Colonial Office

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Colonial Office
Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1952.png
Seal of HM Government from 1837 to 1952
Office overview
Formed-1801, 1854-1969
JurisdictionUnited Kingdom
Headquarters1 Horse Guards Road
Westminster, London
Ministers responsible

The Colonial Office was a government department of the Kingdom of Great Britain and later of the United Kingdom, first created to deal with the colonial affairs of British North America but needed also to oversee the increasing number of colonies of the British Empire. In 1801 it merged with the War Department to create the War and Colonial Office. In 1854 when the renamed War and Colonial Department was separated and the Colonial Office was reestablished. Despite its name, the Colonial Office was never responsible for all Britain's Imperial territories; for example protectorates fell under the purview of the Foreign Office, British India was ruled by the East India Company until 1858 (thereafter being succeeded by the India Office as a result of the Indian Mutiny), whilst the Dominions were later carved out as the Empire matured.

It was headed by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, also known more informally as the Colonial Secretary.


Prior to 1768, responsibility for the affairs of the British colonies was part of the duties of the Secretary of State for the Southern Department and a committee of the Privy Council known as the Board of Trade and Plantations.[1]

In 1768 the separate American or Colonial Department was established, in order to deal with colonial affairs in British North America. With the loss of the American colonies, however, the department was abolished in 1782. Responsibility for the remaining colonies was given to the Home Office, and subsequently (1801) transferred to the War Office.

The Colonial Office and the Foreign Office have very distinct histories. The British Colonies were initially administered jointly by the Secretary of State for War, through the War Department, and the Board of Trade, who were focused on their own interests, not necessarily the Colonies themselves. From 1795 all the attention was aimed at the war with France, especially under Lord Hobart, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1801 as head of the new War and Colonial Office. This resulted in the Colonies being neglected. Even Prime Ministers took very little interest in the Colonies. It was not until 1825 that the Colonial Office took prime responsibility for administering the British Colonies. In contrast the Foreign Office, formed in 1782, had always enjoyed a large degree of control over its own affairs.[2]

In 1854, the War and Colonial Department was divided in two, and a new Colonial Office was created to deal specifically with the affairs in the colonies and assigned to the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The Colonial Office did not have responsibility for all British possessions overseas: for example, both the Indian Empire (or Raj) and other British territories near India, were under the authority of the India Office from 1854. Other, more informal protectorates, such as the Khedivate of Egypt, fell under the authority of the Foreign Office.

The increasing independence of the Dominions – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa – following the 1907 Imperial Conference, led to the formation of a separate Dominion Division within the Colonial Office. From 1925 onwards the UK ministry included a separate Secretaries of State for Dominion Affairs were appointed.

On 16 April 1947 the Irgun placed a bomb at the Colonial Office which failed to detonate.[3][4] The plot was linked to the 1946 Embassy bombing.[5]

After the Dominion of India and Dominion of Pakistan gained independence in 1947, the Dominion Office was merged with the India Office to form the Commonwealth Relations Office.

In 1966, the Commonwealth Relations Office was re-merged with the Colonial Office, forming the Commonwealth Office. Two years later, this department was itself merged into the Foreign Office, establishing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Colonial Office had its offices in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Main Building in Whitehall.


  1. Colonial Office, The Canadian Encyclopedia
  2. Mitchell, Keith (8 December 2014). "Administrators of the British Empire - History of government". HM Government UK. Retrieved 26 September 2019.
  3. "Time Bomb Found in London after British hang Gruner as Terrorist in Holy Land". Google News. St. Petersburg Times. Apr 17, 1947. Retrieved 26 September 2019.
  4. "Police Say Woman Bomb "Planter" Now in Custody". The Age. A.A.P. 13 June 1947. The woman, who is a Jewess, claims French nationality. Officers of the special branch of Scotland Yard who have been investigating Jewish terrorist activities are satisfied the man who made the bomb is also under arrest.
  5. "EUROPE-WIDE SEARCH FOR MAN WHO MADE BOMB". The Argus (Melbourne). A.A.P. 19 April 1947. Retrieved 26 September 2019. The bomb was of the same type as that used in the explosion at the i British Embassy in Rome last year and in several other outrages by Jewish terrorists.