Why Does London Have So Many Royal Societies?

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 25 months ago
Why Does London Have So Many Royal Societies?
The view of the Royal Academy School’s life class is from Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1810)

London seems to have as many Royal Societies as it has Tesco Metros. Lurking in back streets there’s a Royal Society, Royal Institution and Royal Academy. Confused? You will be.

There’s also a Geological Society that’s royal but does not like to mention it, and a Royal Society of Arts that is not much concerned with art. How did we end up with this riot of royal favours? We try to disentangle their names and origins, often very much entangled, and find which ones you can visit.

To join some of them you just need cash. But for our first you may need to have a Nobel Prize.

The Royal Society

The Royal Society came first in 1663, a fact that might excuse it from further explanation. But, as if to confuse, the RS describes itself today not only as an academy but also a fellowship. The founders included Christopher Wren, who was then a Professor of Astronomy, and The Right Reverend John Wilkins, a writer on space travel.

Its full name is the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Its members shared a curiosity about nature. They were able to call it Royal because Charles II gave them a charter, written on vellum. The charter elaborates the worthy objects of the Society. It also gave a legal character to the organisation — like a company, only more regal. After the Civil War, perhaps it implied some royal protection. Gathering lots of members without royal approval might look like raising a private army.

The Royal Society, not in its original home, moved into a building with a marble staircase said to have been the gift of dictator Mussolini.

George III lent royal and real support to an experimental venture of the RS. A century after the original charter, he helped to pay for Captain Cook’s first voyage with botanist Joseph Banks aboard.

The RS remains one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. In 1665 the RS started publishing a journal, and even today, having an article published there is one of the best ways to place your tent on the field of knowledge. Academic exclusivity justifies it being called an academy, and the members are called Fellows. But it holds public events throughout the year, the highlight of which is the summer science exhibition.

Royal Society of Arts

Fellows of the Royal Society tended to be well off and would easily be carried away with questions like why some rotten fish glow in the dark, or why the sky is blue. It was full of blue sky thinkers. But what did that have to do with the price of bread?

More immediately practical concerns were the interest of a painter, William Shipley, who also turned his hand to inventions such as lining shoes with foil. His efforts and social links with the RS led to founding the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1754, which finally received its charter in 1847. Arts is a word that has changed its meaning. Not originally exclusive to painters of chubby cherubs, nor to prancing luvvies, it spoke of technology, practical ingenuity and craftsmanship. Shipley’s concern was to raise money to award prizes for worthy products. One of the most famous of these was for an extensible brush to supersede the enslavement of small children to clean chimneys. Charles Dickens and Karl Marx were Fellows.

The Royal Society of Arts. Photo: C G P Grey under a Creative Commons licence.

After awarding its Albert Medal to a stellar list of inventors including Rowland Hill for the Penny Post, as well as Michael Faraday and Alexander Graham Bell, it must have felt it had been neglecting the ‘polite arts’. In 1904 the award went to a book illustrator and some have since gone to ballet and music.

The RSA’s modern niche is to foster enlightened thinking, particularly on the future of systems such as healthcare, education, prisons and even society itself. If that sounds like your bag then you can apply to become a Fellow, but for everyone else, there are regular public events.

Royal Academy

The Royal Academy of Arts actually is what it says on the tin, an academy of eminent artists. It exists to teach and exhibit art – not just the cherubs, but also in recent decades holograms and abstract sculpture. The RA was a self-help society, formed so that the members had somewhere to exhibit. It was founded in 1768 with a Royal Charter from George III through the efforts of Sir William Chambers, architect to royalty. British architects got their own Royal Institute in 1837. Public exhibitions at the RA are renowned.

Royal Institution

Charter of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. Image supplied by the RI.

When the French were revolting after 1789 neither the RS nor the RSA were quite a match for what the country needed to survive the interruption of trade with the continent. Agriculture and manufacturing were thought to need the fruits of scientific research to become more productive.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain was born in 1799 through the efforts of Sir Joseph Banks, then President of the Royal Society, and Count Rumford. The RI was to commence teaching the application of science to the common purposes of life. Rumford thought that might mean cookery demonstrations. But after a few years, having recruited Humphry Davy, it turned out to involve his discovery of several new chemical elements. Then, Michael Faraday came and invented the electric motor. He also established the Christmas Lectures.

The RI is inclusive. You don’t have to be a member to visit or attend events.

Carry On Founding

Sir Humphry went on to become President of the Royal Society himself and also founded the royal-except-in- name Geological and Zoological Societies as, apart from chemistry, he liked fishing.

The Geological Society of London had other leading lights who disapproved of the monarchy. Nevertheless, it managed to get a royal charter in 1825. It’s one of a number of societies which are as royal as any but never adopted the R-word.

Another such is the Society of Antiquaries, a very exclusive collection of historians, with Royal Patrons, chartered in 1751 and with whom the Royal Society actually shared rooms at Somerset House. There’s a separate Royal Historical Society, by the way, which is easier to join, if you are interested in history.

A Royal Society for everyone?

A distorted reflection of Burlington House Courtyard, home of the Antiquarian, Linnean and Geological Societies, the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Photo: Laurence Scales

Royal Charters and Royal Patronage are administered by the Privy Council, the monarch’s extended circle of advisors which includes many MPs. Sir Joseph Banks had the ear of George III and, where their interests coincided with his own, was happy to see new specialist societies formed and chartered such as the Linnean (concerned with the classification of flora and fauna) and the Horticultural. He was less enthusiastic about a new Astronomical Society, but that was founded in the year of his death.

250 years ago it might have been possible for individuals to know practically everything worth knowing – the ‘known knowns,’ that is. But we have had to specialise. There are about 30 royal societies based in London, just counting the ones which do flaunt their royalness. There’s even one for stamp collectors, the Philatelic. You need a member to propose you for that one.

Just before you decide you understand the system, some charities like the Royal Television Society and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are also permitted to take the R-word.

If you’re feeling excluded, remember that many of the societies, generally those with more popular appeal such as the Geographical, Geological, Astronomical, Historical, Linnean, Literature and Architects have public events. Sometimes the welcome even includes nibbles. But just don’t go looking a fun night out at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors — unless you are one.

Last Updated 18 November 2016