Indian Civil Service

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Scene at High Court, Burma

The Indian Civil Service may be abbreviated ICS. Before 1858 it was known as the Honourable East India Company's Civil Service.

The service was a cadre of men appointed to administer India and may also known as the Covenanted Civil Service. Employees were required to pass examinations to University level and signed a covenant or 'bond' of good behaviour to serve the East India Company only, as a condition of appointment. The term 'Indian Civil Service' is also used loosely of the Indian public services in general.


Initially, the Honourable East India Company Civil Servants handled the civil administration of India, they were covenanted to provide a lifetime of service.

Civil service control was transferred to the Indian Government under the Government of India Act of 1858 afterwards new members of the service were contracted for a 10 year term. The creation of the Imperial Civil Service of India was as a result of the 1886–87 Public Service Commission recommendation.

Covenanted service was given by the elite top ranks of the Civil Service who gave a pledge good behaviour. Lower ranks that took Uncovenanted Service were recuited in India, be they English, Indian, or Anglo Indian.

A subcategory of the Indian Civil Service was the Indian Political Service whose members were responsible for the civil administration of frontier districts and also served as British Agents to rulers of Princely States.


Madras High Court

In the Regulated Provinces, those that were the older provinces with a long period of settled administration e.g. Madras, Bombay, the positions (after 1858) were:

  • Assistant (to Magistrate and Collector)
  • Deputy Collector
  • Joint Magistrate,
  • Collector-Magistrate (before 1858 known as the District Officer)
  • Judge

After reaching the rank of Joint Magistrate, career progessions was to become a Collector-Magistrate, or Judge. Judges, ofter went on to sit on the High Court after 20 years service. A Collector-Magistrate may become a Commissioner of a Division, or gain a seat on the Board of Revenue. Moving sideways, he may become an Under-Secretary for the Lieutenant Governor.

In the Unregulated Provinces, Deputy-Commissioners replaced the role of Collector-Magistrate.


Arriving in India in 1830, after 2 years patronage supported training at Hertford (1806-1809) and Haileybury Hertfordshire, England (1809-1858) entrants seeking to gain “Writership” became a student writer at The East India Company's Calcutta College in Fort William. Students were lavishly rewarded with ₤400 a year, and encouraged to borrow heavily to acquire high status and comfortable lifestyle - often enabling them to stable 40 horses; not unexpectedly this was reformed. Reforms still allowed students sufficient finance to keep three horses and a buggy. Club memberships and mess parties continued to allow them to gain social influence in the capital.

In 1856 the system of appointment by patronage was replaced by an open competitive examination. Courses of instruction and language training were then carried out in England. Young men were deemed to be fit for immediate service so no longer socialised in the capital unlike their predecessors. They would rely on local tutors for regional dialects.

Entrance requirements c 1872, page 158 Index Scholasticus: Sons and daughters. A guide to parents in the choice of educational institutions, preparatory to professional or other occupation of their children by R. Kemp Philp 1872

FIBIS resources

  • FIBIS Fact File No 7: Some major sources for Ancestors in the Indian Public Services by Lawrie Butler with a contribution by Tim Thomas, published 2012, 48 pages
It comprises a list of Abbreviations; Introduction to the L/F/10 Series at the British Library; Case study of research using the L/F/10s; an Index of the L/F/10 series; Availability of Microfilms at both the British Library and the LDS; an article about the Indian Civil Service Records held at the British Library by Tim Thomas.
Available to buy online from the FIBIS Shop
  • List of Uncovenanted Europeans Employed at Fort St George 1818, 1819 (logged in FIBIS members only), 1820 (logged in FIBIS members only) are available on the FIBIS database, transcribed by Sylvia Murphy
  • "Civil Service Records in the India Office Reading Room: A Study of the L/F/10 series" by Lawrie Butler with a contribution from David Blake FIBIS Journal Number 25 (Spring 2011), pages 37-42. This article focuses on the Uncovenanted Servants Lists within this series of records.
  • "The British Indian Civil Service" by Peter Bailey FIBIS Journal Number 29 (Spring 2013) pages 30- 37. "A brief history and description of the service". See FIBIS Journals for details of how to access this article.
  • "Keddahs and Epigraphists : miscellaneous appointments in India and Burma in 1909" by Bill Hall FIBIS Journal Number 31 (Spring 2014), pages 26-29. For access, see FIBIS Journals
  • "W. Edward Bankes, an East India Company writer in the 1720s" by Francesca Radcliffe FIBIS Journal Number 34 (Autumn 2015), pages 29-37. For details of how to access this article, see FIBIS Journals. W. Edward Bankes was a writer from c 1726 in both Bombay and Bengal, before dying in 1729 at the age of 27.


British Library

  • Civil Service British Library guide on how to use sources from the India Office Records

Records include

  • Books
    • Alphabetical list of the Hon. East India Company’s Madras Civil Servants, from the year 1780 to the year 1839. Edward Dodwell and James Samuel Miles 1839
    • Alphabetical List of the Honourable East India Company’s Bombay Civil Servants, from 1798, to 1839 ... Edward Dodwell and James Samuel Miles 1839
    • A similar listing for Bengal is available online , together with a later listing for Madras and Bombay, refer below.
  • India Office Serials IOR/V/6 1768-1948 This series comprises serials published or printed by, or on behalf of, the East India Company and the India Office. The serials include Lists of the Company's Servants 1768-1799, the East India Register and Directory (later India List) 1803-1895, the India Office List 1886-1947 and the India Office Establishment 1884-1948. Some are available online, refer Directories online, or on LDS microfilm, with this catalogue entry. (Ordering microfilms). These Lists usually provide short records of service, providing the date of appointment, promotions and qualifications for individuals.
  • Histories of Services IOR/V/12 1875-1955. This series includes records of service for overseas Indian Civil Service personnel and for other civil servants of gazetted rank.
  • Civil Lists IOR/V/13 1840-1958. This series includes all the issues of civil lists of the Government of India and of the provincial governments. Coverage is usually restricted to gazetted officers in the main series of lists, but there are a few supplementary lists of subordinate services and also some fuller departmental establishment lists which include non-gazetted appointments, in particular the Telegraph, Indo-European Telegraph, Public Works and Railways departments.

Uncovenanted service


Also see FIBIS resources above.


See List of Indian Civil Servants for details of some individuals.

Related articles

External Links

Library.gif The FIBIS Google Books Library
has books tagged:
Civil Service

Historical books online


Also see Directories online, particularly the category India List and India Office List.


Here and There: Memories, Indian and Other by H G Keene 1906
Letters from India by Lady Wilson (A C Macleod) [Anne Campbell] 1911
  • The India We Served by Sir Walter Roper Lawrence 1928. He joined the Punjab Civil Service c 1879 He left India October 1903 but returned for the Royal visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales November 1905 to March 1906. During WW1 he was involved with setting up the hospitals in Brighton for Indian soldiers.
  • Work And Sport In The Old I. C. S. by W O Horne [William Ogilvie] 1928. He was appointed to the Madras Civil Service in 1882. Pdf download, Digital Library of India.
  • India as I knew it, 1885–1925 by Sir Michael Francis O’Dwyer 1925 is available as a pdf download on the Digital Library of India. Additional files are also available. In 1885 he was posted to Shahpur in the Punjab and retired as lieutenant-governor of the Punjab in 1919. His actions during the unrest of 1919 were controversial.
  • And that reminds me 
being incidents of a life spent at sea, and in the Andaman Islands, Burma, Australia, and India Part III India (page 123) 
by Stanley W. Coxon 1915 The author, probably born c late 1850s commenced with the Civil Service in India in 1892, having previously been with the Police in Burma. He was appointed as Deputy Commissioner at Chanda, the most southerly District of Central Provinces, part of the Nagpur Division page 154 He retired on medical grounds in 1906.
  • An Ignorant in India by R E Venede 1911 The author was visiting a friend who was a Collector in an indigo region in Bengal
  • Diversions of an Indian Political by Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Lloyd Kennion 1932. Pdf download, Digital Library of India. Experiences of a political officer in Northern India from 1892. He also wrote Sport and Life in the Further Himalaya 1910, serving in Kashmir, Gilgit and Leh, and a further book on Eastern Persia.
  • Jungle Trails in Northern India: Reminiscences of Hunting in India by John Hewett. With 24 plates and a map 1938. Pdf download, Digital Library of India. Sir John was Governor of United Provinces with many royal friends. Hunting largely between 1907 and 1912, including tiger hunting in the jungles of Tarai, Cooch Behar, the Central Provinces, and up north in Kumaon and Garhwal. The author joined the Indian Civil Service c 1877 when he was posted to the North-Western Provinces.
  • Trials in Burma by Maurice Collis 1938 may be read online on the Digital Library of India website. Pdf download. The author was a member of the Civil Service in Burma from 1912, and his autobiography covers the years 1928-1931, particularly his role as District Magistrate of Rangoon, and the riots of 1930.
  • Impressions of an Indian Civil Servant by Roderick Donald Macleod 1938 is available as a pdf download on the Digital Library of India.
  • The Men Who Ruled India, published in three volumes, The Founders (1953), The Guardians, Volume I and The Guardians, Volume lI (1954) by Philip Woodruff (pseudonym) are available as pdf downloads on the Digital Library of India. The author was Philip Mason who joined the Indian Civil Service in 1928, and his books are about members of the Indian Civil Service.
Listen to the 1978 interview Philip Mason, with transcripts. He talks of his training for the ICS, his work as a court official and map surveyor, and of his life as an author.