The 1900s

To mark its 120th anniversary this year, each month the British Academy will look back on a different decade in its history by delving into its extensive archive of historical sources. This retrospective will lead up to the publication of a booklet on the first 120 years of the Academy this summer.

The British Academy's seal
The British Academy’s seal was designed in 1906-07.

As moves were made in 1899 to found an International Association of Academies, it was realised that, while Britain was appropriately represented in ‘Natural Science’ by the Royal Society, there was no British academy that could represent ‘Literary Science’ – what we now call Humanities and Social Sciences. The Royal Society set up a ‘British Academy Committee’ to consider the question, but eventually decided not to take matters further itself. In summer and autumn 1901 various distinguished scholars met in order to take independent action. The ‘proposed Fellows of the British Academy’ met for the first time as such on 17 December 1901. The Academy received its Charter of Incorporation from Edward VII on 8 August 1902, the eve of his coronation. More about the foundation of the British Academy. More about the British Academy's seal.

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Arthur Balfour, one of the founding Fellows of the British Academy, was Prime Minister 1902-1905.

Though the British Academy now existed, it had no home or money. Somewhat fortuitously, as well as senior academics, the 49 founding Fellows listed in the Charter included Mr Arthur Balfour MP – and he had just become Prime Minister in July 1902. It was therefore with some hope that the Academy submitted to the Treasury a case for ‘assistance from public funds’, including an ambitious list of 28 major academic ‘enterprises’ that it wished to undertake. However, although Balfour was sympathetic, the Treasury was not forthcoming.

To remedy this lack of resources, the Academy’s indefatigable Secretary, Israel Gollancz, strove to promote wider awareness of the new body and to secure private endowments – initially from a close circle of emigré Jewish friends. He achieved a major coup when Miss Constance Schweich donated the then very handsome sum of £10,000 to support research into ‘Ancient Civilisation with reference to Biblical Study’. One product of this fund would be the Schweich Lectures series, in which a distinguished scholar would give a course of three public lectures – the first, in 1908, were delivered by S.R. Driver on 'Modern Research as illustrating the Bible', to 'a large and representative audience'. Indeed, these instantly established themselves as significant events, with 'at least a thousand' attending the 1910 Schweich Lectures.

An even better opportunity for bringing the Academy into the public eye was presented by the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Milton in 1908, and Gollancz seized it. Taking the lead in discharging what was seen as a national duty to honour one of the greatest names in English literature, the Academy organised a series of celebratory events at different venues over several days, which included formal addresses and recitals, scholarly lectures, a church service, a theatrical performance, and a banquet hosted by the Lord Mayor of London.

This undertaking greatly increased the Academy’s prestige, but it led to more material benefits too. Mrs Frida Mond, widow of a wealthy industrial chemist, and aunt of Constance Schweich, was so impressed by 'the effective and dignified manner in which the Milton Tercentenary Commemoration was organized and carried out', that she donated (and later bequeathed) sums to establish a fund to support research and lectures in English literature. And her close friend, Henriette Hertz (whose niece Gollancz married in 1910), would also bequeath money to support lectures in philosophy and art history. Several decades before the first female Fellow was elected to the Academy, the generosity of these women is all the more notable.

Private endowments and fundraising

Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Treasurer of the British Academy, reflects on the continuing importance for the Academy of private endowments and fundraising.

The British Academy did not receive regular financial support from public funds until 1924, so in its earliest years it was heavily reliant on the generous benefactions of private individuals. These gifts, from a group of women who valued research and scholarship for its inherent worth, established many of the Academy’s early events and prizes. A number of these early initiatives continue to this day to provide recognition for high achievement and opportunities for scholars to share their work with a public audience.

Frida Mond Constance Schweiz and Henriette Hertz combined image
Frida Mond, her niece Constance Schweich, and her good friend Henriette Hertz all generously supported the fledgling British Academy with endowments.

The Academy continues to benefit from public funding, but the importance of private giving is as important now as it was in the fragile early years. Charitable bodies such as the Wolfson Foundation and Leverhulme Trust have been generous supporters and valuable partners for over half a century. These relationships have enabled the Academy to respond creatively to the needs of the research community and our disciplines, independent of the government.

One of the most striking examples of the importance of private support came in 2011, when the Leverhulme Trust stepped in to save the Academy’s Small Research Grants programme. Considered too labour intensive for the modest size of the awards by our government funders, these grants provide invaluable seed corn funding for innovative ideas and have often paved the way for major, influential, research projects. The Leverhulme Trust provided funding at a crucial moment, enabling the British Academy to maintain this vital source of support. It remains our most popular funding programme, with over 1,000 applicants per year.

Most recently, the Wolfson Foundation has pledged £10 million to the Academy for a mixture of capital and programme funding. It is the largest donation the Academy has ever received and will transform the physical home of the Academy and the support that we can offer to the research community. One part of this is the Early Career Researcher Network, which has just launched in Autumn 2021 and is the first of its kind in the UK. The network gives crucial support to early-career scholars from all backgrounds, affiliations, and locations who work in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This investment will support a healthy and thriving research community and help to create our subjects’ future leaders.

If you would like to know more about philanthropy at the British Academy, or to offer your support, please contact Jo Hopkins, Director of Development (j.hopkins@thebritishacademy.ac.uk) or Michelle Waterman, Head of Development (m.waterman@thebritishacademy.ac.uk).


This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.

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