Sir Charles Gordon: Clerk of the House of Commons who also assisted new parliaments in the Commonwealth

No one who ever met Charles Gordon was likely to forget him. He had a truly magisterial appearance – sporting a fine beard – and a look of penetrating intelligence. But despite his formidable intellectual qualities, he was an utterly charming and unaffected man in an age when the latter quality was not always in great supply. Gordon's abilities took him to the top of his profession when he became Clerk of the House in 1979. By then, after a career that had already spanned more than 30 years, he had made a significant contribution both to the working of Parliament as an institution and knowledge about it abroad.

Charles Addison Somerville Snowden Gordon was the son of a Liverpool barrister who was educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford, a scholar at both places. After active service in the war (in the Fleet Air Arm, serving at one time on HMS Indomitable) he joined the House of Commons Clerk's Department in 1946 in a period of some political upheaval. His analytical skills and his articulacy (even if his advice was sprinkled with Latinisms which classicists had to translate for others) made him a "natural" Clerk; soon he became a first-class proceduralist.

His ability to grasp procedural intricacies and his early training in public bill work equipped him well for what was his greatest challenge when, as Clerk Assistant (which he became in 1976), he had to advise the Chairman of Ways and Means on dealing with the Bills establishing the assemblies for Scotland and Wales in Committee of the Whole House. Not only did the marathon and sometimes rumbustious sittings night after night (something that Members would now find unimaginable) attest to his stamina but they earned him the respect of all parties in the House as a completely fair and impartial adviser.

Before he became Clerk Assistant, Gordon had spent some years in charge of the Overseas Office from 1963-69, where he had responsibility for advising and helping new parliaments evolving in the Commonwealth. It was a task that the magister performed with consummate skill both because of his deep knowledge and his infinite patience and kindness to overseas colleagues. In carrying out his duties in that manner he made an important contribution to exporting the Westminster model in a friendly and acceptable way.

Gordon's tenure of the Clerkship of the House coincided with the establishment in 1979 of the House of Commons Commission, a new authority for supervising the internal affairs of the House which marked the legislature's assertion of its independence in matters of administrative and financial control. No mean organiser, Charles was doubtless happier in the other task which fell to him as Clerk, editing the 20th edition of the parliamentary "bible", Erskine May, having played an important part in the previous edition. He also wrote parliamentary pieces and was co-editor for a decade of The Table, the professional journal of Commonwealth Clerks at the Table.

Gordon was a benign, even avuncular figure to junior colleagues. His appearance and addiction to Latin tags could on first acquaintance intimidate them but they soon realised that he was entirely open-minded and quite approachable. Members, too, came to realise that it was better to have him on side than to engage in dialectics with him. While always expecting the highest standards of colleagues, he was quite prepared to encourage their particular talents and idiosyncrasies. The recreation he claimed in his Who's Who entry – "dolce far niente" [carefree idleness], suggesting what now might be regarded as a sensible statement of work/life balance, was deliberately self-deprecating and the perfect disguise for a man of considerable intellect and personal warmth. His wife died in 1995, and his last years were spent very happily with Pamela Fernant, his partner.

Malcolm Jack

Charles Addison Somerville Snowden Gordon, civil servant: born 25 July 1918; Assistant Clerk, House of Commons, 1946, Senior Clerk, 1947, Fourth Clerk at the Table, 1962, Principal Clerk of the Table Office, 1967, Second Clerk Assistant, 1974; Clerk Assistant, 1976; Secretary, Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, and co-Editor of its journal, The Table, 1952–62; married 1943 Janet (Jane) Beattie (died 1995, one son and one daughter deceased); CB 1970; KCB 1981; died 1 March 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£28500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company offers unique corp...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Product Support Specialists

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in the design...

Recruitment Genius: Field Engineer

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has 30 years of ex...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Account Manager

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing cloud based I...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat