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Founders of the Royal Geographical Society of London (act. 1828–1830) are traditionally described as having taken their inspiration from the Raleigh Travellers' Club, formed in 1826 as ‘an agreeable, friendly, and rational society, formed by persons who had visited every part of the globe’ (Markham, 15). A list of the thirty-eight original Raleigh Club members (ibid., 17) shows how closely this club foreshadowed the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). All are men, of whom three are members of parliament, nine officers in the royal navy, four army officers, three officers in the Royal Artillery, and six have titles (including courtesy titles). Male clubbability, and connections to the armed services, particularly the navy, and to public life characterized both societies.

At the Raleigh Club's meeting on 24 May 1830 it was noted that a London society ‘was still wanting … whose sole object should be the promotion and diffusion of that most important and entertaining branch of knowledge—GEOGRAPHY’ (Journal of the Geographical Society of London, 1, 1831, v). Paris by contrast had its Société de Géographie (founded 1821) and Berlin its Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin (founded 1828). A committee of club members was elected to rectify the want. John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty, was in the chair, the other members being the botanist and traveller Robert Brown, Roderick Murchison, army officer, geologist, and imperialist; the traveller John Hobhouse; Mountstuart Elphinstone, traveller in and historian of India; and (Bartholomew) Bartle Frere, traveller and imperialist. William Henry Smyth, naval officer and astronomer, did considerable preparatory work and Clements Markham, in his fiftieth anniversary volume, names the seven as founders of the RGS (p. 23). Experienced in travel, public and military life, and running other learned societies, the founders were strikingly successful, and by the time of its inaugural meeting on 16 July 1830 the Royal Geographical Society had the patronage of the king and some 400 members.

The founders set about promoting ‘geography militant’ (Driver): a geographical science forged in the field and wedded to the commercial and strategic needs of empire. The founders aligned geography with the priorities of government, and, by working in concert with the armed services, particularly the navy, and other prestigious learned societies, especially the Royal Society, adroitly won for the society a commanding position in exploration. Their strategy enabled the society to promote the cause of, and influence the course of, exploration to a degree quite out of proportion to its slender resources.

This was the project that succeeded and has become the official lineage of the society. However, it was predated by a quite different scheme. The need for a geographical society in London had also been suggested to William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette, by Thomas Watts, librarian at the British Museum, whose interest in geography sprang from his expertise in foreign languages (pseudonymous letter, Literary Gazette, 24 May 1828, cited in Autobiography of William Jerdan, 4.405–7) . Jerdan endorsed Watts's view, as did William Huttmann, member of the Asiatic Society and clerk in the India Office (Literary Gazette, 20 Sept 1828). Jerdan, Huttmann, William Henry Smyth, Francis Baily, ‘Lieut. Stratford’ (probably William Samuel Stratford, naval officer, astronomer, and friend of Baily), Thomas Colby, and John Britton together laid plans for such a society. Jerdan published Britton's Prospectus for the Establishment of the London Geographical Institution (18 May 1830, reproduced in Autobiography of William Jerdan, 4.408–11). However, by this time Smyth had secured the support of John Barrow, universally recognized as pivotal in the RGS's history, and it was the Barrow plan that was set on foot. Jerdan described Barrow's scheme as ‘in opposition to that we proposed, and principally in consequence of certain names in ours belonging to the London University’ (Mill, 18).

Markham's fiftieth-anniversary volume dates the Jerdan–Britton scheme to 1830, ascribes it to Smyth, and suggests that it fed seamlessly into Barrow's work. By contrast Mill's centenary volume reveals both the priority and the different character of the Jerdan scheme, and in consequence names ten men as founders of the RGS. These are six of the seven listed by Markham (excluding Frere), and Francis Baily, traveller, astronomer, and geodesist; the antiquary and topographer John Britton; Thomas Frederick Colby, Royal Engineer and later director of the Ordnance Survey; and the orientalist George Cecil Renouard (Mill, 19). Even this list excludes William Jerdan, which seems hard. Though the Jerdan–Britton and Barrow schemes had much in common with each other (and indeed with even earlier proposals) the Jerdan–Britton scheme would have created a geography less dominated by exploration and imperial concerns (though far less influential) and more attuned to science and scholarship. It would also have had a quite different social composition. Mill points with pride to the founders' common purpose which united ‘the son of a peer [Elphinstone] and the son of a peasant [Barrow]’ (ibid., 23); but it was men who reached high rank and title who dominate Markham's founders and, at their invitation, the presidency of the society, while Mill's founders included Britton, Baily, and Renouard, who died without high rank or title.

Mill reports differences between the two sets of men over the direction the RGS took in the early 1830s: Jerdan notes that Britton resigned his place on the RGS council ‘browbeaten … [and] in disgust’ (Autobiography, 4.44). Mill also reveals that in 1833 University College, London approached the RGS to ask for support in establishing a professorship of geography. Barrow and Francis Beaufort, hydrographer to the navy, declined on behalf of the RGS, and Mill speculates that their ‘rapid’ decision may have been due to the connection of University College with the failed scheme (ibid., 41). It unquestionably set back the course of academic geography in Britain.

Searching for even earlier roots, Mill notes that the merger of the African Association with the RGS in 1831 allowed the RGS to claim the association's founder, Sir Joseph Banks, as its founder, and the association's foundation date (1788) as its own. This claim, however, was never taken seriously.

The founders of the RGS were not antagonistic to scholarship or science. Their agreed objects committed the society to publish geographical information, to found a good library, and to correspond with other geographical societies. They met these objects and also raised the scientific standards and professionalism of expeditions. None the less, academic and exploratory geographers had quite different conceptions of the discipline, and this—combined with differences in class, sex, and location between the two groups—led to the establishment in 1933 of the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) after attempts to secure space for academic geography (particularly human geography) in the RGS's journal had failed. The Geographical Association had been founded in 1893 to promote school geography, and the need for these two academic groups separate from the RGS shows the success with which the founders of the RGS had put their stamp on the society.

By the time of the RGS's sesquicentenary in 1980, geography being well established in universities and schools, the society was eager to celebrate its contribution to exploration. Its sesquicentennial volume—entitled To the Farthest Ends of the Earth, and listing explorers who have won its medals and expeditions it has sponsored—confirms the success of the founders in forging a geography with enduring popular appeal. It accepts Markham's list of founders, and makes no reference to Mill's, dismissing his scholarship as ‘long-winded’ (Cameron, 202).

In 1994 the ‘RGS (with the IBG)’ was created from those two societies, the IBG having failed to provide leadership to the academic discipline, and having harboured many members who published no more than did the RGS fellows they disdained. Though the merger established academic geography at the heart of the RGS, it also vindicated the founders' understanding that exploration would always command the support of a wider public than geographical education ever could. Their view that geographical science was always made in part in the field had in any case always commanded the support of some academics, notably David Stoddart.

Apart from dedication to the needs of empire, the only other aspect of the founders' vision which has been completely superseded was their conception of fellows as men. Taking this for granted, they failed to specify masculinity as a criterion for fellowship. This left a loophole which was exploited in November 1892 when fifteen women were elected to the fellowship.

Elizabeth Baigent


C. R. Markham, The fifty years' work of the Royal Geographical Society (1881) · H. R. Mill, The record of the Royal Geographical Society, 1830–1930 (1930) · W. Jerdan, The autobiography of William Jerdan: with his literary, political, and social reminiscences and correspondence during the last fifty years, 4 vols. (1852–3), vol. 4 · D. R. Stoddart, On geography and its history (1986) · I. Cameron, To the farthest ends of the earth: the history of the Royal Geographical Society, 1830–1980 (1980) · M. Bell, R. Butler, and M. Heffernan, eds., Geography and imperialism, 1820–1940 (1995) · D. N. Livingstone, The geographical tradition (1992) · F. Driver, Geography militant: cultures of exploration and empire (2001) · R. O. Buchanan, ‘The IBG: retrospect and prospect’, Transactions and Papers, Institute of British Geographers, 20 (1954), 1–14 · J. Marshall-Cornwall, History of the Geographical Club (1976) · T. W. Freeman, ‘The Royal Geographical Society and the development of geography’, Geography yesterday and tomorrow, ed. E. H. Brown (1980), 1–99 · R. W. Steel, The Institute of British Geographers: the first fifty years (1983) · M. Bell and C. McEwan, ‘The admission of women fellows to the Royal Geographical Society, 1892–1914: the controversy and the outcome’, GJ, 162 (1996), 295–312 · R. Johnston, ‘The institutionalisation of geography’, A century of British geography, ed. M. Williams and R. Johnston (2003), 45–90 · W. G. V. Balchin, The Geographical Association: the first hundred years, 1893–1993 (1993) · T. W. Freeman, A hundred years of geography (1961)