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A documentary account of the foundation of the British Academy

Reproduction of documents from 1899 to the grant of the Charter of Incorporation in 1902

Letter sent by the Secretaries of the Royal Society to certain ‘distinguished men of letters’, 21 November 1899

The Royal Society
Burlington House, W.
November 21, 1899


We are directed by the President and Council of the Royal Society to inform you that a project for the foundation of an International Association of Academies has been under consideration for some time. A preliminary gathering of representatives of the principal Academies of the world was held at Wiesbaden in the autumn of the present year [October 1899]. The enclosed “Proposed Statutes of Constitution and Procedure” will inform you as to the resolutions adopted.

It is probable that the first formal meeting of the Association will be held in Paris in 1900, and that the resolutions of the Wiesbaden Conference will then be formally accepted as the basis of the constitution of the Association.

Until the meeting took place at Wiesbaden, it was uncertain whether the Association would be formed of Scientific Academies only; but, as you will see, it was decided to form two sections, the one devoted to Natural Science, and the other to Literature, Antiquities and Philosophy.

Although the conditions which Academies claiming admission must fulfil were not formally defined, it is understood

(1) that no Society devoted to one subject or to a small range of subjects will be regarded as an “Academy”, and

(2) that, as a rule, only one Academy will be admitted from each country to the literary and scientific sections respectively.

So far as we are aware, there is no Society in England dealing with subjects embraced by the “Literary” Section which satisfies the first of these conditions. It is therefore unfortunately the case that, as matters at present stand, the United Kingdom will only be represented on the Scientific Section.

It is not for the President and Council of the Royal Society to suggest a remedy, but they wish the facts of the case to be laid before some eminent representatives of the branches of knowledge which would probably be included in the Literary Section.

It might be possible for a number of Societies which are at present isolated to form some kind of union among themselves, which would constitute an Academy in the sense above defined. In the event of that or any similar project being satisfactorily carried out, the delegates of the Royal Society who attended the Wiesbaden Conference have reason to believe that the presence of British representatives on the “Literary Section” would be welcomed by their foreign confreres.

We enclose a list of the names of the gentlemen to whom this letter is being sent, and we may add that if further information is wanted we shall be happy to give it, and that one or more of the delegates to the Wiesbaden Conference would be willing to attend any meeting which might be called to discuss the matters herein set forth.

We are, Sir,

Yours faithfully,

[Sir Michael Foster and A.W. Rucker]

Secretaries R.S.

Letter from Lord Dillon (President of the Society of Antiquaries) to the Secretaries of the Royal Society, 15 December 1899

Soc. Antiq. Lond.,
Burlington House, Piccadilly, W.,
December 15, 1899


In answer to your letter of the 21st November, 1899, I beg to inform you that, in accordance with the suggestion therein, a meeting was held in these rooms on 14th December, at which were present: The Rt. Hon. A. Balfour, Rt. Hon. James Bryce, the Lord Acton, Sir John Evans, Prof. Jebb, Rt. Hon. W. E. Lecky, Sir Alfred Lyall, Prof. Sidgwick, Sir Wm. Conway, Sir E. M. Thompson, Mr. Leslie Stephen, and myself. The other gentlemen suggested were unable to attend. It was carried unanimously that the meeting desired to thank the Royal Society for their courteous communication with regard to the formation of a British Academy, such as would come within the limits laid down in their letter, but that the idea of such an Academy formed by the simple federation of existing Societies was not one that appeared to meet the views of those present.

I am, Gentlemen,

Yours faithfully,

[Lord] Dillon


 ‘Plan for Institution of New Academy or Section’ by Henry Sidgwick (Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of Cambridge)


1. While the difficulties in the way of the satisfactory establishment of such an Academy are considerable, we think that they may be overcome with the aid of the Royal Society and of the Government.

2. The aid of the Royal Society might be given in one of two ways:–

(a) It might propose to enlarge its scope, and include a section corresponding to the ‘Philosophico-Historical’ and ‘Philological’ division of the German Royal Academies and Societies. This would, of course, be the simplest and most effective way of attaining the desired end.

(b) Or, if it prefers to maintain the restriction of scope — which it has in the main, although not altogether, maintained in the past — and limit its own work to Mathematics and Natural Science, it might address a memorial to Government, pointing out the exceptional position in which England is placed, as compared with other European countries, through the absence of any Academy representing other departments of study, and advocating the formation of such an Academy.

3. We think that in order to provide for the adequate maintenance of the status that such an Academy ought to hold, it should receive a charter from the Crown and a small public endowment, sufficient to enable it to carry on its own work with its numbers strictly limited.

4. In case the Royal Society should provisionally decide in favour of either of the courses above suggested, it will probably think it desirable, before taking any further step, to obtain the views of a larger number of persons representing the departments of study which the new Academy is to include. We should agree in recommending this course; and we are willing, if the Royal Society should desire it, to suggest the names of persons whose advice might be asked.

Minutes of a meeting of the Council of the Royal Society, 18 January 1900 — extracts

Read also a letter from Prof. H. Sidgwick enclosing the [above] plan, which had been approved by several of the gentlemen taking part in the meeting spoken of in Lord Dillon’s letter, and of which the resolutions passed at that meeting might be considered a part ...

Resolved — That Lord Dillon’s letter and Prof. H. Sidgwick’s plan be referred to a Committee with instructions to make such inquiries, and for that purpose to confer with such persons as they may think desirable, with the view of laying before the Council a report on the suggestions made in the plan, stating the various reasons which may be urged for and against them.

It was further Resolved — That the above Committee consist of the President and other Officers, Prof. H. E. Armstrong, Rt. Hon. J. Bryce, Sir J. Evans, Prof. Forsyth, Prof. Lankester, Sir Norman Lockyer, Sir W. C. Roberts-Austen, Prof. Schuster, and Prof. E. B. Taylor.

Report of the Royal Society’s ‘British Academy Committee’, dated 28 June 1900 — extracts


Your Committee have held several Meetings for the discussion of the subject referred to them by the Council ...

Under the powers given to them by the terms of reference, your Committee have placed themselves in communication, through Prof. Sidgwick, Prof. Jebb, and Lord Acton, with a number of representatives of those branches of learning referred to in Prof. Sidgwick’s suggestions, with a view to ascertaining the method of organization which would be most likely to enlist the support of the recognised leaders of thought in those subjects. On May 29, an interview took place, a short account of which will be found on a subsequent page.

The Committee have not considered it necessary for the present purpose to consult the Councils of the various learned Societies who are, or might be, interested in the discussion, nor have they deemed it desirable to review the opinion expressed in the latter part of the last sentence in Lord Dillon’s letter. ...

Four Solutions considered by the Committee.

There have been submitted to the Committee four possible ways of dealing with the demand for the representation of Philosophico-Historical studies in an “Academy”:—

(i.)                The creation of an organization independent of the Royal Society, though possibly in some way connected with it, in which case they might both form parts of some larger body, as, for instance, the French Academies form parts of the Institute of France.

(ii.)               The creation of two “Academies” within the Royal Society, one of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, the other of Philosophy-History, each Academy having its own Council, Secretaries and President, and the President of each being in turn President of the whole Society.

(iii.)             The creation of two or three “Sections” of the Royal Society, either A and B, corresponding to the Academies just named; or A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences; B, Biological Sciences; C, Philosophico-Historical Sciences.

(iv.)             The election of some 25 to 50 Fellows representing the Philosophico-Historical subjects, to serve as a nucleus, and the creation of three or four committees, similar to those already existing, viz., one for Ethnography and Archaeology, one for Philology, one for Statistics and Political Economy, and one for Psychology — the Officers and Council remaining, so far as statute and enactment are concerned, precisely as they are at present.

... [Each solution is discussed in detail.] ...

Views of Representatives of Philosophico-Historical Sciences.

These several schemes were discussed at an interview [on 29 May] with a number of representatives of the Philosophico-Historical Sciences. These gentlemen all concurred in disapproving of any attempt to establish an independent body to represent the sciences in question by means of the federation of any existing societies, and appeared so impressed with the difficulties of founding an independent body de novo that they shrank from attempting it. They therefore all expressed themselves in favour of any effort for the corporate representation of those sciences being associated in some way or other with the Royal Society. They seemed unanimous in feeling the great desirability of the organization and official representation of the Philosophico-Historical subjects, both on the ground of the general encouragement of their pursuit, and also, and more especially, as a means of developing the more scientific methods of treating those subjects.

The general opinion of these gentlemen upon the practical courses discussed in the Report seemed to be in favour of the plan numbered (iii.) in the Report, but, recognising the practical difficulties in the way of carrying out any such scheme immediately, they were generally in favour of an effort being made on the lines laid down in plan numbered (iv.) as a beginning, in the belief that should its adoption lead, as they believe it would, to greater activity in this country in the studies in question, there might ultimately develop out of it some more formal organization, such as is contemplated in the other plans submitted.

Your Committee were much impressed by the concurrence of opinion among these gentlemen, and by the high value they set on the inclusion within the scope of the Royal Society’s action of the subjects they represented.

Fundamental issue

Apart, however, from all such questions, the fundamental issue is whether the Royal Society will be more useful if the area of its interests is enlarged. If the principle of such enlargement be agreed to, it would be possible to begin tentatively, and to allow the final organization of the Society to be decided by future experience.

The first question to decide, therefore, is not whether the changes involved will be great or small, or whether this or that method of meeting new conditions is the best, but whether the gains which might result if the Royal Society represented History, Economics and Philosophy, as it now represents Physics and Biology, would compensate the disadvantages which might arise from the loss of singleness and concentration of aim, and the ultimate complication of organization.

 The Report lays out detailed arguments on either side.

The Report was presented to the Royal Society’s Council on 5 July 1900, but further consideration of it was postponed. Discussion of the Report was similarly curtailed or postponed at the Council meetings in November and December 1900.

At the Council meeting on 17 January 1901, the Report was discussed and a motion was aired proposing that the Royal Society should take no steps towards establishing a British Academy; but in February the Council agreed that it should first call a Special Meeting of the Royal Society’s Fellows so that their views could be heard. The Special Meeting took place on 9 May, with no observers or Press present. After ‘a very interesting discussion’, the feeling of the meeting was against enlarging the scope of the Royal Society to include the representation of the new subjects.

In the light of this, various distinguished scholars determined to take independent action.

Minutes of a meeting held at the British Museum, 28 June 1901 — extracts

Meeting, June 28th. 1901.

By the kind permission of the Director and Principal Librarian an informal meeting was held in the Committee Room of the British Museum, to consider the formation of a Society of Letters, eligible to represent Literary Science at the International Association of Academies.

In the first instance twenty-five Gentlemen were asked to attend the Meeting; but on Monday, June 24th, Mr. Gollancz learnt from Lord Reay ... that he had himself called a Meeting of the Presidents of certain London Societies, or their representatives, for the same day and the same time at the rooms of the Royal Asiatic Society for the purposes of considering the condition of things so far as concerned the present ineligibility of England to be represented in philological, archaeological, and historical science at the International Association of Academies. Lord Reay at once graciously expressed his strong desire to be present at the Meeting to be held at the British Museum, and after consultation it was decided that the Presidents or their representatives of the London Societies ... should be asked to come instead to the Meeting arranged for at the British Museum.

Of the twenty-five gentlemen originally asked to meet at the Museum, eight were respectively chosen from London, Oxford and Cambridge, exclusive of Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, the Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum: viz:—

Lord Dillon, Lord Reay, The Right Hon. James Bryce, Sir John Evans, Dr. G. W. Prothero, Professor W. P. Ker, Dr. F. G. Kenyon, and Mr. Sidney Lee;

Sir W. R. Anson, Sir F. Pollock, Dr. J. A. H. Murray, Prof. Bywater, Prof. J. Wright, Prof. Rh s, Prof. Percy Gardner, and Mr. C. H. Firth;

Sir R. C. Jebb, The Master of Christ’s [Dr. J. Peile], The Master of Peterhouse [Dr. A. W. Ward], Prof. Skeat, Prof. Ridgeway, Prof. Maitland, Prof. Sorley, and Mr. Gollancz.

[Apologies were received from Dillon, Skeat, Maitland, Sorley, Pollock and Ker.]

There were also present at the Meeting as Lord Reay’s contingent:—

Dr. F. J. Furnivall, representing the President of the Philological Society, Mr. F. Legge, representing the President of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, & Dr. A. C. Haddon, President of the Anthropological Institute.

Sir E. Maunde Thompson, having at the wish of the Meeting taken the Chair, introduced the subject, pointing out the various causes and objects to be considered, & submitting for the guidance of those present “a suggested proceedure” which had been placed in his hand ...

Lord Reay explained the relationship of the present movement to the International Association of Academies, and Sir R. C. Jebb briefly sketched the Constitution of the Association, and the pressing need for immediate action from the standpoint of National prestige. ...

Thereupon Resolution I was carried unanimously.

“That in the opinion of this Meeting it is desirable that a Society representative of Historical, Philosophical and Philological Studies be formed on conditions which will satisfy the requirements of the International Association of Academies.”

The Meeting then proceeded to consider the possible methods for carrying out the Resolution. Three possibilities were before them:—

(1)    The proposed extension of the Royal Society;

(2)    The proposed reorganization of an existing Society;

(3)    The formation of a new independent Society.

Mr. Bryce explained in detail the circumstances under which the Royal Society had been called upon to consider the subject, in view of its difficulty of naming an English Academy to represent the United Kingdom in the “Literary” Section of the International Association. ...

Sir R. C. Jebb pointed out the evident reluctance on the part of the bulk of the Fellows of the Royal Society to include within the Royal Society the studies classed on the Continent as literary, and this was corroborated by Sir John Evans, and Dr. Murray; while the general feeling of the men of letters present was evidently against the idea of the Royal Society initiating any project to secure corporate organization for the exact literary studies.

Mr. Gollancz put before the Meeting a private informal letter from the Secretary of the Royal Society of Literature expressing the willingness of the Council of that Society to consider any measures which might appear to be desirable with a view to the existing Society being taken as a basis for the new Society. An analysis of the history of the Royal Society of Literature, its Charter, its present membership was submitted, and various proposals were put forward as to possible ways of dealing with the main difficulty, namely, the position of the existing members. ... After considerable discussion in which many present took part the following Resolutions were adopted:—

II. “That the gentlemen present be a Provisional General Committee with power to add to their number, to take such steps as may seem expedient for carrying out the previous Resolution.”

III. “That the following nine gentlemen together with an Honorary Secretary be appointed a Sub-Committee to consider the steps necessary to carry out the first Resolution, and to report thereon to the Provisional General Committee, and that the Sub-Committee be empowered to add to the number of the Provisional General Committee before the date of its next meeting:

Lord Reay, Mr. Bryce, Sir W. R. Anson, Sir John Evans, Sir E. Maunde Thompson, Sir R. C. Jebb, Dr. A. W. Ward, Prof. Bywater, Dr. Prothero, and Mr. Gollancz, honorary secretary.”

Minutes of the first meeting of the Sub-Committee, held at the Royal Asiatic Society, Friday 5 July 1901 — extracts

Lord Reay having been invited to take the Chair, Sir R. C. Jebb read a letter he had received from Sir Michael Foster, informing him that at a Meeting held on the previous day the Council of the Royal Society had passed the following Resolution:—

“That the President and Council while sympathizing with the desire to secure corporate organisation for the exact literary studies considered in the British Academy Report are of opinion that it is undesirable that the Royal Society should itself initiate the establishment of a British Academy.”

Sir Michael Foster further expressed his private opinion that the sympathy of the Royal Society ... might take practical form, as for instance, that the President and Council would be willing to approach His Majesty’s Government and introduce the matter. In this way fraternal relationship might be established and maintained between the Royal Society and the new Society. ...

A letter was then read from Sir John Evans, unavoidably absent from the Meeting, urging the Sub-Committee to reconsider the case of the Royal Society of Literature ... After some further discussion of the subject, it was resolved:—

“That as at present advised the Sub-Committee is not prepared to recommend entering into negotiations with the existing Royal Society of Literature.”

It was then resolved to recommend —

That a new independent Society be formed, and that its title should be, provisionally, —

The British Academy
Historico-Philosophical Science,
including Philology and Archaeology, Political and Economic Science:

that election thereto should be by merit.

The Sub-Committee met three more times in July 1901 — determining procedures, considering the initial membership of the new Academy, and giving initial thought to an application for a Royal Charter (and briefly flirting with the title ‘The Royal British Academy of Letters’).

Report of the Sub-Committee, approved at its meeting on 24 October 1901

 Proposed Society of Historical, Philosophical, & Philological Studies
Report of the Sub-Committee

We, the undersigned, beg leave to place before the General Provisional Committee the recommendations of the Sub-Committee appointed on June 28th, 1901, “to consider the steps necessary to carry out the first Resolution”, viz: —

 “That in the opinion of this Meeting it is desirable that a Society representative of Historical, Philosophical, and Philological Studies be formed, on conditions which will satisfy the requirements of the International Association of Academies”.

As a result of long and careful deliberation on the various solutions of the question, under the terms of the reference, it is recommended that

A Society be formed to promote the advancement, now and hereafter, of the Studies of History and Philosophy and therewith of Archaeology and Philology and the Sciences of Politics and Economics,

(i)                  to apply for incorporation by Charter & to be styled & known by the name of “The British Academy of Letters” founded and designed for the furtherance of the Studies aforenamed;

(ii)                to consist of a President, Council and Fellows;

(iii)               election thereto to be by merit;

(iv)               the persons nominated to receive the Charter to be the first Fellows of the Society;

(v)                the first Council & President & other Officers to be elected by the said Fellows;

(vi)               subsequent Fellows to be elected by the whole Society;

(vii)             honorary and Corresponding Members to be elected by the whole Society;

(viii)           the Council to be empowered to make Bye Laws, — to determine the annual subscription & other fees, — to provide for certain stated Meetings, — at least one General Meeting to be held annually;

(ix)               the Society to be empowered to hold land — to build — to receive & disburse funds — to make investments —

(x)                 and to make provision for the issue of Transactions & other publications.

It is further recommended that

The General Provisional Committee forthwith proceed to nominate the persons who are to receive the Charter.

Oct: 24th 1901.
on behalf of the Sub-Committee.

Minutes of the meeting of the General Provisional Committee, at the British Museum, 19 November 1901 (Sir E. Maunde Thompson in the Chair) — extracts

The Report of the Sub-Committee hereunto appended was then submitted. Its adoption, moved by Mr. C. H. Firth and seconded by Prof. Ridgeway, was carried unanimously.

 The Meeting next proceeded to carry out the recommendation of the Sub-Committee in respect of the nomination of the persons who are to receive the Charter. The Chairman explained that after long and careful consideration the Sub-Committee had found it desirable to submit to the General Committee the following proposed list of recipients, arranged provisionally in the categories of

 I. History, II. Philology, III. Oriental and Biblical Studies, IV. Law and Politics, V. Metaphysics, VI. Economics, VII. Archaeology.

I. History.

II. Philology.

III. Oriental & Biblical Studies.

IV. Law and Politics.

V. Metaphysics.

Lord Acton

Mr. Lecky

Prof. Pelham

Dr. Hodgkin

Dr. Gardiner

Prof. Bury

Prof. Mayor

Prof. R. Ellis

Dr. Monro

Prof. Tyrrell

Prof. Butcher


Prof. Skeat

Dr. Murray


Dr. Whitley Stokes

Prof. Rhys

Prof. Swete

Prof. Driver

Prof. Sanday

Provost Salmon

Prof. Davidson


Prof. Cowell


Prof. Rhys Davids

Prof. Maitland

Sir F. Pollock

Prof. Dicey

Prof. Holland

Prof. Westlake

Sir C.P. Ilbert

Dr. Caird

Mr. H. Spencer

Mr. L. Stephen

Dr. S.H. Hodgson

Prof. Flint

Principal Fairbairn

VI. Economics.

VII. Archaeology.

Prof. Marshall

Prof. Edgeworth

Dr. Cunningham

Lord Dillon

Sir H. Maxwell-Lyte

Prof. W.M. Ramsay

Dr. J.G. Frazer

Dr. A.J. Evans

Revd. H.F. Tozer 

It was moved by Dr. Furnivall that the foregoing list, together with the names of the Sub-Committee, be the list of the persons nominated to serve as the recipients. This was seconded by Prof. Sorley, who at the same time suggested the addition of Prof. James Ward, a proposal supported by Prof. Gardner and other Members of the Committee; Dr. Furnivall’s motion with the addition of the name of Prof. Ward was then put to the Vote, and carried.

At a meeting of the General Provisional Committee on 11 December 1901, the names of ‘Lord Rosebery, Mr. Balfour, and Mr. John Morley’ were added to the list, as ‘persons distinguished in political life’. The ‘proposed Fellows of the British Academy’ met for the first time as such at the British Museum on 17 December, and discussed the application for incorporation by Royal Charter. ‘The Draft of the Petition and Draft Charter having been read by the Honorary Secretary, it was resolved that the Petition and Charter should be presented without delay’.

The Petition was submitted on 10 January 1902. It was followed by a supporting Petition from the Royal Society, asking that the Charter should be granted ‘for the great good of learning’. But there were two counter Petitions as well, and the Privy Council Office sought a reaction to these from the proponents of the new Academy.

Memorandum from Sir E. Maunde Thompson to the Lords of the Privy Council, 14 March 1902 — extracts

British Museum
March 14th, 1902.

My Lords,

The Promoters of the Petition of the grant of a Charter of Incorporation to “the British Academy for the Promotion of Historical, Philosophical, and Philological Studies” desire to offer the following observations on the petitions submitted to your Lordships on the subject by the Royal Irish Academy, and by Lord Avebury and others.

As regards the Petition of the Royal Irish Academy, it does not appear to the Promoters of the British Academy that the granting of the Charter of Incorporation would in any way infringe the rights and privileges of the Royal Irish Academy. If, however, it should so appear to your Lordships, the Promoters would be willing to insert a saving clause to that effect in the proposed Charter.

The prayer of the Petition to which Lord Avebury’s name is attached is that an inquiry may be made with a view of instituting a general and formal organisation of all the studies depending upon scientific method; and the petition also expresses the opinion that such organisation could best be provided in some relationship to the Royal Society.

Now a prolonged and exhaustive inquiry has already been held into the question whether the organisation of the new studies could be effected in connexion with the Royal Society.

[The events from November 1899 to December 1901 are summarised.] 

We submit that, as will appear from the foregoing statement, the question of organising the studies just mentioned in relationship with the Royal Society has already been considered by a large number of competent and representative persons, and that no advantage is likely to result from the institution of a fresh inquiry. The majority of the members of the Royal Society is opposed to creating a new department of the Royal Society for the purpose of dealing with those subjects, and there is no prospect of this opinion being altered. It remains that the studies concerned should be organised in a new body independent of the Royal Society, and that step has already been taken. The new body has petitioned for a Charter; but even without a Charter it would continue to exist. The granting of the Charter would not preclude any ultimate combination of the Royal Society and the British Academy. The Royal Society itself has cordially welcomed the institution of the new body, and has petitioned His Majesty in favour of a Charter being granted to it.

On behalf of the Petitioners,
I am, my Lord,
Your obedient Servant,
E. Maunde Thompson

Charter of Incorporation, granted
8 August 1902