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The Starting Point: Before Northcote-Trevelyan

Before the Civil Service was reformed in the 1850s, Departments of State (some of which were centuries old) recruited their staff mainly through political or aristocratic patronage rather than by merit, had a poor reputation and no unity of purpose.

Last updated - 8th January 2010

Before the Civil Service was reformed in the 1850s, Departments of State (some of which were centuries old) recruited their staff mainly through political or aristocratic patronage rather than by merit, had a poor reputation and no unity of purpose.  Dickens' Circumlocution Office would have been instantly recognisable to any citizen who had had dealings with government officials.

In the 1850s, looking back on the way things had been done, one senior Government official commented that:

"I have known many instances of individuals boldly stating that they were not put into the service by their patrons to work….  The most feeble sons in families which have been so fortunate as to obtain an appointment, yes and others too, either mentally or physically incapacitated, enter the Service."

Civil Service Papers published by the British Government, 1855

Fact file

"There was a case in our offices (Board of Audit) in which a gentleman was appointed who really could neither read nor write, he was almost an idiot, and there was the greatest possible difficulty in getting him out of the office."

Parliamentary Report on the Civil Service, 1860