Our History

Building on 150 years of RCS history

On 26 June 1868, a group of individuals in London established a ‘literary and scientific body’ dedicated to the greater understanding of what were then British colonies. A year later it was granted a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria, elevating it to the level of other Royal Societies. The Society became increasingly progressive in the early decades of the twentieth century, encouraging a young and diverse membership. It was given its present name, The Royal Commonwealth Society, in 1958. 

Now in our 150th year, we invite you to become a 150 Fellow of the RCS and help us to continue our work of improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens around the world.

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The Society moves into Commonwealth House with the Commonwealth Games Foundation and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum to establish ‘The Commonwealth Hub’. Opened by
HM the Queen. 


The Society convenes an international meeting to reaffirm the relationship and role of RCS Branches worldwide.


The Society sets a record for the highest number of entries to The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition. Some 13,500 entries from 49 countries are received.


The Queen's Commonwealth Canopy (QCC) is launched at CHOGM in Malta


The Society moves into its new London office with the Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Foundation and resuscitates a position as a leading non-governmental agency. HM The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh visit the new offices.


The Commonwealth Club is closed and the building sold to secure the future of the Society by clearing long-standing debts and to ensure its charitable work continues.


The Jubilee Time Capsule project is conceived.


Financial pressures become a major challenge. A revived Royal Charter is approved by Privy Council.


The Foreign Press Association moves into the RCS buildings, adding c.500 foreign journalists to a total membership of c.3500.


The Society appoints its first non-British Director General and initiates ‘Commonwealth Conversation’, a large public consultation that calls for reform of Commonwealth institutions.


The Society extends its club facilities into three floors of the neighbouring property at 25 Northumberland Avenue. The extension is opened by The Queen. 


After extensive building work (and an arrangement with the apartment hotel occupying the majority of its old buildings), a new modern clubhouse for the Society, the Commonwealth Club, is opened.


A national appeal raises £3million to save the RCS’ archive and extensive library collections. The Appeal buys the library from the Society and gifts it to Cambridge University. The RCS initiates the sale of its property. 


It becomes clear that the Society’s financial problems are far more pressing than had been thought. Beside the building, the library is the Society’s major asset. The Council closes it by the end of the year and considers its sale. A flood of press attention kick-starts a fundraising appeal


The Society is asked by the African National Congress to host the first press conference by Nelson Mandela upon his first visit to Britain following his release from prison. The Society organises a 2nd when Mandela returns again.


The Society runs a series of meetings on South Africa. Speakers include Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Chief Buthelezi and Desmond Tutu.


The Society organises a major programme to celebrate The Queen’s Silver Jubilee, including speeches by 4 Commonwealth leaders.


The Society celebrates its 100th year but is suffering financial problems. It sells a major part of its library collection (the William Westall Drawings) to the National Library of Australia. 


The Society organises the first multi-faith Commonwealth Day service of affirmation in St Martin-in-the-Fields. (It had previously been a Christian celebration). 


Kenneth Kaunda, the then President of Zambia, gives a controversial address at the Society. He compares the situation in Rhodesia to that of Hitler’s Germany and advocates the use of force. 


The VSO is founded and is based the basement of the RCS for next 6 years. 


 The Royal Empire Society becomes The Royal Commonwealth Society. 


Only 3 months after Ghana becomes the first sub-Saharan country to gain its independence, Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah visits the Society. This would be the first of many receptions held at the Society for dignitaries from newly independent countries. 


The Society’s building in Northumberland Avenue is hit twice by high explosive bombs. One member is killed, three people injured and 35,000 volumes and 5,000 pamphlets are lost from the library. 


The new Northumberland Avenue building is opened by the Duke and Duchess of York. 


After 15 years of appeals, the premises fund set up in 1919, amounts to nearly £100,000. After also acquiring a neighbouring building, the Society decides to rebuild its headquarters according to plans by architects Sir Herbert Baker and A.T Scott. A new appeal for a further £100,000 is launched. 


The Council permits ‘Asiatics and men of colour’ into full membership.


 The Royal Colonial Institute becomes The Royal Empire Society


Ladies are admitted as full Fellows of the Institute, one of the first such societies to do so.


 The Institute has 14,700 members; a new premises fund is inaugurated.


Council sanctions the idea of forming local centres or branches in the large cities of the UK, the West Indies, Ceylon and India


The Institute’s library now holds 70,000 books and is recognised as the best in the British Empire on colonial affairs 


Council invites a woman to read a paper at an Institute meeting for the first time, causing such a stir that an editorial appears in The Times. 


A new 6 storey building is completed on the Northumberland Avenue site. 


The Society becomes The Colonial Institute, is incorporated under Royal Charter, has 1,600 members, and secures short lease on a Northumberland Avenue site.


The Colonial Society is founded as a non-political learned society to promote colonial affairs, soon leasing premises on the Strand. 

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