The Order of the British Empire (part four): 1957 to 1993

This fourth article marking the centenary of the Order of the British Empire opens with the creation of an emblem to distinguish awards made for gallantry, and ends on the eve of John Major’s reform of the honours system. It also outlines changes to the Order’s relationship with the City of London, the High Court and the Commonwealth.


A method of differentiating awards for gallantry from those for other services was established during the late 1950s, more than a decade after the George Cross replaced the Empire Gallantry Medal to counter concern about the public’s understanding of the status of the British Empire’s original gallantry and meritorious service medals.

Honours continued to be granted for bravery after the wartime changes were made. For example, the Gazettes of 1957 reported a British Empire Medal (BEM) for Kenneth Cordner, after a Royal Ulster Constabulary station was attacked by the Irish Republican Army (Gazette 41062), while Leslie Gutteridge of the Royal Navy was given an OBE and colleagues became MBEs and received medals for rendering safe a German mine in London’s West India Dock (Gazette issue 41302).

A British Empire statute of 7 December 1957 provided that those honoured for gallantry should wear a silver emblem of two oak leaves on their riband, while the announcement – usually in The London Gazette – should state that the award was being made for gallantry. The earliest medals under the new provision were gazetted in February 1958 and involved officers of the Essex Constabulary who arrested an armed criminal (Gazette issue 41302), while the first appointment came a fortnight later when David Johnston, of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, earned his MBE for dealing with a dangerous explosive device (Gazette issue 41316).

Almost 85 per cent of the gallantry awards were at the BEM level, though a few senior appointments were approved, including two CBEs for the Canadian general Jacques Dextraze (for services in the Congo) and for Frank Kitson of the British Army. General Kitson provides a rare example of an individual moving from the lowest to the highest class within the Order, beginning as an MBE in 1959, gaining promotion to OBE and then a commander’s badge for gallantry in Northern Ireland, and receiving the grand cross in 1984 when colonel commandant of the Royal Green Jackets.

The UK’s bravery provisions were revised again in the 1970s, when the Albert and Edward Medals – for saving life at sea and on land and for acts performed in mining and industrial settings – were discontinued, and the Queen’s Gallantry Medal (QGM) was instituted. The creation of the new medal in 1974 brought an end to the Order’s long-standing practice of rewarding acts of gallantry, although that role was remembered in the QGM riband, which had a central section of pink and pearl grey.

Service rendered

The gallantry emblem featured in the decorative scheme in St Paul’s Cathedral by the stained glass artist Brian Thomas, who became an OBE for ‘services in the embellishment of the Chapel of the Order of the British Empire’. Thomas’s scenes represented the forms of service rendered by members and medallists, and the Commonwealth countries from which they came. Across six panels he paired images for the armed forces and sport, justice and administration, science/medicine and communications, fine arts/education and the skilled crafts, commerce and transport, and the church and agriculture.

His broad categories mirrored the services rendered by the men and women whose names appeared in the honours list which preceded the opening of the chapel. The new year Gazette of 1960 contained few honours for areas such as sport and the church, but presented more significant numbers for administration and commerce, including government departments and public bodies such as the ministries of Power and Works and the Atomic Energy Authority. Organisations ranging from the Women’s Voluntary Service to the Royal Observer Corps were noticed, with many candidates being drawn from local authorities and the police, prison and fire services (Gazette issue 41909).

The 1960 list acknowledged the contribution of the staff of universities, colleges and schools, while the arts nominees included the poet John Betjeman and the actor John Mills. Science found favour in personnel from the Royal Society and the Science Museum, and medicine welcomed members from various institutions.

The communications group was led by the director-general of the BBC, who was promoted to GBE, and the business category rewarded companies that regularly featured in honours lists, often for their part in manufacturing the hardware of war, such as Harland & Wolff and Vickers-Armstrongs. A few less customary activities were also gazetted, including a CBE for services to numismatics and an OBE for a member of a local tribunal for conscientious objectors.

As usual, some British Empire members were noticed in other parts of the honours system, as illustrated by John Profumo and Roger Hollis. Profumo earned an OBE during the war in Italy and was a Foreign Office minister when his Privy Council appointment was announced in 1960, but a few years later a public scandal led to his resignation. Profumo quit the Privy Council but remained with the Order, and his subsequent career in the charitable sector earned promotion to CBE.

Roger Hollis was a civil OBE by the time the 1960 Gazette announced his knighthood. The notice explained that he was attached to the War Office, but did not disclose his role as director general of MI5 (which earned promotion to KBE in due course). Hollis was later accused of being a Soviet agent and having ties to Kim Philby, but was cleared of wrongdoing. Philby provides a rare example of an expulsion from the Order, as he became an OBE when ‘employed in a Department of the Foreign Office’, but was later removed from the register (Gazette issue 43735).


An important distinction was made within the Order between honours for those serving British interests overseas, including the employees of bodies such as the Foreign Office and the British Council, and honours for service to Commonwealth countries.

By 1960, the civil membership of the British Empire reflected that distinction, with 35 per cent of the fixed classes (CBE to GBE) and more than 40 per cent of the annual allocations being dedicated to Commonwealth recipients:









United Kingdom


















The 1960 Gazette illustrated the geographical dimension, with the Foreign Office list being headed by a GBE for the ambassador to Spain; grants to British residents in countries ranging from Portugal to Venezuela; and an MBE for the governor of Spandau Prison in Berlin. The overseas lists dealt mainly with Australia, as well as some of the African, American and Pacific nations that would soon become independent, as in the case of Nigeria, British Honduras and Fiji.

The establishment of self-governing nations had been proceeding for more than a decade when the 1960 Gazettes reported awards based on the advice of the Queen’s ministers in Ghana and Rhodesia and Nyasaland, as well as the more mature independents of Australia and New Zealand.

Several countries created honours that ran in parallel with the Order of the British Empire, at least for a period. An early example arose in North America with the Order of Canada, which was established in that nation’s centennial year of 1967. Not long afterwards, the last British Empire award was made on the advice of a dominion minister, when Joseph Potvin of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was decorated with the BEM for rescuing survivors from a plane that had crashed in a lake (Gazette issue 44630).

A similar process of domestic decorations displacing the British Empire’s pink riband occurred over two decades in Australia and New Zealand, with the result that the separation of the Order from its former Commonwealth base is now almost complete.

London links

The imperial capital forged two links with the Order during the 1960s, as the creation of a spiritual home in St Paul’s Cathedral was followed by a series of GBEs for the lord mayor of the City of London, providing a rare example of an almost automatic use of the highest class of the British Empire for the holder of a specific office.

The city’s mayor had often received a baronetcy, but that practice lapsed with the general ending of the award of hereditary honours, and the GBE was selected as a suitable alternative, beginning with James Harman in 1964 (Gazette issue 43219). The decision had a material impact on the senior class of the British Empire, as 60 per cent of the civil grand crosses appointed from 1964 were lords mayor of London until 1993, when a lower award was substituted.

Only months after Sir James Harman was given the GBE his London neighbour, Harold Wilson, became prime minister. Wilson was the first resident of 10 Downing Street to be a member of the Order, having become an OBE while at the Ministry of Fuel and Power. The only other member to hold the premiership was Edward Heath, who earned his MBE during the war as a major in the Royal Artillery.

Several prime ministers had family links with the British Empire, including the wives of Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, who all became dames grand cross, while David Lloyd George’s complicated domestic situation brought a CBE for his private secretary Frances Stevenson and a GBE for his first wife Margaret Owen (whose death opened the way for Miss Stevenson to become the second Mrs and later the first Countess Lloyd George).

Harold Wilson supervised gradual changes to the Order, starting in 1966, when he stopped making recommendations for political services. He later announced that the proportion of honours for state servants – covering the Home Civil Service and the Defence and Diplomatic Services – would be reduced. Wilson’s shift in emphasis away from state servants has been maintained, while political grants have reappeared from time to time, in line with the preference of his successors at Downing Street.

Knights and dames

Two measures affecting the Order arose in 1965, beginning in June, when it was announced that the prefix ‘Sir’ could be assumed by knights grand cross and knights commanders on the official publication of their appointment, whereas in the past they had usually had to wait until they were knighted.

The practical effect of this provision is illustrated by the yachtsman Francis Chichester. He was gazetted as a KBE in February 1967 ‘for individual achievements and sustained endeavour in the navigation and seamanship of small craft’ (Gazette issue 44241) and knighted by the Queen at Greenwich in July – with the sword used to knight Sir Francis Drake – after completing his voyage around the globe on Gipsy Moth IV. Under the old rule, Chichester could only assume the prefix ‘Sir’ in July on being knighted, while the new system allowed him to become Sir Francis as soon as the Gazette appeared.

The second development occurred a few months later, with the start of a series of dame commander (DBE) appointments for female justices of the High Court. By tradition, judges were knighted, but that honour was still deemed to be unsuitable for women, and so Elizabeth Lane was invested with her British Empire insignia at Buckingham Palace on 2 November 1965 on becoming the first female justice (Gazette issue 43779). The practice remains in place today, and so women continue to receive a higher honour than their male High Court colleagues.

Military division

Just as the scope of the DBE was extending on the civil front, so it was falling out of favour for the armed forces, largely because the Order of the Bath had been opened to women. This led to senior female officers receiving a companion’s badge (CB), rather than being rewarded at the dame commander level, with the result that the military DBE has not been used since 1970. (No military dame grand cross has been appointed since the matron in chief of the Territorial Nursing Service, Dame Sidney Browne, was honoured in 1919).

A three service approach mirrored the old Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry listings after the Ministry of Defence was formed in 1964, with Gazettes being issued during the period announcing awards for campaigns such as Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf.

Promotion within one division of the Order was illustrated by Frank Kitson’s journey from military MBE to GBE, referred to earlier. Other members moved between divisions, as in the case of Ian Thomson, whose career attests to the worldwide nature of the honour during most of the present reign.

Thomson left Scotland for the Pacific, where he served with the Fijian Military Forces during the war and earned a military MBE. He later contributed to the development of post-independence Fiji and was promoted to civil KBE (Gazette issue 49973) on the advice of the Suva ministers. Sir Ian’s family maintained links with international affairs and honours, as one son became secretary general of the Association for the Prevention of Torture and an OBE, and another, Peter Thomson, became an officer of the Order of Fiji and is the current president of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

About the author

Russell Malloch is a member of the Orders and Medals Research Society and an authority on British honours.

See also: See also: The Order of the British Empire: 1993 to 2017