Foreign Office

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Foreign Office
Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1952.png
Department overview
Preceding Department
Superseding department
JurisdictionKingdom of Great Britain
Minister responsible
  • Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
Parent DepartmentHM Government

The Foreign Office was formed in March 1782 by combining the previous responsibilities of the Southern Department and Northern Department each of which covered both foreign and domestic affairs in their parts of the Kingdom. The two departments' foreign affairs responsibilities became the Foreign Office, whilst their domestic affairs responsibilities were assigned to the new Home Office. In 1968 this office merged with the Commonwealth Office to form the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.


Before 1782 the conduct of foreign affairs was divided on a roughly geographical basis, together with responsibilities for home and colonial affairs, between the secretaries of state for the Northern and Southern Departments. On 27 March 1782 Charles James Fox was appointed specifically as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Foreign Office came into existence, being staffed by the clerks of the former Northern Department.

The basic structure of the Foreign Office, headed by a Foreign Secretary and assisted by officials within the office and a diplomatic and consular service abroad, continued throughout its existence. The Foreign Office was responsible for all correspondence with foreign states and negotiations with representatives of other states, liaising with other ministries where necessary. The Foreign Secretary was responsible for the conduct of the British Government's foreign policy on a day to day basis and for presenting that policy to the Cabinet and Parliament.

At first the office was divided into two departments, Northern and Southern, but as the work of the office became greater and more complex the number of departments increased. Most of these departments were organised on a geographical basis and known as political departments, being responsible for policy towards and relations with particular countries or regions. There were, however, other non-political functional departments, such as the Slave Trade Department. In the twentieth century the numbers of these functional departments grew, while the number of political departments fluctuated although the trend was towards a growth in numbers.

On 17 October 1968 the Foreign Office merged with the Commonwealth Office to become the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Service had already in 1965 been merged with the Commonwealth Service and Trade Commission Service to form a new united Diplomatic Service.