A brief history of the British Academy

Reproduced from ‘The British Academy Handbook for Fellows 2018-2019’.


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’. In summer and autumn 1901, various distinguished scholars met in order to take independent action in the matter. 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.

1902–1930: the Gollancz years

Without the support of Government funding, the Academy achieved a remarkable amount in its early years, largely through the energies of Sir Israel Gollancz, the first Secretary of the Academy, in securing private endowments and in promoting wider awareness of the new body. A healthy programme of academic meetings was developed, with ten named lecture series established. There was an active publications programme. And the Academy sought to undertake or participate in long-term national and international research projects. Gollancz’s efforts were finally rewarded when the Academy was awarded a modest annual grant from the Treasury in 1924, and when the Academy was able to move into its first permanent home in Burlington Gardens in 1928.

1930–1949: the Kenyon years

The economic crises of the 1930s and then the Second World War led to a reduction in the Government’s funding of the Academy. Many of the Academy’s activities slowed or stopped altogether in this period, and there were few new initiatives.

1949–1968: the Wheeler years

Another dynamic Secretary, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, led to another explosion in Academy activity. New lecture series were established, the publications programme was boosted and many long-term research undertakings were embarked upon. The funding position was dramatically improved, the Academy for the first time securing significant funds (first private, then public) to be able to award research grants in the humanities. And the Academy became the channel through which funds were allocated to the British Schools and Institutes abroad. At the end of 1968, the Academy moved into new quarters in Burlington House.


The new Secretary, Derek Allen, started to put in place the administrative machinery to handle and build on the various initiatives that Wheeler had put in train; Allen himself was followed by the first Secretary to be a full-time salaried employee rather than a Fellow of the Academy. More funds were received for research grants from the University Grants Committee, as the Academy increasingly began to take on the role of a de facto Humanities Research Council. The 1970s also saw the development of the Academy’s international programmes – in particular, exchanges with the Soviet bloc and China.

The 1980s

As well as the Academy’s move into larger premises in Cornwall Terrace, the 1980s saw the onward development of the Academy as a funding agency. There was a dramatic expansion in schemes offering research posts – Research Readerships (1981), Postdoctoral Fellowships (1986), Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowships (1989). And in 1984, the Academy took over from the Department of Education and Science the administration of its scheme for Postgraduate Studentships in the Humanities.

The 1990s

The 1990s saw the Academy recast itself. After its failure to persuade Government to set up a Humanities Research Council in the early 1990s, the Academy distanced itself from this side of its activities by setting up its own Humanities Research Board in 1994 (with additional schemes, such as Research Leave); and then successfully participated in the foundation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board (1998). At the same time, it was strengthening its learned society role, with the creation of a programme of conferences, and the establishment of new lecture and publication series. In 1998 the Academy at last moved into premises in Carlton House Terrace that would enable it to fulfil its role as the national academy for the humanities and social sciences (in particular, the hosting of events).

The 2000s

At the turn of the millennium, the Academy recognised that it needed to become a more outward-facing institution. A programme of public events and publications was developed – the Academy’s centenary in 2002 provided a particular opportunity to celebrate the vitality of British scholarship. The Academy also increasingly engaged in policy issues related to the general health of its disciplines, and championed arguments demonstrating the public value of investment in the humanities and social sciences.

The 2010s

At the beginning of the decade, the Academy was able to expand into all the remaining spaces in its premises in 10-11 Carlton House Terrace; and with the further help of generous public and private support, the Academy is continuing to develop the best long-term use of its home. The Academy has established a stronger role in bringing academic expertise to bear on matters of public policy. And both through its convening power and an enhanced role as a funder of research, the Academy is developing programmes to address the great challenges of our time – nationally and internationally.

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