Secretary of State for the Colonies

Secretary of State for the Colonies
Inaugural holder 1st: The Earl of Hillsborough
2nd: Sir George Grey
Formation 1st: 27 August 1772
2nd: 12 June 1854
Final holder 1st: Welbore Ellis
2nd: Frederick Lee
Abolished 1st: 8 March 1782
2nd: 1 August 1966
Deputy Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies
Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies
Minister of State
Joseph Chamberlain; Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1895–1903

The Secretary of State for the Colonies or Colonial Secretary was the British Cabinet minister in charge of managing the United Kingdom's various colonial dependencies.

The position was first created in 1768 to deal with the increasingly troublesome North American colonies, following passage of the Townsend Acts. Previously colonial responsibilities were held jointly by the Lords of Trade and Plantations and the Secretary of State for the Southern Department,[1] who was responsible for Southern England, Wales, Ireland, the American colonies, and relations with the Catholic and Muslim states of Europe. Joint responsibility continued under the Secretary of State for the Colonies, but led to a diminution of the board's status and it became an adjunct to the new Secretary's Department.[2]

Following the loss of the American colonies, both the board and the short-lived secretaryship were dismissed by the king on 2 May 1782; both were abolished later by the Civil List and Secret Service Money Act 1782 (22 Geo. 3, c 82).[3] Following this, colonial duties given to the Home Secretary, then Lord Sydney. Following the Treaty of Paris 1783, a new board, named the Committee of Council on Trade and Plantations (later known as 'the First Committee') was established under William Pitt the Younger, by an Order in Council in 1784.[2] In 1794 a new office was created for Henry Dundas — the Secretary of State for War, which now took responsibility for the Colonies, and was renamed the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in 1801. In 1854, military reforms led to the Colonial and Military responsibilities of this secretary of state being split into two separate offices, with Sir George Grey becoming the first Secretary of State for the Colonies under the new arrangement.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century the United Kingdom also gained control over a number of territories with the status of "protectorate". The ministerial responsibility for these territories was initially held by the Foreign Secretary. However, by the early years of the twentieth century the responsibility for each of these territories had been transferred to the Colonial Secretary as well. The League of Nations mandated territories acquired as a result of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) became a further responsibility of the Colonial Office in the aftermath of the First World War.

In 1925 part of the Colonial Office was separated out as the Dominions Office, with its own Secretary of State. The new office was responsible for dealing with the Dominions together with a small number of other territories (most notably Southern Rhodesia).

In the twenty years following the end of the Second World War, much of the British Empire was dismantled as its various territories gained independence. In consequence, the Colonial Office was merged in 1966 with the Commonwealth Relations Office (which until 1947 had been the Dominions Office) to form the Commonwealth Office, while ministerial responsibility was transferred to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (previously known as the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations). In 1968 the Commonwealth Office was subsumed into the Foreign Office, which was renamed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

The Colonial Secretary never had responsibility for the provinces and princely states of India, which had its own Secretary of State.

From 1768 until 1966 the Secretary of State was supported by an Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (at times an Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies), and latterly by a Minister of State.

Secretaries of State for the Colonies, 1768–1782

Name Portrait Term of office
The Earl of Hillsborough 27 February 1768 27 August 1772
The Earl of Dartmouth 27 August 1772 10 November 1775
Lord George Germain 10 November 1775 February 1782
Welbore Ellis February 1782 8 March 1782

Responsibility for the Colonies held by:

Secretaries of State for the Colonies, 1854–1903

Name Portrait Term of office Political party Prime Minister
Sir George Grey, Bt 12 June 1854 8 February 1855 Whig Earl of Aberdeen
Sidney Herbert 8 February 1855 23 February 1855 Whig Viscount Palmerston
Lord John Russell 23 February 1855 21 July 1855 Whig
Sir William Molesworth, Bt 21 July 1855 21 November 1855 Radical
Henry Labouchere 21 November 1855 21 February 1858 Whig
Lord Stanley
(later 15th Earl of Derby)
26 February 1858 5 June 1858 Conservative 14th Earl of Derby
Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Bt 5 June 1858 11 June 1859 Conservative
The Duke of Newcastle 18 June 1859 7 April 1864 Liberal Viscount Palmerston
Edward Cardwell 7 April 1864 26 June 1866 Liberal
Earl Russell
The Earl of Carnarvon 6 July 1866 8 March 1867 Conservative 14th Earl of Derby
The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos 8 March 1867 1 December 1868 Conservative
Benjamin Disraeli
The Earl Granville 9 December 1868 6 July 1870 Liberal William Ewart Gladstone
The Earl of Kimberley 6 July 1870 17 February 1874 Liberal
The Earl of Carnarvon 21 February 1874 4 February 1878 Conservative Benjamin Disraeli
Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Bt 4 February 1878 21 April 1880 Conservative
The Earl of Kimberley 21 April 1880 16 December 1882 Liberal William Ewart Gladstone
15th Earl of Derby 16 December 1882 9 June 1885 Liberal
Frederick Stanley
(later 16th Earl of Derby)
24 June 1885 28 January 1886 Conservative Marquess of Salisbury
The Earl Granville 6 February 1886 20 July 1886 Liberal William Ewart Gladstone
Edward Stanhope 3 August 1886 14 January 1887 Conservative Marquess of Salisbury
The Lord Knutsford 14 January 1887 11 August 1892 Conservative
The Marquess of Ripon 18 August 1892 21 June 1895 Liberal William Ewart Gladstone
Earl of Rosebery
Joseph Chamberlain 29 June 1895 16 September 1903 Liberal Unionist Marquess of Salisbury
(Unionist Coalition)
Arthur Balfour
(Unionist Coalition)

Secretaries of State for the Colonies, 1903–1966

Name Portrait Term of office Political party Prime Minister
Alfred Lyttelton 11 October 1903 4 December 1905 Liberal Unionist Arthur Balfour
(Unionist Coalition)
The Earl of Elgin 10 December 1905 12 April 1908 Liberal Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
The Earl of Crewe 12 April 1908 3 November 1910 Liberal H. H. Asquith
Lewis Vernon Harcourt 3 November 1910 25 May 1915 Liberal
Andrew Bonar Law 25 May 1915 10 December 1916 Conservative H. H. Asquith
Walter Long 10 December 1916 10 January 1919 Conservative David Lloyd George
The Viscount Milner 10 January 1919 13 February 1921 Liberal
Winston Churchill 13 February 1921 19 October 1922 Liberal
The Duke of Devonshire 24 October 1922 22 January 1924 Conservative Andrew Bonar Law
Stanley Baldwin
James Henry Thomas 22 January 1924 3 November 1924 Labour Ramsay MacDonald
Leo Amery 6 November 1924 4 June 1929 Conservative Stanley Baldwin
The Lord Passfield 7 June 1929 24 August 1931 Labour Ramsay MacDonald
James Henry Thomas 25 August 1931 5 November 1931 National Labour Ramsay MacDonald
(1st National Min.)
Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister 5 November 1931 7 June 1935 Conservative Ramsay MacDonald
(2nd National Min.)
Malcolm MacDonald 7 June 1935 22 November 1935 National Labour Stanley Baldwin
(3rd National Min.)
James Henry Thomas 22 November 1935 22 May 1936 National Labour
William Ormsby-Gore 28 May 1936 16 May 1938 Conservative
Neville Chamberlain
(4th National Min.;
War Coalition)
Malcolm MacDonald 16 May 1938 12 May 1940 National Labour
The Lord Lloyd 12 May 1940 8 February 1941 Conservative Winston Churchill
(War Coalition)
The Lord Moyne 8 February 1941 22 February 1942 Conservative
Viscount Cranborne 22 February 1942 22 November 1942 Conservative
Oliver Stanley 22 November 1942 26 July 1945 Conservative
George Henry Hall 3 August 1945 4 October 1946 Labour Clement Attlee
Arthur Creech Jones 4 October 1946 28 February 1950 Labour
Jim Griffiths 28 February 1950 26 October 1951 Labour
Oliver Lyttelton 28 October 1951 28 July 1954 Conservative Sir Winston Churchill
Alan Lennox-Boyd 28 July 1954 14 October 1959 Conservative
Sir Anthony Eden
Harold Macmillan
Iain Macleod 14 October 1959 9 October 1961 Conservative
Reginald Maudling 9 October 1961 13 July 1962 Conservative
Duncan Sandys 13 July 1962 16 October 1964 Conservative
Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Anthony Greenwood 18 October 1964 23 December 1965 Labour Harold Wilson
The Earl of Longford 23 December 1965 6 April 1966 Labour
Frederick Lee 6 April 1966 1 August 1966 Labour

Responsibility for the colonies held by:

Following the British Nationality Act 1981 the term "colony" ceased to be used; Britain's rule over Hong Kong, the last significant colony, ceased in 1997. Britain retains certain overseas territories.


  1. American and West Indian colonies before 1782, National Archives
  2. 1 2 Records of the Board of Trade and of successor and related bodies, Department code BT, The National Archives
  3. Council of trade and plantations 1696-1782, in Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 3, Officials of the Boards of Trade 1660-1870, p.28-37. University of London, London, 1974.
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