The Colonial Service was the British government service which administered most of Britain's overseas possessions, under the authority of the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Colonial Office in London. It did not operate in British India, where the same function was delivered by the Indian Civil Service.
Before the 1930s, there was no unified Colonial Service, nor even unified sub-services. Each British colony and overseas territory had its own administrative service, and prospective officers needed to apply directly to one or more of them. Once taken on, a colonial administrative officer wishing to transfer to another colony needed to make a new application to the government of that entity. However, in the 1930s a unified Colonial Service was created, with sixteen sub-services, and each of its officers was a member of the civil service of the territory in which he served and also of the appropriate sub-service of the Colonial Service.
With almost all of the British overseas possessions in Asia gaining independence between the 1940s and 1950s, followed by most of those in Africa between the 1950s and the 1960s, the Colonial Service shrank dramatically in numbers. In the late 1960s it was amalgamated with Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service.
The Colonial Service grew substantially from 1900, when there were only 1,000 overseas positions, through the period immediately following the Second World War when the number had grown to about 10,000. This largely reflected the increased numbers of technical and professional staff employed in medical, educational, agricultural, mining and other specialist areas (see "Other services" below). The disbanding of the separate Indian and Sudan Civil Services, in 1947 and 1956 respectively, led to an influx of former officials who sought to continue their careers in a Colonial Service which reached its maximum size of 18,000 in 1957. Thereafter, it diminished rapidly with the granting of independence to most of the colonial territories.
For officers commissioned into the Colonial Service, the ranks and positions were as follows-
- District Officer Cadet
- Assistant District Officer (to which rank a cadet was promoted if found suitable after two years' probation)
- District Officer
- District Commissioner
- Provincial Commissioner
The most senior overseas positions were those of the colonial Governors, of whom there were about forty in the 1930s. These posts were usually filled for five year periods, with appointments being made from officers who were no older than 55 (the usual retirement age being 60). The governorships were divided into four grades, according to the size and economic or political importance of the colony concerned. The colonial governorships of Gibraltar, Malta, and Bermuda, were reserved for senior naval or military officers.
On formal occasions, officers of the Administrative Service wore white or dark blue civil uniforms, according to the climate, with braid according to rank.
Colonial Administrative Service
The Colonial Service was technically divided into sixteen separate services, of which the non-specialist Colonial Administrative Service constituted an elite of generalists who provided commissioners and governors. In his history of the Colonial Service, Anthony Kirk-Green states that entrants to the Administrative Service were mostly men educated at public schools or at grammar schools who had studied History, English, or modern languages at a university. Entrance was by way of the same competitive examinations as for the Home Civil Service and the Diplomatic Service, although stress was placed on assessments of character and motivation made in the course of selection interviews.
Apart from the Colonial Administrative Service, the remaining fifteen sub-services were drawn from applicants with specialist professional qualifications or relevant experience.
- Colonial Agricultural Service
- Colonial Audit Service
- Colonial Chemical Service
- Colonial Customs Service
- Colonial Education Service
- Colonial Forest Service
- Colonial Geological Survey Service
- Colonial Legal Service
- Colonial Medical Service
- Colonial Mines Service
- Colonial Nursing Service
- Colonial Police Service
- Colonial Postal Service
- Colonial Survey Service
- Colonial Veterinary Service
- HM Treasury, Notes on Government Organisation No.12: Colonial Governments, 1951
- Lumley, E.K. Forgotten Mandate: A British District Officer in Tanganyika (C. Hurst & Co, 1976), p. 10