About Us

Our History

The Royal Commonwealth Society is an international educational charity working as a non-sectarian and non-political organization to promote the value, and the values, of the Commonwealth for the benefit of the peoples and countries of The Commonwealth.

The Society’s Origins

The Royal Commonwealth Society began its existence on 26th June 1868 as the Colonial Society, which was founded in London, England as a non-political learned society to promote colonial affairs. At that time the United Kingdom ruled or administered many colonies across the globe and many of the its English citizens were travelling to distant lands and returning home with experiences and stories which they wished to share with others who had travelled and with those who had not. The intent of the Colonial Society, as stated by its first President, the Rt. Hon. Viscount Bury, and later edited and stated its objects, was:

  • “to provide a place of meeting for all gentlemen connected with the colonies, and others taking an interest in colonial affairs;
  • to establish a reading room and 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 facilitate interchange of experiences amongst persons representing all the dependencies of Great Britain;
  • to afford opportunities for reading papers, and for holding discussions upon colonial subjects generally;
  • and to undertake scientific, literary and statistical investigations in connection with the British empire.”

The Colonial Society quickly grew in size and stature and in 1869 it received sanction by Royal Authority to prefix the title of ‘Royal’ to its name and became the Royal Colonial Society. Its library collection also grew and as the educational aspect of its function took shape the Society was, on 7th March 1870, renamed the Royal Colonial Institute. It became a legal entity or company when it was incorporated by Royal Charter on 26th September 1882. In 1885, having outgrown its original modest accommodation, it moved to larger premises so as to adequately house its library and established a private members’ gentlemen’s club to finance it.

As a forward-thinking institution, it allowed women to read papers at its meetings from 1894 and to be admitted as full members from 1922. It encouraged a young and diverse membership and sanctioned the formation of branches in the large cities of the United Kingdom, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), India and the West Indies. It also sought to encourage membership throughout the British Empire and in 1928 was renamed the Royal Empire Society, permitting anyone in the Empire, irrespective of gender or race, into full membership from 1931.

The Society’s Linkage to the Commonwealth

With the demise of the British Empire after World War II, The Commonwealth was formed on 28th April 1949 as the replacement of The British Commonwealth of Nations which had been loosely formed since 1884 but which required its members to have an allegiance to the monarch of Great Britain. The Commonwealth removed the requirement of such allegiance and is a voluntary association of independent sovereign states who consult and cooperate in the common interests of their peoples. Every member of the Commonwealth is treated as an equal, irrespective of size and economic stature.

The Commonwealth now has a membership of 53 countries comprising the United Kingdom, many of its former colonies and dominions which are now independent states and also Mozambique and Rwanda, former colonies of other countries and without any constitutional links to the British. Barbados became a member on attaining its Independence in 1966.

The values and principles of the Commonwealth were defined and strengthened over the years through a number of declarations, action plans and programmes and in 2013 these were consolidated and reaffirmed in a Charter embracing sixteen core values and principles:

  1. Democracy
  2. Human Rights
  3. International Peace and Security
  4. Tolerance, Respect and Understanding
  5. Freedom of Expression
  6. Separation of Powers
  7. Rule of Law
  8. Good Governance
  9. Sustainable Development
  10. Protecting the Environment
  11. Access to Health, Education, Food and Shelter
  12. Gender Equality
  13. Importance of Young People
  14. Recognition of the Needs of Small States
  15. Recognition of the Needs of Vulnerable States
  16. The Role of Civil Society

The Last Sixty Years

The Royal Empire Society embraced the formation of the Commonwealth, adopted the values of the Commonwealth and was renamed the Royal Commonwealth Society in 1958.

In order to financially support its activities and carry out the major repair of its headquarters, which was bombed twice during the Blitz of London in World War II, the extensive library collections were sold in part to the National Library of Australia in 1968 and the remainder to Cambridge University in 1993.

The activities of the club were separated from the administration of the Society in 1998 and operated as The Commonwealth Club until it ceased operations in 2013, when the real estate was sold to secure the future of the Society by clearing longstanding debts and to ensure its educational charitable work continued under a revised Royal Charter.

The Royal Commonwealth Society today is therefore a significantly different one to its predecessor organisations. Its structure has evolved into a group of 62 self-governing Branches and affiliated societies, each responsible for their own affairs and programmes but affiliated to the Society, headquartered at Commonwealth House in London, and with a total membership of more than 19,000 persons spread across many of the member countries and territories of the Commonwealth. In the Caribbean region, Branches are established in Barbados, the Cayman Islands and Jamaica and there is a Honorary Representative in Trinidad and Tobago.

Internationally, the Royal Commonwealth Society’s strength lies in its independence which gives it the freedom to work at the forefront of contentious and politically difficult issues and when coupled with its influence in bringing people, governments, the diplomatic community and business together enables it to champion best practices in social well-being as well as to highlight the barriers that inhibit prosperity and civil rights and limit opportunities. In the past the RCS had been a key influence on the anti–apartheid movement providing a platform for leaders such as Nelson Mandela; in recent times, it has played a central role in addressing gender equality prejudices and the challenges of corruption and good governance.