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1940s: Whitehall at War - and afterwards

The war saw a breaking down of some of the old recruitment barriers, and academics, business people, scientists and other experts were brought in to the Civil Service. This new blood energised the service and enhanced the delivery of key policies like food rationing, post-war reconstruction and the establishment of the NHS.

Last updated - 18th February 2010

1940s :  Whitehall at War

Image showing bombs used during the war

The War brought with it huge reforms in the civil service—for the duration, at least.

Peter Hennessy, in his book Whitehall, comments that the 'mix of career regulars and outside irregulars blended between 1939 and 1945 represents the high point of achievement in the history of the British Civil Service'.

These irregulars—scientists, academics, professionals, industrialists—were drafted into the civil service to help run the war.  The Ministry of Labour's Central Register in Chiswick, presided over by Miss Beryl Millicent le Poer Power (only the second woman to reach the rank of Assistant Secretary – that is, Deputy Director -  in the Ministry), creamed off the best of the 'outsiders' from the universities and industries and brought them into the civil service.

The result was a civil service that had to find new ways of doing things, almost overnight, to mobilise an entire country, throwing 'open its doors to the capable and the innovative for the overriding purpose of licking Hitler' (Hennessy).  By the end of the war, the number of civil servants stood at 1.1 million (the peak was in 1944, at 1.16m), since when there has been a long, downwards trend.

1940s – After the War

NHS Leaflets

The Second World War brought huge changes to the way the country was administered and the immediate aftermath brought a whole new set of fresh challenges.

The war saw a breaking down of some of the old recruitment barriers, and academics, business people, scientists and other experts were brought in to the Civil Service. This new blood energised the service and enhanced the delivery of key policies like food rationing, post-war reconstruction and the establishment of the NHS.

Government activity started to affect the daily lives of citizens in lots of new ways. The Ministry of Food, for example, played a key role during the war and embarked on behaviour-changing campaigns that continued into peacetime - providing advice and guidance on healthy eating is not new!

During the war, a steady flow of recruits filled numerous labour intensive clerical jobs.  In peacetime, civil servants generally earned less than people in private industry and the Service had to attract applicants by making the most of the promotion prospects and job security.

Fact Files: Private Financial Affairs

Private Financial Affairs

Civil servants are expected to conduct their private financial affairs in a satisfactory manner.  Borrowing money from a junior officer is regarded as a serious offence…

A Handbook for the New civil servant, 1946


Historical Artefact: Recruitment Posters

Civil Service recruitment pamplets from the 1940s.