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Running a government department - Victorian style

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If I could go back in time and meet a figure from history, I would choose George Graham. Football fans might think of a different George Graham, but I am interested in the man who was Registrar General of England and Wales, for nearly four decades. What they have in common is that both were successful managers in their respective fields.

George Graham
George Graham: Registrar General 1842-1879

‘My’ George Graham was appointed Registrar General in 1842 by the Home Secretary, Sir James Graham, who also happened to be his brother. He had been Sir James’ private secretary at the Home Office, and prior to that was an officer in the Indian Army, where he learnt a thing or two about managing and motivating large numbers of men, experience which he put to good use in his new post.

He inherited an organisation, the General Register Office (GRO), designed by his predecessor, Thomas Lister, to administer the completely new and untried system of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths from 1837.

Modifying the system

Graham saw no reason to alter Lister’s basic framework, but some details needed attention. He announced his intention to strictly enforce the rules, and one of the first things he noticed was that there was no audit trail for the money spent on postage, which seemed rather high. So he made enquiries at all the Post Offices within walking distance of Somerset House and found that the sums expended there on official GRO business fell considerably below the amount claimed for postage expenses by Mr Rose, the office keeper. There was insufficient evidence for a prosecution, so Rose was allowed to resign, and promptly emigrated to Australia.

In the following decades Graham had to deal with a number of challenges in running his department, starting with the building itself. Somerset House was very impressive to look at, but uncomfortable to work in – in the winter of 1855 the temperature was as low as 42°F (5.5°C) with all the heating on. By contrast, it could also be too hot in summer, and at least one infestation by rats was reported in The Times! For many of the staff the work was also tedious and repetitive, which led him to suggest in 1865 that the birth, marriage and death indexes should be printed in future, instead of hand-written:

"the monotony of constant writing persevered in during 9 or 10 hours every day on Task Work tends to stupefy and to destroy the senses of those employed on such never ceasing work"

The ‘Task Work’ to which he referred was the system whereby the clerks were paid according to the amount of work they produced, rather than the hours they worked. He was a great believer in this system, where the work could be measured and checked and fines inflicted for errors.  He found it particularly effective when employing temporary staff, based on his years of experience:

"I am also acquainted with the system of employing boys from 13 to 16 years of age at very low wages and then discharging them ; but I do not approve of either system in established government offices. I have had great experience of temporary clerks and boys in a temporary office; having had under my control 105 temporary clerks, 37 of whom were not 20 years old.

If temporary clerks and writers and boys are on day pay, they may be placed at desks; but no amount of supervision can obtain from all of them a good day's work. They know that the more work they execute in a day, the sooner their temporary employment will cease and they will be again turned adrift; therefore it is their interest to do as little work as possible."

A humane employer?

He expected a high standard of work and behaviour from his staff: his extensive correspondence with the Treasury includes requests that certain clerks should not receive their annual pay rise, or bonus payment, due to poor work or in one case ‘gross misconduct’. But there are many more instances where he intervened personally to ask for gratuities for staff not entitled to any pension, or for their widows and families.

The clerks’ rates of pay were not high, and there were few prospects for promotion. Many of them had persistent money worries, and as a result often fell into debt, and even bankruptcy. This was a problem for the office as a whole, not just the men and their families. A debtor could move to new lodgings to avoid his creditors, but could not so easily change his place of work, and as Graham remarked:

"I daily find great inconvenience from the irregular attendance of clerks involved in pecuniary difficulties"

The problem was not just that work was left undone due to these staff absences, but that some of the men in debt dragged others down with them. Many had become involved in ‘bill transactions’, a kind of high-interest, short-term loan system, and were offered relief from some of their own debts by recruiting other victims.  A number of men were suspended, and some eventually dismissed, for unauthorised absences and other misdemeanours. But dismissal was usually a last resort, as in the case of William Barton in 1872:

"I have tried every thing to save him and his unhappy family from ruin; but reproofs, loss of pay, reprimands, suspension from employment have no effect upon him."

George Graham seems to have been a comparatively enlightened and humane employer by the standards of his time.

For most of his exceptionally long tenure as Registrar General he worked closely with Dr William Farr, who was first Superintendent of Statistics and latterly Deputy Registrar General. The two men retired at almost the same time, and Graham acknowledged their remarkable partnership in characteristic style as he bowed out in 1879:

" this my last Official communication to their Lordships I venture to express an earnest wish that his excellent services may be recognized with special consideration, and that he may be permitted to receive Full Pay during the rest of his life."

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Stephen Hunt posted on

    Very interesting and enlightening, especially his attitudes towards his employees. Readers of this may also be interesetd to read the book, "People Count A History of the General Register Office" by Muriel Nissel. This was issued in 1987 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of civil registration. The ISBN number is 0116911832 and is avialbe on Amazon, mostly second hand copies from what I can see.