Tuesday, May 24, 2005 3:43 AM

The Civil List

Prof. Richard Catlow, F.R.S.,
The Royal Institution,

Dear Richard,

It may be helpful to mention that the Civil List Pension is awarded upon discretion of H. M. Queen Elizabeth II after advice by the Prime Minister and after nomination by a Royal Society, in my case the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). It is voted in by Parliament and is awarded for life (albeit at 1837 levels!). The Prime Minister takes advice from at least three distinguished referees. In my case these were international *). Futher information on the Civil List pension may be obtained from the Department of Work and Pensions.

Therefore the Royal Society is the odd man out in my case, i.e. it is the only major British institiution of relevance NOT to have recognized my contributions. Many think that this is an oversight and an anomaly.

Currently there are 27 Civil List Pensioners in Britain and the Commonwealth, and I have the signal honour of being the only scientist on the Civil List. The Royal Society (RS) was founded as you know to recognise significant contributions to science. My appointment to H. M. Civil List was in recognition of my distinguished contributions to Britain and the Commonwealth in science. It therefore follows that I should be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. Note that this is not "lobbying", it is necessary in view of the fact that the Patroness of the Royal Society is the Queen. I trust that you can see my logic.

As a matter of interest very few scientists have been appointed Civil List Pensioners. These include the great Michael Faraday, Joule (the father of thermodynamics); Brown (the botanist who discovered the Brownian motion), and the Astronomer Royal Airy. Notable poets who were appointed to the Civil List include Lord Byron, Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth. My predecessor form Wales on the Civil List was the distinguished poet Vernon Watkins (1906 to late sixties) who was born in Maesteg and read modern languages at Cambridge. He was a close friend of Dylan Thomas and is commemorated in the Glyn Vivian Gallery in Swansea.

The Civil List is confidential, but may be found in the House of Commons Library.

Myron Evans
(Civil List 2005).

*) John B. Hart Professor Emeritus of Physics, Xavier University Cincinnati, Ohio,
    Bo Lehnert, Professor Emeritus of Physics, KTH Stockholm,
    Alwyn van der Merwe, Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Denver, Colorado


The Law Relating to Crown Pensions

A very important part of the expenditure of the civil list has been caused, in every reign but the present, by the payment of pensions. The grant of pensions by the crown has so often been the subject of political discussion, that a brief explanation of the law and usage by which they were granted, and the funds from which they were payable, will not be devoid of constitutional interest.

Prior to the reign of Queen Anne, the crown had exercised the right of charging its hereditary revenues with pensions and annuities; and it had been held that the king had power, in law, to bind his successors. (1) But on the accession of Queen Anne, in 1701, when alienations of crown lands were for the first time restrained by Parliament, (2) it was also provided that no portion of the hereditary revenues(3) could be alienated for any term, longer than the life of the reigning king.(4)

[257] This Act, however, having been passed before the union with Scotland, did not extend to the hereditary revenues of the Scottish crown. Nor was any similar Act passed in the Parliament of Ireland, restraining grants from the hereditary revenues of Ireland: neither did the Act of Anne extend to the 4½ per cent. duties. Subsequently to this Act, pensions on the hereditary revenues of the crown in England could only be granted during the life of the reigning sovereign: but were practically re-granted at the commencement of every reign. But pensions charged on the hereditary revenues of Scotland and Ireland, and on the 4½ per cent. duties, continued to be granted for the lives of the grantees.

On the accession of George III., the larger branches of the hereditary revenues of the crown of England being surrendered in exchange for a fixed civil list, the pensions which had previously been paid out of the hereditary revenues, were henceforth paid out of the civil list. There was no limit to the amount of the pensions so long as the civil list could meet the demand; and no principle by which the grant of them was regulated, but the discretion of the crown and its advisers.

Limitation of Pensions

No branch of the public expenditure was regarded with so much jealousy, as that arising out of the unrestricted power of granting pensions by the crown. Not only did it involve a serious public burthen, —being one of the principal causes of the civil list debts,— but it increased the [258] influence of the crown, and impaired the independence of Parliament. Mr. Burke, in bringing forward his scheme of economical reform in 1780, dwelt much on the excessive amount of the pension list, and the absence of proper regulations; and particularly adverted to a custom which then prevailed, of granting pensions on a private list, during pleasure, by which dangerous corruption might be practised. Mr. Burke proposed that the English pension list should be gradually reduced to £60,000, and that pensions should be restricted to the reward of merit, and 'real public charity;' extraordinary cases being in future provided for by an address of either house of Parliament.

By the Civil List Act of the Rockingham administration in 1782, the power of granting pensions was considerably limited.(5) It was provided that until the pension list should he reduced to £90,000 no pension above £300 a year should be granted: that the whole amount of pensions bestowed in any year should not exceed £600, a list of which was directed to be laid before Parliament: that the entire pension list should afterwards be restricted to £95,000; and that no pension to any one person should exceed £1,200. This Act fully recognised the principles of Mr. Burke's plan: it affirmed almost in his very words, that by the usage of granting secret pensions during pleasure, 'secret [259] and dangerous corruption may hereafter be practised;' and it directed that in future all pensions should be paid at the Exchequer. It further acknowledged the principle that pensions ought to be granted for two causes only;—viz. as a royal bounty for persons in distress, or as a reward for desert.

So far, therefore, the English pension list was regulated, and made subject to parliamentary control. But the crown still retained ample means, from other sources, of rewarding political or personal services. The hereditary revenues of the crown, in Ireland, amounting to the net sum of £275,102, were still at the sole disposal of the crown, and were even alienable, so as to bind future sovereigns. It is natural that this convenient fund should have been largely charged with pensions. They had been granted in every form,—during the pleasure of the crown, —for the life of the sovereign,—for terms of years,— for the life of the grantee,—and for several lives in being, or in reversion. As there was no control whatever over such grants, the pension list was continually increasing. Complaints had long been made of the reckless prodigality of the crown in bestowing pensions; and so far back as 1757, the Irish House of Commons had unanimously resolved 'that the granting of so much of the public revenue in pensions is an improvident disposition of the revenue, an injury to the crown, and detrimental to the people.' Yet the pension list, which in 1757 had amounted to £40,000, was trebled in the first thirty years of George III.; and, in 1793, had reached the prodigious sum of £124,000. But the [260] abuse had now worked itself out, and could be tolerated no longer. In that year, therefore, the government itself proposed a change, which was readily adopted by the Irish Parliament.(6) The hereditary revenues were surrendered in Ireland,—as they had previously been surrendered in England,—in exchange for a fixed civil list of £146,000, exclusive of pensions; and a pension list of £124,000, to be eventually reduced to £80,000. Meanwhile the crown was restrained from granting pensions, in any one year, exceeding £1,200: but still retained and exercised the power of granting pensions for life, and in reversion. It was not until 1813 that the Irish pension list was reduced to £80,000, as contemplated by this Act. On the accession of George IV., this list was further reduced to £60,000: no grants exceeding £1,200 in any one year being permitted until that reduction had been effected.(7)

The hereditary revenues of the crown, in Scotland, remained exempt from parliamentary control, until 1810. At that time, the pensions charged upon them amounted to £39,000. It was then arranged by Parliament that no amount greater than £800 should be granted in any one year, until the pensions had been reduced to £25,000; and that no pension exceeding £300 a year should be given to any one person.(8) There was still one fund left beyond the control of Parliament, and of course amply charged with pensions. The 4½ per cent. duties [261] were not surrendered until 1830, when William IV. gave up his own life interest in them: the pensions previously granted being still payable by the state.

At this time, the three pension lists of England, Scotland, and Ireland, were consolidated; and the entire civil pension list for the United Kingdom was reduced from £145,750 to £75,000; the remainder of the pensions being charged upon the Consolidated Fund.

Finally, on the accession of her present Majesty, the right of the crown to grant pensions was restricted to £1,200 a year. Such pensions were now confined, according to the terms of a resolution of the House of Commons, of the 18th Feb. 1834, to 'such persons as have just claims on the royal beneficence, or who, by their personal services to the crown, by the performance of duties to the public, or by their useful discoveries in science, and attainments in literature and the arts, have merited the gracious consideration of their sovereign, and the gratitude of their country.'(9) At the same time an inquiry was directed by the House of Commons to be made into the existing pension list, which resulted in the voluntary surrender of some pensions, and the suspension or discontinuance of others.(10)

The pensions thus reduced in amount, and subjected to proper regulation, have since been beyond the reach of constitutional jealousy. They no longer afford the means of corruption,—they add [262] little to the influence of the crown,—they impose a trifling burthen on the people,—and the names of those who receive the royal bounty are generally such as to command respect and sympathy.


  1. Bankers' Case, 1691; State Trials, xiv. 3-43.
  2. Supra, p. 229.
  3. The hereditary revenues specified in the Act were these: the hereditary duties on beer, ale, or other liquors, the post-office, first-fruits and tenths, fines on writs, post fines, wine licenses, sheriffs' processes and compositions, and seizures of uncustomed and prohibited goods.
  4. 1 Anne, st. 1. c. 7.
  5. 22 Geo. III. c. 82. On the 21st February, 1780, Sir G. Savile's motion for a list of the pensions was lost by a majority of two only—Parl. Hist., xxi. 104; Lord Stanhope's Life of Pitt, i. 37 (Letter from Pitt).
  6. 33 Geo. III. c. 34 (Ireland).
  7. Geo. IV. c. 1. s. 10.
  8. 50 Geo. III. c. 111.
  9. 1 Vict. c. 2: Report on Civil List, Dec. 6th, 1837.
  10. Report on Pensions, 24th July, 1838.
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