The Royal Commonwealth Society
(RCS) (originally named the Colonial Society and later the Royal Empire Society) is an international educational charity and a private members' club. Its mission is to support and promote the modern Commonwealth
Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good. Historically, it has sometimes been synonymous with "republic."More recently it has been used for fraternal associations of some sovereign nations...
, its culture and core values. The RCS’s London home, the Commonwealth Club, acts as a centre for the exchange of ideas and, through the Society’s broad-ranging public affairs programme, offers a forum for the debate, research and development of Commonwealth thinking on key international issues. The Club also acts as a centre for the celebration of Commonwealth art and culture, and leading artists frequently exhibit their work in the Gallery space.
Through its educational, youth and outreach programmes, the Royal Commonwealth Society seeks to encourage young people to develop their skills and, with an increased understanding of their role as global citizens, to engage with challenges facing the international community. It aims to bring alive the fundamental principles of the modern Commonwealth-–tolerance, diversity, freedom, justice, democracy, human rights and sustainable development-–to a generation living in an increasingly interconnected world. RCS projects seek to enable young people to engage with their counterparts across the Commonwealth in youth leadership programmes, creative writing and film-making projects. Through its range of charitable programmes and through its international network of members, honorary representatives and affiliated branches and societies, the Society’s remit is to work towards the continued growth and resilience of Commonwealth civil society.
The Royal Commonwealth Society was born of the British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...
and after Empire declined the Society developed into an organisation dedicated to the Commonwealth of Nations.
On Friday June 26, 1868, at a meeting in the Willis Rooms, King Street, St. James’s, it was agreed that a society with a London headquarters should be formed which would take an interest in colonial and Indian affairs. The elected chairman of the Society, Viscount Bury, declared that the intention was “to provide a meeting place for gentlemen interested in colonial and Indian affairs; to establish a reading room and a library, in which recent and authentic intelligence upon colonial subjects may be constantly available, and a museum for the collection and exhibition of colonial productions; to afford opportunities for reading papers, and for holding discussions upon colonial subjects generally”. The Colonial Society’s first home was above a shirt shop at No. 15 The Strand, where it remained from 1870 until 1885. It was in this modest space that the organisation’s library collection first began to be assembled.
While the initial premises could house the beginnings of the library, it was felt that they would not satisfy the Society's objective of acting as a 'meeting place'. So, in 1883, a lease was obtained for land in Northumberland Avenue
Northumberland Avenue is a London street, running from Trafalgar Square in the west to The Embankment in the east. The avenue was built on the site of Northumberland House, the London home of the Percy family, the Dukes of Northumberland....
, and a clubhouse formally opened in 1885. By this time, the Society had already received its first Royal Charter
A royal charter is a formal document issued by a monarch as letters patent, granting a right or power to an individual or a body corporate. They were, and are still, used to establish significant organizations such as cities or universities. Charters should be distinguished from warrants and...
, which led to it becoming the Royal Colonial Society (in June 1869), and, in 1870, the Royal Colonial Institute.
The clubhouse was expanded early in the 20th century to provide further accommodation, and again following the First World War, to provide halls for meetings, a dining area for members and a number of bedrooms. The expanded and renovated premises on Northumberland Avenue were formally opened on November 12, 1936 by the Duke and Duchess of York, later to become King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
By this time, the organisation had begun to take shape as a progressive society, allowing women to be admitted as Fellows from 1922 and encouraging a young and diverse membership.
1939 to 1958
Due to its central location close to Whitehall
Whitehall is a road in Westminster, in London, England. It is the main artery running north from Parliament Square, towards Charing Cross at the southern end of Trafalgar Square...
and Charing Cross Station
Charing Cross station may refer to:In London, England:*Charing Cross railway station*Charing Cross tube station **Embankment tube station was previously named Charing CrossIn Glasgow, Scotland:...
, the Club premises were vulnerable during the bombing raids of World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...
. On the night of April 16/17, 1941 the building was hit by a two-ton bomb and on the night of May 10 it was severely damaged again. After several weeks of repairs, the club reopened to members. However, a complete restoration was not completed until 1957, after which the nose of the bomb was displayed prominently in the club. That same year, a new name for the organisation was suggested, and, in May 1958, what had become the Royal Empire Society took its present title of the Royal Commonwealth Society.
The Commonwealth Club
A successful national appeal in 1993 raised £3 million to save the RCS archive and library collections. The material was sold to Cambridge University
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...
, enabling the RCS to clear its debts, redevelop its property and create a new clubhouse, the Commonwealth Club. This was opened, after extensive building work, in 1998.
The new club, as designed by Linda Morey Smith, has a bright, modern feel. Its aim was to provide an informal and inviting place for its members to socialise, eat and interact. The club began to be used as a forum for the charity’s series of debates, seminars and conferences on topical Commonwealth and international issues, drawing influential figures from politics, media, business and the arts. It also became a venue for Commonwealth cultural events and exhibitions.
The RCS today
In the second half of the twentieth century, the Society hosted and gave a platform to notable African leaders including Nelson Mandela
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and was the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. Before his presidency, Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist, and the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing...
, Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki is a South African politician who served two terms as the second post-apartheid President of South Africa from 14 June 1999 to 24 September 2008. He is also the brother of Moeletsi Mbeki...
, Desmond Tutu
Desmond Mpilo Tutu is a South African activist and retired Anglican bishop who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid...
and Kwame Nkrumah
Kwame Nkrumah was the leader of Ghana and its predecessor state, the Gold Coast, from 1952 to 1966. Overseeing the nation's independence from British colonial rule in 1957, Nkrumah was the first President of Ghana and the first Prime Minister of Ghana...
The Society has developed a programme of innovative outreach projects aimed at promoting the Commonwealth, its ideas and values, particularly in schools and to young people. It is now the centre of an international network of more than 10,000 members, spread across 100 countries and territories and linked by around 70 self-governing RCS branches and Commonwealth societies in 43 countries and territories. In recent years, the Royal Commonwealth Society has extended its club facilities into its current home over three floors of the neighbouring property on Northumberland Avenue. It is a convenient London members' clubs, offering good facilities, including a restaurant offering international and Commonwealth cuisine.
January 2009 saw the appointment as Director of Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
Dhananjayan 'Danny' Sriskandarajah is Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society, a large NGO devoted to Commonwealth affairs based in London...
For over one hundred years the RCS Library stood at the very heart of the organisation. The Library reflected an important aim of the original Royal Colonial Institute: "to establish a reading room and a library, in which recent and authentic intelligence upon colonial subjects may be constantly available".
From its inception, the library quickly increased in size and reputation and, despite damage during World War II, grew to over half a million items. Yet, from the late 1960s onwards, mounting financial concerns, coupled with severe flood damage, led to the decision that it was no longer viable for the Society to maintain the library. The collection was acquired by Cambridge University and moved to its new site during the summer of 1993.
The collections today
Today the Royal Commonwealth Society Library contains a vast array of materials. Over 300,000 printed items include 700 archival collections of manuscript diaries, correspondence, pictures, cine-films, maps, scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings. A photograph collection, containing more than 100,000 images from all parts of the Commonwealth, includes albums, loose prints, glass slides, transparencies and a small collection of cine films.
The collections document the topography, architecture and life of Britain's colonial dependencies and modern Commonwealth countries, as well as providing a visual record of key historical events. The photographs date from the mid-1850s to the mid-1980s, many reflecting the fields of public works, medicine, surveying and education. Embossed leather-bound albums of photographic portraits provide a unique insight into RCS members of the past 140 years, and old Commonwealth Essay Competition entries offer an illustration of evolving concepts of Commonwealth, the individual and society.
Work in Cambridge is ongoing to catalogue, preserve and improve access to these invaluable materials. As a result, part of the catalogues of the collections are now searchable online.