Civil List Funding (1752-1875)

In 1752, the Astronomer Royal James Bradley had his salary of £100 a year topped up by King George II with the award of a pension £250 a year from the Civil list, bringing his gross salary up to £350 a year. Payments from the Civil List were continued to Bradley’s successors, Bliss, Maskelyne and Pond.

The First Assistant began to receive part of his salary form the same source in 1771. The Civil List contribution as a percentage of the total salary bill paid by the government was:

66%      between 1752 and1771
71%      between 1771 and1810

On the accession of William IV in 1830, the link between the Sovereign and the cost of civil government was removed when the sum voted by parliament for the Civil List was restricted to the expenses of the Royal Household. The Navy Estimates show that the Civil List responsibility for paying part of the salaries of the Astronomer Royal and his First Assistant was transferred to the Admiralty on 12 January 1831 (ADM181/40).

Despite this, a pension was also offered to Airy from the Civil List in 1835. The offer came in a letter sent on 17 February by the Prime Minister Robert Peel. Part of the text is reproduced below:

‘You probably are aware that in a Resolution voted by the House of Commons in the last Session of Parliament, an opinion was expressed, that Pensions on the Civil List, ought not thereafter to be granted by the Crown excepting for the satisfaction of certain public claims, among which those resting on Scientific or Literary Eminence were especially mentioned.

I trust that no such Resolution would have been necessary to induce me as Minister of the Crown fully to recognize the justice of such claims, but I refer to the Resolution, as removing every impediment to a Communication of the nature of that which I am about to make to you.

In acting upon the Principle of the Resolution in so far as the Claims of Science are concerned, my first address is made to you, and made directly, and without previous communication with any other person, because it is dictated exclusively by public considerations, and because there can be no advantage in or any motive for indirect communication.

I consider you to have the first claim on the Royal Favour which Eminence in those high Pursuits to which your life is devoted, can give, and I fear that the Emoluments attached to your appointment in the University of Cambridge are hardly sufficient to relieve you from anxiety as to the Future on account of those in whose welfare you are deeply interested.

The state of the Civil List would enable me to advise the King to grant a pension of three hundred pounds per annum, and if the offer be acceptable to you the Pension shall be granted either to Mrs Airy or yourself as you may prefer.’

Airy choose to have the pension settled on his wife, though when push came to shove he did not consider it to be hers alone. Following her death in 1875 he wrote to the Admiralty stating that because of its termination, his salary was now £200 lower than that of the Director of Studies of the Royal Naval College. He was awarded a rise of £200 to compensate, taking his salary to £1,200 a year.