Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Office of Works

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The origins of the Office of Works lay in the medieval royal household, where royal clerks were assigned responsibility for the construction and maintenance of royal castles and fortifications, royal residences and a range of other "King's works" for successive monarchs.

From 1378, a formal structure emerged for the Office of Works

By the early 17th century the Surveyor General of the King's Works and a board of senior officials controlled a substantial and wide-ranging operation.

1609 Regulations issued for the conduct and operation of the Office of Works placed it under the control of the Lord Treasurer.

1660 the office was placed under the control of its four principal officers, often collectively referred to as the 'Board of Works'.

After 1718 the surveyor general of the works was a layman, but the comptroller was generally an architect. Two architects of the works, first appointed in 1761, had seats on the board from 1767.

1782 the principal offices were abolished as part of a scheme of economic reform. The officers were replaced by a single Surveyor General and Comptroller of the Works, who had to be an architect or builder. The Office of Works itself was absorbed into the reorganised Royal Household.

1814 Further reorganisation brought the Office under closer Treasury control.

1815 The Office passed out of the royal household and was placed directly under the Treasury, which issued a code of instructions for its management.

The office was headed by a surveyor general, aided by an assistant surveyor and cashier, by examining and drawing and measuring clerks and three professional 'attached architects'. Its responsibilities were extended to cover public buildings maintained by parliamentary funds, as well as royal palaces and other buildings now paid for out of the civil list, and works for ceremonial occasions.

1832 as an economy measure the Office of Works was consolidated with the Office of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues. The Office of Works maintained its separate identity as the Works Department of the combined Office, receiving its own parliamentary vote, and headed by a Surveyor of Works and Buildings.

1851 The two offices were separated again, putting expenditure on public works back within parliamentary control. The Works Department was re-established as a separate office under the control of a First Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings who was appointed by royal warrant.

The Board of Works was constituted a corporation for each statute under which the Commissioners of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings had been empowered to act.

1852 The Office was incorporated in more general terms with power to accept, purchase and take lands and hereditaments and to convey, lease or otherwise deal with such property with the consent of the Treasury.

The functions of the revived Office of Works were those that it had carried out before 1832, with the addition of certain duties hitherto undertaken by the Commissioners of Woods. It was also responsible for the provision and maintenance of buildings overseas.

By the beginning of WWI, the Office consisted of a Secretariat, including a Contracts Branch; Architects and Surveyors, Engineering, Supplies, Parks and Finance Divisions; and the Ancient Monuments Branch.

WWI the office carried out work for other government departments on land acquisition and the erection and conversion of buildings for wartime purposes.

1920 The Office of Works was reorganised, to make the administrative divisions of the Secretariat responsible for control and policy only; the remainder of the work was divided between eight advisory and executive divisions.

1940 Formation of the Ministry of Works and Buildings. The new department took over the whole organisation of the Office of Works. It was made responsible for all new civil works and buildings required by other government departments, including the provision for them of additional and emergency accommodation and the maintenance of a central register of accommodation.

Other specifically wartime functions included new building work as part of the war effort; structural precautions against damage to public buildings from air raids and repair of damage to such buildings; the co-ordination of government building programmes and control of the building and building materials industries; and long-term planning for postwar physical reconstruction.

1942 Reorganised as the Ministry of Works and Planning incorporating the statutory planning powers transferred from the Ministry of Health.

1943 The planning divisions of the ministry were removed to form the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. The Ministry of Works and Buildings was renamed the Ministry of Works.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  • [1] National Archives