of the government. Godrey Lushington, for example, whose father Stephen had served as a commissioner on no less than eleven commissions, was appointed Legal Adviser to the Home Office after serving as Secretary to two commissions of inquiry (see 113a, 118) and W. D. Fane was appointed Legal Assistant to the Board of Trade after serving the Mercantile Laws Commission (60).

Lawyers were prominent as secretaries, and as commissioners and assistant commissioners, because they were the professional group most closely associated with the government and with political society. Yet their prominence owed more to the nature of reform in the period 1815-70. Reform of the courts and the legal system, reform of the whole legal process, are much more heavily represented in this volume than those areas of social or economic policy which have attracted the attention of so many historians.


1 H. M. Clokie and J. W. Robinson, Royal commissions of inquiry: the significance of investigations in British politics (Stanford, Calif. 1937), which drew almost exclusively upon evidence in parliamentary papers has not been superseded for the nineteenth century. R. Tompson, The Charity Commission and the age of reform (1979), has much useful general comment on commissions of inquiry in the early part of the century. Several other studies of individual commissions are cited in the notes to the lists of commissions.
2 HC 301 (1826-7) xx, 499; HC 212 (1829) xxi, 63; HC 379 (1830) xxix, 263; HC 512 (1831-2) xxvi, 501; HC 291 (1834) xli, 349; HC 528 (1836) xxxvii, 491; HC 290 (1837) xxxix, 205; HC 346 (1837-8) xxxvi, 191; HC 237 (1840) xxix, 323; HC 449 (1842) xxvi, 373; HC 187 (1846) xxv, 299; HC 669 (1847- 8) xxxix, 295; HC 720 (1850) xxxiii, 265; HC 415 (1856) xxxviii, 395; HC 196 (1859 Sess. 2) xv, 561; HC 317 (1862) xxx, 615; HC 261 (1867) xl, 361; HC 426 (1888) lxxxi, 491.
3 In the PRO they are to be found scattered amongst various departmental papers. Class HO 73 is an attempt to bring together the papers of various temporary commissions under the control of the Home Office. After 1850 some commissions presented their minutes as an appendix to their reports.
4 The Home Office took the leading role in communicating with royal commissions. From 8 Aug. 1836 until 7 March 1871 its letters to them were entered in a distinct series of letterbooks (HO 74). Before and after those dates they are to be found with out letters to other correspondents in HO 43 and HO 34 respectively. Correspondence between the Home Office and the Treasury (HO 36 and T 13) contains much additional information on the salaries of officials.
5 Letters patent under the great seal were entered on the patent rolls (C 66); warrants under the royal sign manual signed by the Home Secretary, in the Home Office warrant books (HO 38). Commissions appointed by warrant signed by the Secretary of State for War (74, 79, 80-1, 86-7, 90, 93, 102, 106, 115, 128, 131, 133) have been cited from the London Gazette.
6 Tompson, Charity Commission, 102-3.
7 Reports were usually presented to the monarch through the Home Secretary and then laid before the House of Commons and printed. Many original reports are to be found in the PRO amongst Home Office papers, notably in classes HO 73 and HO 45. Unless they were not printed by the House (e.g. 30, 42) the original reports have not been cited here, but have been used occasionally to provide the date of a report. Some commissions (1, 7, 9, 10, 12, 43, 53, 57, 60, 62, 64, 67, 69, 92, 97) were required to report to chancery. Most of these reports were delivered to the PRO by order of the Master of the Rolls in 1865 and now form class C 223.
8 For other disagreements within small two-and three-member commissions, see 41, 73, 123.
9 The continuation of the Municipal Corporations Commission was a pledge included in the Tamworth Manifesto (N. Gash, Sir Robert Peel (1972), 96). According to J. C. Herries, the ministry considered that the appointment of the Punishments in the Army Commission was 'rendered unavoidably necessary . . . by the promises made in that respect by their predecessors' (Add. MS 57442, f. 48).
10 HO 36/21 pp. 517-18.
11 For a list of those commissions charged and not charged in civil contingencies 1830-55, see HC 253 (1856) xxxix, 716.
12 T 13/4 pp. 281-3.
13 T 13/5 pp. 522-3. This is merely an example of a frequently-expressed point of view.
14 Members of both houses of Parliament were specifically excluded from receiving salaries as Charities Commissioners by the statute empowering their appointment (5a). The only M.P. to receive a salary as a commissioner in the period 1815-70 was Blackburne, the Chief Commissioner of the Municipal Corporations Commission, who was elected for Huddersfield some six months after his appointment to the commission.
15 See 15, 16. The Municipal Corporations Commissioners in fact took much longer to report and received payments ranging from £1,200 to £200. The Chief Commissioner was paid at the rate of £150 a month for the first year of the inquiry and at the rate of £75 a month for the following half year.
16 The salaries of £1,000 paid to the chairmen of the two Pollution of Rivers Commissions simply replaced in the case of Rawlinson, an official salary, and in the case of W. T. Denison, an official pension.
17 See 48. While serving on the commission Chadwick received the salary of £1,200 which he had received until his removal from the Poor Law Commission.
18 Such payments were made so regularly after 1850 that they are not invariably mentioned in the notes preceding the Lists of Commissions and Officials.
19 T 24/3 p. 282.
20 The Handloom Weavers Commissioners were specifically authorised to employ Assistant Commissioners because they themselves were unsalaried (25).
21 The majority of the members of the Children's Employment in Factories and Muncipal Corporations Commissions, who merely collected evidence and played little or no part in drawing the reports, also performed tasks normally associated with Assistant Commissioners, although they were named Commissioners (15, 16).
22 A curious situation arose in 1853 when Holland, who had succeeded Lawes as Secretary to the Common Law (Pleading) Commission, attempted to clarify his position. Lawes had been appointed by WRSM, but Holland was told by the Under Secretary at the Home Office that 'a verbal appointment' was sufficient to enable him to act. He did indeed act for almost nine years with no formal authority for his appointment (53).
23 HC 528 p. 14 (1836) xxxvii, 504.
24 See 7, 9, 10, 19, 50, 58, 78.
25 T 1/6601A/19139.
26 The following commissions were served by War Office Clerks: 20, 26, 68, 86, 90, 102, 106, 115, 133.
27 HO 73/63, Parkes to S. M. Phillipps, 3 Aug. 1837. He later served the Children's Employment Commission (29).
28 See 45, 54, 55, 76, 84, 99, 105, 110.
29 See 8 (Rutt), 48, 111, 113b, 119 (Pole).
30 On Murray's career see G. F. A. Best, Temporal pillars (Cambridge 1964), 383-93; T. D. Hardy, A catalogue of Lord Chancellors . . . and principal officers of the court of chancery (1843), 134.
31 See Index of Officials. Patteson, like Murray, became a stipendiary magistrate (121 n. 9).