India Office and India Office Library

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INDIA OFFICE AND INDIA OFFICE LIBRARY The India Office functioned as the home government of Britain's Crown colony in India from 1858 to 1947. It was the natural successor most immediately to the Board of Control (1784–1858) and, in the broadest sense, to the East India Company (1600–1858). Viewed from the outside, the office was often criticized by its own officials as "intolerably cumbrous and dilatory" (Sir Malcolm Seton) and a "marvel of circumlocution" (Lord Kimberley). Indian nationalists since the late nineteenth century considered the office a repository of conservatism and hostility. These images stem partly from a general lack of appreciation of the formal responsibilities of the India Office in the governance of the subcontinent as articulated in the Government of India Act of 1858, and partly from a calculated determination by successive permanent officials in the India Office to cloak the home government in secrecy vis-à-vis both other U.K. institutions of state and the Government of India.

In the early days of the India Office, the India Office staff was a somewhat carefree bunch that attended correspondence business casually and used their mantelpieces for pistol practice. In its first two decades, clerks were castigated as loafers and shirkers who played all day like the fountains in Trafalgar Square—from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. From the 1880s, the clerks were a much more sober lot, who efficiently processed, evaluated, and cataloged well over a hundred thousand documents a year. The movement of such vast quantities of material necessary for the formulation of policy for India was influenced by several factors, including the physical setup of the India Office (3.5 million cubic feet), logistical procedures, and the performance of subordinate personnel. The flow of paper and the processing of paperwork was the primary responsibility of the permanent undersecretary of state for India, the most formidable of whom was Sir Arthur Godley (later Lord Kilbracken), who managed the position ably for twenty-five years (1883–1909) for ten secretaries of state for India.

Arthur Godley was educated at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford. He was trained by Benjamin Jowett, who shaped Godley's lifelong high standard of duty, and he spent his political apprenticeship as private secretary to both Lord Granville and William Gladstone. Godley later reminisced that he was "saturated with the Gladstonian tradition of the earnestness of work" (Bassett, p. 225). This passion for administrative efficiency was matched by a carefully cultivated commitment by Godley to not play an active role in politics, and eventually he saw himself more of a "ministerialist," who advised and guided both Liberal and Conservative secretaries of state with whom he worked.

In practice, Godley considered the India Office "very leaky" when he joined it in 1883, and over the next two and a half decades refined the rules and regulations for processing paperwork with precision—from designing cabinet map drawers, to positioning hall porters to move paper along, to negotiating the charwoman's salary, to codifying the division of responsibilities among the permanent staff and committee of the Council of India. Still, he complained of odd, irascible resident clerks such as William Robinson, who, in 1894, "used to roller skate through the corridor of the India Office until prohibited." Godley eventually oversaw the integration of new technology into the office at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly the use of typewriters ("manned," as they were, by "female manipulators") and the telephone.

The essential components of the India Office were the secretary of state, his council (after 1937, advisers), and the permanent correspondence departments. Indian policy was legally conducted by a corporate entity, the Secretary of State in Council, and often required very delicate management by the permanent staff. The Council of India, which was staffed by men who had prior Indian expertise and, after 1909, included several Indian members, had a series of committees that mirrored the permanent departments. Strict rules guided the flow of paperwork from the council and its committees to the correspondence departments to the permanent undersecretary and secretary of state. Balancing this unique projection of Indian ethos into the policy-making arena with the bureaucratic imperatives of the increasingly professional India Office staff was a delicate endeavor and occasionally led to potential legal complications. Godley minimized this internal tension by aligning the correspondence departments and council committees more closely, and by encouraging successive Indian secretaries to use their powers of "persuasion and prestige" to reduce tensions. Godley, and his successors, always reminded India Office personnel that the real source of interference, as he saw it, was, oddly enough, Parliament. Because the India Office establishment was not on the British estimates, deflecting Parliamentary inquiries into India policy seemed an unstated but real priority. The India Office sanitized reports to Parliament in the nineteenth century, maintained its own private printers, and right up through World War II conducted almost daily meetings to vet information to be shared with other ministries and departments of state.

There were modifications to the internal processing of paperwork in the India Office in 1919 and 1923 that corresponded to a great influx of Indian matters referred back to London. The most significant adjustments related to devolving responsibility for some policy matters to departmental secretaries, leaving only serious matters to be sent up to the undersecretaries. Departmental heads could, in fact, now correspond directly with their counterparts in India on many routine matters. Between 1937 and 1940, as a result of the Government of India Act of 1935, a new relationship emerged between the secretary of state for India and his advisers. The Indian secretary now had broader legal powers to deal with secret matters and a less formal imperative to act always as a corporate entity, the Secretary of State in Council. Burmese affairs were slivered off the India Office responsibilities in 1937, although de facto, Burma Office officials worked out of the India Office and overlapped personnel considerably.

On the dissolution of the India Office in August 1947, the official archives of the India Office, Burma Office, East India Company, and the Board of Control, along with smaller groups of records from Haileybury College, the Royal Engineering College at Cooper's Hill, and various overseas agencies administratively linked to India (e.g., Aden, the Gulf, Afghanistan), were transferred to the Commonwealth Relations Office (1947–1966). Thereafter, the India Office Library and Records went to the Commonwealth Office (1966–1968), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1968–1982), and finally to the British Library in 1982.

Arnold P. Kaminsky

See alsoBritish Crown Raj


Bassett, A. T. The Life of the Rt. Hon. John Ellis, M.P. London: Macmillan, 1914.

Husain, Syed Anwar. Administration of India, 1858–1924. Delhi: Seema Publications, 1985.

Kaminsky, Arnold P. The India Office, 1880–1910. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Moir, Martin. A General Guide to the India Office Records. London: British Library, 1988.

Williams, Donovan. The India Office, 1858–1869. Hoshiarpur: Vishvesvaranand Vedic Research Institute, 1983.