Of shoes and ships and sealing wax: the conditions of service for professional staff

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From: Wilson, H.E. Down to earth - one hundred and fifty years of the British Geological Survey. Edinburgh:Scottish Academic Press, 1985.
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[Median salaries of the Geologist grades] The dotted line represents the cost of a box of matches!.

IX Of shoes and ships and sealing wax: the conditions of service for professional staff[edit]

The six editions of 'Regulations for the guidance of Officers of the Geological Survey of Great Britain and the Museum of Practical Geology', covering the period 1867 to 1970, offer some insight into the development of the logistical side of the organisation.

Murchison's 1867 Regulations specified that field work should occupy nine hours each day, presumably for a six day week, 'from the time he leaves his quarters till the hour of his return'. There were three Assistant Geologists to each Geologist, the former paid 7 shillings (35p) — 12 shillings (60p) per day, the latter £230 — £350 per annum. The Palaeontologist rated £300 — £400, District Surveyors £400 — £500 while Fossil Collectors got only 3 shillings to 6 shillings (15 — 30p) per day.

Geologists and upwards got six weeks leave a year, the rest four weeks.

Field geologists were expected to live in the areas they were mapping and no field allowances were paid. Men and their families found rented accommodation in their districts and remained there until told to move, when they were given one night's allowance about the equivalent of a day's pay — a first class rail ticket, and an allowance for 18 cwt of luggage above office necessities and normal passenger allowance. Not until the end of the nineteenth century was the idea that geologists might wish to have a permanent residence mentioned in the regulations — an interesting comment on social values of the time. Clearly only the top people, District Surveyors and above, were expected to own, or even rent, homes of their own. The rest were regarded as itinerant workers. When Du Noyer applied for an allowance for moving his furniture from one station to another in 1867 he was told by Murchison that he was . . an ubiquitous observer who is not to be stationed permanently in any one place'.

Many of the early surveyors never, or rarely, came to headquarters and communicated only through their 'Quarterly Returns of Work' and accounts of expenditure. The story of Ussher, sent to the south-west in 1870 and remaining there till he retired in 1909, who was said to have never been in London during this time, may well have been true.

While this arrangement may have suited the management, and perhaps some of the field staff, it obvioarprovoked friction and dissatisfaction among others. The Confidential Reports for 1880 are notable for remarks like — 'Is apt to throw difficulties in the way of changing quarters' (J R Dakyns); 'Changes station easily' (W H Dalton); 'Somewhat tardy in changing stations' (H Miller); 'Satisfactory in all ways including changing station' (C T Clough). A man's future may have been determined by his willingness to move his wife and family from a familiar location to a new and unknown town at irregular intervals.

Geikie's Regulations of 1885 repeated much of Murchison, but had some interesting variants. Field geologists were told that:-'should he meet with a phenomenon he cannot understand, or find any difficulty in carrying out his work, he will apply for assistance or advice to the officer under whom he is placed'.

And, though in Ireland and the coalfields mapping was done on the six-inch to one mile scale:

in the general mapping of Scotland and the Drift Survey of England, 6 inch maps are supplied for use in the field but it must be distinctly understood that as work in these cases will not be published except at the scale of 1 inch to 1 mile only such detail is to be drawn on the six inch maps as is to be published on the one inch scale.

This was clearly inspired by the agitation in Hampshire, doubtless conceived by Whitaker, for publication on the six-inch scale (see p.103).

For the first time Petrographical work was referred to in the 1885 regulations — fossil collectors were also to collect rocks 'for slicing'.

Pay scales had increased slightly since 1867 — Director-General got £800 a year (plus £300 as Curator of the Museum), Directors £520 £600, District Surveyors £420 — £500, Geologists £275 — £400, Assistant Geologists 7 shillings to 14 shillings a day — but Palaeontologists were downgraded to £250 — £350 and Fossil Collectors stayed at 3 to 6 shillings.

An 1898 revision suggested that all field mapping was on the six-inch scale — the provisos of the 1885 issue were dropped. Field work was still on a nine hour day but those on office work were only expected to work for six hours, for officers appointed before August 1890, and seven hours for later appointees.

This seems to be the first example of selling of birthright, a process to become increasingly common as the years went on, when the conditions for future recruits were impaired, provided the incumbents were not affected.

The first recognition of the rights of the field geologists to have a permanent home came in these regulations, with the acknowledgement that officers on out-station duty who had permanent residences, might be granted personal allowance sufficient to cover their extra expenses.

Also, again for the first time, it was specified that the Director-General could call on any officer to retire at 60, while retirement would be compulsory at 65, but in exceptional cases, 70. This was a judicious exception — Geikie was 63 in 1898!.

In 1901 Teall, in the wake of the Wharton enquiry and Geikie's departure, issued a new edition of the Regulations. Field work was now to be based on a seven hour day, same as indoors, and a half holiday was permitted on alternate Saturdays 'if the state of public business permitted'! Field staff were still expected, if they did not have a permanent residence, to live in lodgings at their stations on their pay, but if they could not obtain lodgings and had to stay in an inn, or on out-station duty, personal allowance 'may be granted to cover the extra expense'. Personal allowance was not regarded as a source of profit, but was granted to protect the surveyor against actual loss!

Salaries had risen at the top — District Geologist up to £600 but with the disappearance of the Assistant Geologist grade the Geologists salaries ranged from £120 to £400 (no increase at the top and a promotion bar at £300). For the first time the note about entitlement to first and second class rail travel — no-one was expected to travel third class — had the injunction: 'An officer travelling by a lower class than that for which he charges fare acts disgracefully and merits dismissal'. This stricture, first recognised at the turn of the century, is still with us — in 1981 officers buying rail tickets for cash were required to quote the ticket number on their travel claims!

Leave for Geologists and upwards remained at 6 weeks, but increased to 8 weeks after 10 years service. The lower orders clerks, fossil collectors, General Assistants — got 14 days, increased to 21 days (3 weeks) after 5 years. Those fortunates appointed before 21st March 1890 — what was the significance of these various dates in 1890? — got 10 Public Holidays, the newcomers only 7, not New Years Day, a third day at Christmas, nor the Saturday after Good Friday. Retirement might be called for at 60, and from 1903 would be required at 63 if maximum pension had been reached (62 from 1904).

In the 1906 edition, still with Teall as Director, only DGs and above were allowed first class travel, Geologists were downgraded to 2nd class and the rest to 3rd. Personal Allowances were renamed Subsistence Allowances and ranged from 5/- at the bottom to £1 at the top.

By 1912 specific allowances for Field Work had been introduced — Field Work Subsistence on a graduated scale 10/- per week for the first 2 years of service, 15/- for the next 3, £1 for the next 5, £1.5.0d for the next 5 and, finally, after 15 years, £1.10.0d.

The last printed Regulations were issued by Flett in 1924. These were the most comprehensive, including not only n y th e salaries etc. but detailed job statements for all grades down to General Assistants. A new grade of Technical Assistant had now been introduced. Salaries had risen again — Director got £1200, (not a lot when compared with Geikie's £800 + £300 as Curator of the Museum), District Geologists £750, Senior Geologists £650, Geologists £250 — £450, Geologists on Probation £300 (why did they get more than Geologists?) and Technical Assistants up to £300. 'Detention Allowances when employed on Field work' now ranged from 10 /- per night for DGs, to 6 /- for Geologists on probation.

An interesting side-light on the medical opinion of the time was the emphasis on infectious diseases. Officers suffering from infectious diseases (not specified) were on no account to write to, or even sign letters to, superior officers, while if an officer's child got such a disease he was to get lodgings away from home and could only return to work on production of a medical certificate of freedom from infection. It is difficult for us now to realise, shielded as we are by antibiotics, how frightened people were in the pre-penicillin era by such diseases as 'scarlet fever', typhoid, and even measles, for which there were no specific drugs and which often proved fatal. (Ed. I can recall my brother getting scarlet fever in the early 1930s. The house was solemnly sprayed with phenolic disinfectants by a couple of men from the local public health authority and I was kept away from school for three weeks).

From the earliest days of Murchison publications, in any form, had to be approved by the Director, but throughout the period covered by the printed regulations it was tacitly assumed that geologists could use their expertise on private commissions provided no unpublished official information was used or official time taken. No reference to the author being an officer of the Geological Survey was to be made in any report. If the private work concerned an area in which the officer had worked officially he was adjured to ask permission of his District Surveyor — but provided leave of absence was taken such work was condoned. It is said that De Rance's early retirement was, at least in part, due to his abuse of this privilege.

Even the regulations in 1924 were explicit — officers could undertake private work except that using unpublished information.

The first clash on this appears to have been in 1939 when K C Dunham was refused permission to do some private repayment work on the brucite marbles of Skye, (on which he had worked before he joined the Survey), because DSIR considered it to be 'consulting'. In spite of the examples of permission given for lecturing and external examining quoted, the authorities were adamant and thereafter no private work was officially condoned. This principle was enshrined in the Treasury ruling in the 1950s which allowed that Civil Servants could capitalise on non-official specialisms such as a 'knowledge of Chinese Ceramics', but were totally forbidden to undertake any private consultation in their official profession.

After World War II the morale of staff received a considerable boost when the Barlow Committee on the Scientific Civil Service in 1945 recommended parity with the Administrative Civil Service. As a result of the Geological Survey Staff Association's representations the grade-denominations of Geologist, Senior Geologist and District Geologist were accepted and that of Principal Geologist was introduced in 1946. At this time the 'career value' of a top-link Scientist was officially regarded as a Principal Geologist (PSO) and for the next thirty-five years any competent geologist could look forward to this grade in his thirties. At the same time the somewhat vague 'Assistant' and similar grades were abolished and replaced by a new 'Experimental Officer' class, with a clearly defined career structure.

The pay scales quoted in the notice for the 'Reconstruction Competition' for scientific staff in 1947 were, particularly at the bottom of the scale, not very different from the 1924 levels: Geologists £275 — 500, Senior Geologist £550 — 750, Principal Geologist £800 — 1100, District Geologist £1200 — 1400, Assistant Director £1600 — 1800. Field rates for staff on long-term programmes, ranged from 17/- (85p) for District Geologist to 12/6 (62p) for junior staff, per day.

The next decade was a period of relative stability and consolidation. Scientific staff numbers built gradually from 70 in 1948 to 127 in 1965, before the amalgamation with Overseas Geological Surveys, and salary scales kept pace with the moderate rates of inflation, reaching median figures (all grades had long scales, rising by annual increment) of about £1000 for Geologists, £1500 for Senior Geologists and £2100 for Principal Geologists. Field rates ranged from £1.50 to £1.15 per day.

The mid-Sixties were a fairly traumatic period. In 1965 came the Overseas Geological Survey amalgamation, followed by the Fulton Committee of enquiry.

In 1966 Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed a committee headed by the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University, Lord Fulton, to investigate the Civil Service. This enquiry was prompted by the widely-held view that the British Civil Service was a 'gently ossified muddle staffed by intelligent, urbane innocents', products of the Oxbridge arts faculties, and the report of the committee, in 1968, seemed to justify these beliefs. They found that the cult of the 'generalist', or cultured amateur, was 'obsolete at all levels and in all parts of the Service'; that engineers, scientists and other specialists were excluded from adminstration; and that there were 1400 separate grades in the organisation.

To remedy the weaknesses they proposed a comprehensive series of reforms which, at the time, seemed to offer a new deal to the down-trodden. All the original classes were to be abolished and replaced by a single grading structure; specialists were to be given the opportunity to rise to the top of the administrative pyramid: a new Civil Service Department would take over the administration of the service from the dead hand of the Treasury. The Wilson administration accepted these recommendations and the first steps were duly taken — the Civil Service Department was established and lip-service was paid to reform but, as related by Anthony Sampson, Sir William Armstrong, then head of the Civil Service, had no intention of opening the floodgates. He told Wilson 'It isn't on for doctors, lawyers or engineers to become administrators. The traffic would all be one way!'

Armstrong, who shortly afterwards left the Civil Service to take a very highly paid job in the private sector, was well supported by the Civil Service establishment and within a few years the Fulton 'reforms' were largely forgotten. The Administrative side of the service continues virtually unchanged with its three clear classes - Administrative, Executive and Clerical, each with its own hierarchy (and difficult class to class movement); the number of 'specialists' in administration is still miniscule; and the mandarins are stillpredominantly Oxbridge classicists. Only in one sector did Fulton prevail — and that among people most of whom were not even Civil Servants!

To demonstrate their zeal for reform, the mandarins decreed that the Fulton reforms would be applied to the Scientific Civil Service and the Research Councils. The old grades of Scientific Assistant, Experimental Officer and Scientific Officer were all assimilated to one 'Scientific Officer' scale. This 'reform' was welcomed enthusiastically by most of the Scientific Assistant and Experimental Officer grades, and by many of the SO grades whose social consciences were stirred by the mood of the times.

The short-term results were a great increase in the SO establishment — all EOs became SOs, SEOs became SSOs and all ancillary grades became ASOs. In the cases of many old-established staff in the EO grade this regrading, and financial uprating, was satisfactory to the people concerned and acceptable to their Scientific Officer grade colleagues, but it also meant that large numbers of poorly qualified people found themselves on what seemed to be a ladder leading to unlimited heights.

Pre-Fulton, the hierarchical order in the Scientific Service was well-defined. So far as the geological service was concerned the Scientific Officer class was recruited from people with good honours degrees; the Experimental Officer class drew its recruits mainly from school leavers with pre-University qualifications who chose not to spend a further three years on study, and those who had got a basic degree. Class to class promotion, though not uncommon, was difficult and required a level of scientific innovation which was not easy for most of the EO grade to achieve. Those successful were usually in specialist units — Casey in Cretaceous palaeontology, B.R. Young in X-ray crystallography — and most Experimental Officers did not have the opportunity to develop original work to this extent. Nevertheless the EO class offered its members a clearly defined career structure, through EO and SEO to, rarely, CEO, and this ensured a degree of stability in the organisation.

Since 1971, when the Fulton reforms were implemented, this stability has been lost. At first covertly, but now overtly, junior staff are recruited as Scientific Officers Band 1 (high-flyers with top honours degree) Band II (lower honours) or Band III (pass degree). Though it is supposedly implied that Band III entrants are support staff, in practice, after a few years, people see themselves as frustrated SOs who are unjustifiably refused promotion. There is no clearly stated career target for slow stream staff, so they do not know whether they can or will make PSO, and their resentment at the more rapid advancement of fast-stream contemporaries becomes overt and is reflected in their work.

To put it clearly — Fulton's effects on the scientific service have been an unmitigated disaster.


Salary scales in the 1970s kept pace with the rampant inflation which was the distinctive feature of the British economy. They can perhaps i be best illustrated by the following graph of median salaries:

Similarly, field allowances climbed gradually through the sixties, from about £1 a day to £2. From their inception these were intended to cover a geologist's expenses in renting rooms — including one to be used as an office for work on maps and to receive visitors. In some ways this allowance was an untaxed perquisite — often it was possible to obtain 'digs' for less than the allowance and, for single men who did not have to maintain a home 'base', field work was profitable.

In 1970 the Field Rate was defined as equal to 150% of the Married Officers rate of Lodging Allowance on the Civil Service Scale, and during the next decade this soared from 35/6 (£1.77) to £15.45 per day, making it possible to live on a much more lavish scale than in the past. Even with this, however, many people in the non-field units managed to arrange that their sojourns in the field, at one station, lasted for less than the statutory 21 days, for which time they were able to claim much higher rates of allowance.

With each revision of the Civil Service rates of allowance the new rates of Field Allowance had to be approved separately by the Civil Service Department and in 1981 someone in that Department blew the whistle on automatic approval, pointing out that there was no logical reason why a single non-householder, or even a single person with a permanent home at his permanant station, should get the same allowance as a married householder. So from that time field allowances acquired the same complex range of rates as other allowances!


The six weeks leave (36 working days) allowed by Murchison's 1867 Regulations was presumably the Civil Service norm for the time and has lasted ever since. From 1901 a half holiday was allowed on alternative Saturdays — 'if the state of public business allowed' and this was increased to every Saturday in the 1920s. The half-day was a privilege, however, and not a right, and a Saturday morning off involved the sacrifice of a full day's leave. For a period from the 1901 Regulations, leave entitlement rose to 48 days (eight weeks) for geological staff after ten years service. This extra two weeks was lost at the outbreak of war in 1939 and, despite promises, never regained.

In 1956 the principle of the five-day week was accepted throughout the Civil Service and Saturday morning work ended. This was accompanied by the reduction of the leave allowance for existing staff from 36 to 30 days for geologists — but future entrants were only to get 22 days at first, increasing by stages to 30 after about 10 years. The Treasury was extracting its pound of flesh and as usual sugared the pill by letting those in post keep their privileges.

Special Merit Promotion[edit]

As early as the Barlow Committee in 1945 it was realised that to retain outstanding scientists it would be necessary to offer exceptional people accelerated promotion up to Principal Scientific Officer. As time went on, and the demand for able and experienced scientists in industry and the universities increased, it became apparent that the rate of 'fluid complementing' in the Scientific Civil Service, up to PSO level, was not enough. A further system of accelerated advancement was therefore introduced, known as Special Merit Promotion, whereby exceptional Principal Scientific Officers could be promoted to Senior Principal and thence to Deputy Chief Scientific Officer, even if no normal vacancy existed, if their special expertise deserved their full-time devotion to it, without administrative responsibility.

The first Survey man to be so promoted was R Casey, a palaeontologist with special interests in the Cretaceous-Jurassic boundary, in 1964 and he was followed by Tommy Deans of Overseas Division, a world authority on carbonatites; Bill Ramsbottom, another palaeontologist specialising in the Carboniferous; Stuart Crampin of Global Seismology; Walter Mykura of the Highlands and Islands Field Unit; John Cobbing, a granite specialist in Overseas Division and Jane Plant, an innovative geochemist in Metalliferous Minerals and Applied Geochemistry. A total of seven such distinctions in twenty years, however, is well below the ratio in other NERC establishments and seems to illustrate the pro-biological bias of NERC over the years.


The 1898 Regulations about age of retirement still remain in force but the compulsory age of 65 has been reduced, in effect if not in print, to 60 and now virtually all staff are required to retire at this age. This produces the interesting effect that graduates joining the Survey in their twenties cannot earn the maximum retirement pension of half their final salary, based on one eightieth of their salary for each year of service. At one time some members were re-employed after formal retirement at two grades lower than their former rank but this practice has now also declined and such post-retirement work as is now available is in the form of contracts to carry out specific projects, usually the completion of Memoirs or other publications.

The Distaff Side[edit]

For its first hundred years the Survey was an exclusive male preserve. Female emancipation in the professions started with the courageous women who forced entry into the Scottish medical schools in the nineteenth century, but geology as a subject for women was slow to develop, though the redoubtable Marie Stopes became a lecturer in Palaeobotany in 1904.

The first woman to appear in the Survey record as a Geologist was Miss E. M. Guppy who was an assistant in the Petrographer's department in the thirties and was promoted to Geologist in 1943. When McLintock became Director in 1945 he took her to the second floor as his Personal Assistant and when he retired in 1951 she remained as P A to the new Director, Pugh. Because of D S I R objections to the employment of a Scientific Officer in this capacity, however, she reverted to the Grade of Senior Experimental Officer.

In the post-war years more women began to study the subject and the first direct entry as a Geologist was Diane Knill in 1957. The first female head of a unit was Edna Waine, who became a SPSO in 1978, in charge of the Analytical and Ceramics Unit.

By the early eighties the proportion of female geologists was about 10%, widely distributed throughout the organisation. The only remaining male bastion is the Overseas programme, where the unaccepability of female staff in Moslem countries and the general problems of work in underdeveloped areas has mitigated against the employment of women. But even here the barriers are crumbling female scientists from specialist units have already worked in several overseas projects.

Staff Associations and Unions[edit]

The earliest attempt by the staff to form a collective negotiating body seems to have been at the time of the Wharton Committee in 1900, when the memorial presented by the staff must have been prepared by an association of some kind. Unfortunately there are no records of the formation of this body or its subsequent metamorphosis into the Scientific Staff Association (SSA) which was certainly in being in 1921. There is some hearsay evidence that it was originally called the Geological Staff Association.

The Association was a founder member of the Society of Civil Servants, one of the first Civil Service unions, and up to 1964 most of the geologist staff were members of SCS as well as of the SSA, the former being used for external relations but the latter retaining direct and unrestricted access to the Director on internal matters. The SSA also negotiated directly with the Secretary and Establishment Officer of DSIR.

After the Barlow reforms of 1945 the unique position of Geological Survey staff — except for the Royal Observatory the earliest Government scientific organisation — was abrogated and in 1946 DSIR decided that 'the staff of the Geological Survey shall be dealt with as an integral part of the Scientific Civil Service'. In the following years the position of the SSA vis-a-vis the Society of Civil Servants became increasingly difficult because the latter had no official remit to represent scientific staff on the intricate official side/staff side negotiating arrangements, canonized as the 'Whitley Councils'. At the same time the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, another Civil Service union, pressed strongly for the transfer of scientific staff to its rolls.

Though the SSA resisted for over a decade the time came when the Society of Civil Servants could no longer refuse the demands and the transfer took place in 1964.

The IPCS trade-union system of branch and sections allowed no place for a separate staff association and the SSA was disbanded. Direct contact with the Director and DSIR ceased and thereafter all negotiation was through Whitley Councils at different levels. As IPCS represented not only the professional staff but a variety of grades including technicians and draughtsmen the old unique status of Geological staff had gone for ever!

Decline and Fall[edit]

In 1966 the terms Geologist, Senior Geologist and Principal Geologist appeared in the Annual Report for the last time thereafter all were regarded as Scientific Officers, in keeping with other members of the Scientific Civil Service. The title of District Geologist, for the heads of field units, remained for a further seventeen years, though they were officially regarded as Senior Principal Scientific Officers.

Since the Barlow reforms SPSOs had been equated with the lower half of the Assistant Secretary Grade of the Administrative class while DCSOs had equalled the upper half, but the introduction of an intermediate grade of Senior Principal in the Administrative class during the 1970s allowed the Treasury to reduce the SPSO equivalence to Senior Principal and salary equivalence with Assistant Secretary was formally removed in 1983. During the same period the salary equivalence of Principal Scientific Officer with the Administrative grade of Principal was gradually eroded and in the 1980s scientific staff earn about £1000 p.a. less than their Administrative equals. At the time of writing there is strong Treasury pressure to reduce the 'Career Grade' for scientific staff to Senior Scientific Officer and reverse the Barlow reforms.

The Mandarins, always resentful of Barlow's reorganisation, have continued to differentiate between Scientific and Administrative staff and appear to have won the latest round in the battle to preserve the uniquely British system of amateur hegemony over the professionals. It is no wonder that the UK languishes at the bottom of the league of developed countries if this is typical of Government thinking. So much for the 'Technological Revolution'.