The Royal Society of Victoria, Australia

By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf
On a recent visit to Melbourne I wandered past the imposing Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens – built for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-1881, now restored and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and unexpectedly came upon the extremely attractive building occupied by the Royal Society of Victoria. Situated adjacent to the Exhibition Building, the Society’s office lies on a small triangle of land bordered by Victoria, Latrobe and Exhibition Streets. Like the Royal Exhibition Building, the Society’s offices were designed by renowned Melbourne architect Joseph Reed, much of whose work on public buildings and churches survives today. I walked into the lobby of the Royal Society of Victoria and admired the busts and photographs of past presidents, the publications that the Society produces and the many notifications of forthcoming symposia, lectures and conferences.

Melbourne Royal Exhibition building in its heyday

While the Royal Society of South Africa has not been as fortunate as that of Victoria in acquiring an historic and beautiful building, the two Societies have much in common. First, they are both located in former British colonies and follow the traditions and conventions of the Royal Society of London after which they are modelled. Second, at their foundation, their aims were similar, being to explore and understand the new environments in which they were situated and to nurture, inaugurate and facilitate intellectual life in a place where such was lacking. And third, and importantly, has been the election of Fellows, scientists of distinction, who contribute to an interdisciplinary and institutional structure in which scholars from many fields share their knowledge and promote scientific excellence and education. Royal Societies are unique institutions in which experts in particular disciplines may engage with the specific context of their countries and inform and educate a wider public.
Royal Society of Victoria, front entrance sml

The Royal Society of Victoria is formally older than the Royal Society of South Africa; the former received its Royal Charter in 1859, the latter only in 1908. However, both emanated from a merger of learned societies founded in earlier decades. Victoria separated from New South Wales in 1851 and the Royal Society of Victoria came about after a merger of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, the Philosophical Society of Victoria and the Victorian Institute for the Advancement of Science founded in 1854. The antecedents of the Royal Society of South Africa lie in the 1820s with the establishment in Cape Town of the short-lived South African Literary Society in 1824. In 1829 two new societies were created in Cape Town. These were a new South African Literary Society and the South African Institution and they combined in 1832 to become the South African Literary and Scientific Institution. After vicissitudes in the mid-19th century, in 1877 this became the South African Philosophical Society which itself was transformed into the Royal Society of South Africa with a formal charter in 1908. The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria (dating from 1854 and available online) are published annually by CSIRO Publishing while the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa have an unbroken record from 1908 and are currently part of the Taylor and Francis publishing stable.

The societies in the Cape and Victoria were only two of a proliferation of literary and philosophical societies elsewhere in the British world during the 19th century. In Sydney a Philosophical Society of Australasia was founded in 1821, and after a period of inactivity it was resuscitated as the Australian Philosophical Society in 1850. Between 1856 and 1866 it was called the Philosophical Society of New South Wales and in that latter year was sanctioned by her Majesty as the Royal Society of New South Wales. The Royal Society of Tasmania considers itself the oldest Royal Society outside the United Kingdom, having been founded in 1843 under the patronage of Queen Victoria as the Royal Society of Van Diemen’s Land for Horticulture, Botany and the Advancement of Science, itself the descendant of other small intellectual societies. South Australia followed suit when, in 1853, a group of leading Adelaide gentlemen formed the Adelaide Philosophical Society. In 1859 the South Australian Institute came into being, and the title Royal Society of South Australia was used in 1880 after receiving permission to do so.  In 1859, the same year that the Royal Society of Victoria entered the arena, the Queensland Philosophical Society began and it became the Royal Society of Queensland in 1884. The state of Western Australia did not have a Royal Society until 1949; it had eventually grown out of the amateur natural history societies that had been spawned in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Unlike Australia with its many Royal Societies, the Cape was the only South African colony to have the equivalent of a Royal Society in the 19th century. The six Australian colonies that were federated as a Commonwealth on 1 January 1901 retained their separate Royal Societies all of which are still strongly supported by regional scientific communities. In South Africa, the Royal Society came into being for the country as a whole at a time when the subcontinent was heading for union in 1910 and its regional societies withered. Local intellectual societies had sprung up in many parts of southern Africa in the 19th century going by the name of ‘literary’ or ‘philosophical’ or ‘scientific’. In 1855 the Literary, Scientific and Medical Society was started in Grahamstown, the Eastern Province Literary and Scientific Society in 1883, the Worcester Literary and Scientific Society in c.1870, the Bloemfontein Literary and Scientific Society in 1877, the Transvaal Literary and Scientific Society in 1874, the Transvaal Philosophical Society for the Advancement of Science, Art and Literature in 1898 and the Barberton Scientific and Literary Society in 1888. These societies, following on a British tradition, were never as strong or popular in South Africa as they were in Australia where the English-speaking population was more homogeneous and membership thus larger.

Like the Royal Society of South Africa, the Royal Society of Victoria was occupied with many of the landmark scholarly and scientific developments in the colony. It sponsored and organised the famous 1860 Burke and Wills expedition into the Australian interior, was involved in the  establishment of the National Museum of Natural History (now, Museum Victoria), the Melbourne Public Library (now, the State Library of Victoria) and the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather station; stimulating Australia’s first Antarctic exploration; the setting-aside of Wilson’s Promontory as a National Park; the formation of the Victorian Institute of Marine Sciences and astronomical and palaeontological researches as well as the biological sciences and urban planning. The various publications, lectures and symposia hosted by the Society are presented on its website and it is clear that, like the Royal Society of South Africa, it brings together scientists from diverse disciplines to stimulate discussion and disseminate information for the benefit of the community. Both Societies recognise and encourage scientific research of the highest calibre by the award of its coveted medals.

Sir Henry BarklyThere are parallels between the Royal Society of Victoria and that of South Africa in terms of support from its British Governors. From 1860 to 1863 Sir Henry Barkly (1815-1898) was President of the Royal Society of Victoria, a man well known to South Africans for the towns of Barkly West (Northern Cape) and Barkly East (Eastern Cape) named after him. It is less well known that he was a Fellow of the Royal Society of London (1864) and of the Royal Geographical Society (1870), a keen amateur botanist and pteridologist, making funds available for the Flora Capensis when he was in South Africa and taking an interest in archaeology. In 1848 Barkly had been appointed Governor of British Guiana and subsequently of Jamaica. His success in these two difficult colonies led to his appointment as the Governor of Victoria in 1856, also reputed to be an extremely challenging task which he handled with some skill before moving on to become Governor in Mauritius in 1863. In 1870 he was sent to South Africa as High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape Colony where he remained until 1877. When diamonds were discovered in Griqualand West, part of what is now the Northern Cape, Barkly presided over the process of arbitration and annexation that poisoned regional politics for many decades. In addition, his long-term plan for a confederation of South African states (two Republics and two Colonies) went awry because of Barkly’s poor political judgement and conflicts with the Boers, the Tswana and the Pedi.

Sir Bartle FrereThe close association between political leadership and support for philanthropic and intellectual movements demonstrated in Barkly’s career had a parallel with that of Sir Henry Bartle Frere (1815-1884), Barkly’s successor in South Africa as High Commissioner and Governor of the Cape. Frere had been Governor of Bombay and was despatched to South Africa with a mission to federate the colonies and republics of the subcontinent. In 1873 Frere was President of the Royal Geographical Society (the highest mountain in Queensland, Mount Bartle Frere, commemorates his presidency), he was President of the Royal Asiatic Society and his publications span the topics of archaeology, geology and history. Frere was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1877 and in that year he became the first President of the South African Philosophical Society. As had been the case with Barkly’s, Frere’s South African career was a failure, his legacy being the start of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and the collapse of the idea of confederation that had repercussions later in the searing conflict of the South African (Anglo-Boer) War of 1900 to 1902. He was recalled to London in 1880 and charged with misconduct.

The history of learned societies in South Africa is unexplored and it is important for the legacy of our intellectual heritage that the antecedents of the modern suite of scientific institutions are understood together with the context in which scholarly and academic work is conducted.

Bregman,  L.D., ‘“Snug little coteries”: A history of scientific societies in early nineteenth century Cape Town, 1824–1835’. Unpubl. PhD thesis, University College London, 2003.
Carruthers, J., ‘Scientists in society: A history of the Royal Society of South Africa’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 63(1), 2008, pp.1-30. ISSN 0035-919X
Dubow, S., A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility, and White South Africa, 1820-2000. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Plug, C.,  Scientific societies in South Africa to the end of the nineteenth century. South African Journal of Science 88, 1992, pp.256-261.
Royal Society of Victoria (Accessed 17 June 2016)