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
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: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life