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Foreign Office

Foreign Office. The Foreign Office was created as a separate department in 1782. Until the present Foreign Office was built in the 1860s, the department was housed in decrepit buildings in Downing Street. It was headed by the secretary of state for foreign affairs, a senior cabinet minister, assisted by two under-secretaries. Eventually, the ‘parliamentary’ under-secretary sat in the Commons, if the foreign secretary was a peer (or in the Lords, if he was an MP), and acted as government spokesman on foreign affairs. The permanent under-secretary was a civil servant. In 1841 the rest of the establishment consisted of a chief clerk, six senior clerks, ten clerks, seven junior clerks, eight other clerks attached to particular duties, a librarian, a sub-librarian, a translator, a private secretary, a précis-writer, and a printer. Translation services were particularly weak. It was expected that communications would be in French and it once took the Office a week to find anyone to read a document in German. The first typist was appointed in 1889. Before that all dispatches were in manuscript and were copied by hand. Telegraphic dispatches began to be received in the 1850s but the first telephone was not installed until 1895. The volume of work increased enormously through the century. The Office handled 4,534 dispatches in 1821, 110,000 in 1905. Originally, the staff was recruited entirely by patronage and even qualifying examinations were not introduced until 1856. Employment in the Office was less prestigious than in the diplomatic service and the two services were quite separate. Only in the years before the First World War did the Office begin to modernize. Limited competition for entry was introduced in 1908 and a higher proportion of recruits, although still from a narrow social élite, now had university degrees. As the Office grew more professional, its influence on policy-making increased. Lord Palmerston, although he worked his subordinates hard, had regarded them as mere clerks. Even at the end of the century, Lord Salisbury expected little in the way of ‘advice’ from the Office. The situation began to change between 1898 and 1914. Sir Edward Grey's dependence on his permanent officials should not be exaggerated but the fact that the Office, which had been predominantly pro-German in 1900, gradually shifted to being pro-French and suspicious of Germany must be taken into account in assessing the formulation of British foreign policy.

Muriel Evelyn Chamberlain

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