Almost 100 years ago, a revolution in government occurred: the first systematic and official record of a Cabinet meeting was created on 9 December 1916. There were other significant changes – a smaller war cabinet and a Cabinet Secretariat to give support, which became the Cabinet Office.
The National Archives is marking this forthcoming centenary with a display in our Research and Enquiries Room and an online resource.
It seems surprising to modern day observers that before 1916 the Cabinet had met without an agenda and secretary, and ministers took action on their recollection of what had been decided at meetings. Prior to 1916, the main archival sources for Cabinet decisions are private letters written by the Prime Minister to the Sovereign after each meeting. The non-existence of official minutes reflected the ‘old school’ approach of ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’; however, it could result in misunderstandings and confusion.
One man was instrumental in shaping the new streamlined processes of modern government: Sir Maurice Hankey. It is interesting to note that Hankey was not a typical civil service bureaucrat who had risen to a senior grade after a long departmental career. His background was military, initially active service as a Royal Marine officer, and he soon made a great impression, being appointed to the Naval Intelligence Department in Whitehall in 1902.
In 1908 he took up a new role as Assistant Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID), which was the principal advisory body on home and overseas defence matters up to September 1939. Although the power of this body was limited, as it lacked executive functions, it carried out useful work. Hankey became Secretary of the CID in 1912 – a post he held until his retirement in 1938.
From his early days with the CID, Hankey ensured that its records were meticulously organised. Through his long period of involvement with defence planning and coordination, Hankey built up a huge fund of knowledge and experience which was to serve him well as Cabinet Secretary during the new era of ‘total warfare’ represented by the First World War (and the increasing tensions of the inter-war years). Continue reading »