The establishment of the Royal Society of St George

By Lesley Robinson

Early February 1894, Bloomsbury Square in central London. Two men were hard at work fine-tuning the constitution of the Royal Society of St George (RSStG), an association which, unbeknownst to them, would survive for over one Ruffhundred and twenty years. From their offices in the metropolis, these two individuals, Howard Ruff, a Buckinghamshire-born agriculturalist (pictured) and solicitor Harry W. Christmas, embarked upon a mission to awaken patriotic Englishmen and Englishwomen and establish ‘on a permanent basis a patriotic English society’. Struck by the manifest neglect of English patriotism Howard Ruff had, in the 1890s, initiated the practice of writing to the press on the subject in an attempt to rouse his fellow countrymen and countrywomen into patriotic action. These early efforts garnered little support, however, and it soon became clear to Ruff that further action was required. The answer? The establishment of an association with the manifest aim of promoting Englishness. Ruff, however, was inexperienced in the world of associations; if he wished to see his idea come to fruition he would require assistance – and this came with co-founder Harry W. Christmas.

Christmas was already familiar with the associational world. In the decade prior to the formation of the RSStG a separate Society of St George was operating in Britain, of which Christmas was the honorary secretary. Events organised by this association were well-organised and well-attended. In 1883, the St George’s Day dinner was chaired by the Welsh journalist, entrepreneur and Conservative M.P, John Henry Puleston, and attended by, as reported in the Wrexham Advertiser, ‘Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen, and Welshmen, natives of the United States, of the English Colonies, and Englishmen who had travelled all over the inhabitable globe’. The roll call of guests included General Edwin Merritt, the Irish M.P Captain William O’Shea and the English Conservative M.P Albert Pell. Though the object of the earlier Society of St George was to establish a ‘sort of brotherhood over the whole world’, given the diverse ethnic make-up of the members we see that this organisation was not an ethnically English association akin to the RSStG. Years later, in the early 1890s, when the RSStG was eventually established, Christmas would draw on this experience and attempt to replicate the early success of the Society of St George.

In the RSStG’s nascent months announcements were sent out by Ruff and Christmas inviting ‘all patriotic Englishmen irrespective of creed or party’ to join their fledgling association. From London to Birmingham and Huddersfield to Aberdeen, readers of the national and local press were introduced to the society for the first time. In Scotland, the Aberdeen Evening Express deemed its formation an opportune moment owing to the ‘half-comic despair’ expressed by the English press over ‘the recent appointment of Sir Charles Russell as Lord Justice of Appeal and the selection of Mr Reid as Solicitor-General for England-the first an Irishman and the other a Scotsman’. In their eyes, the establishment of the RSStG, a ‘response to this Scottish and Irish invasion’ was not ‘exactly one of antagonism’ but more part of a growing impression that England ‘ought in some way to come more to the front’. The notion of competitive ethnicity between the home nations expressed by the Aberdeen Evening Express was similarly present in the minds of the RSStG’s founders. According to co-founder Harry W. Christmas, the association hoped to ‘enter into friendly rivalry with our Scotch, Irish and Welsh kinsmen in seeing that those interests, which are essentially English, are looked after’. In the metropolis, the location of the RSStG’s headquarters, the needs and wants of the Scots, Irish and Welsh were met to varying degrees through the establishment of Caledonian Clubs and St. Patrick and St. David societies. However, the associational world entered into by the RSStG in 1894 catered to far more than just the home nations; an abundance of associations emerged in the metropolis in the late-nineteenth-century whose remits reflected the imperial world in which they operated. Imperial connections were maintained by the Canada Club, the Dominions Club and the Australasian Club. Other examples included the London Colonial Club and the Imperial Colonies Club, both of which could count a number of RSStG honorary vice-presidents as members: Sir Edmund Barton, Sir Gilbert Parker and Sir Robert Bond. Also among this growing pool of associations was the Authors Club and the Chelsea Arts Club which served those with an interest in literature and the arts, while the Primrose Club, a gentlemen’s club aligned to the Conservative Party, satisfied those concerned with politics. Into the twentieth century, other elite organisations similar to the RSStG with their own focus on England and Anglo-American relations also emerged, namely the Anglo-American League, the Pilgrims Society, the English-Speaking Union and the International Magna Charta Day Association. A valuable resource for members of the metropolitan elite, these evolving associations, the RSStG included, did not provide members with leisure and conviviality, they also acted as sites where London’s privileged classes could convene and establish and maintain important connections.

By founding the RSStG in 1894, Ruff and Christmas did far more than merely ‘awaken’ the patriotism of Englishmen and Englishwomen. A year after its foundation the first extended reports about the association emerged in the press, chronicling its early, more modest, achievements. The Morning Post reported with great enthusiasm on the association’s success in ‘arranging for the bells of the churches of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields and St Mary Abbott’s, Kensington, to be pealed yesterday’ and in having the ‘banner of St. George flown from the steeples of those edifices’. More than a century on, the national press continues to report on the activities of the RSStG. In 2014 over fifty branches of the RSStG are active in England with thousands of members proudly celebrating their English identity. Undoubtedly, one hundred and twenty years on from that February meeting, the legacy of Ruff and Christmas remains very much alive.

Home Rule for England?

By Lesley Robinson

With Scotland readying itself for an historic national debate on its constitutional future in 2014, there are growing calls from pressure groups and politicians alike for the English people to engage in a similar debate and campaign for a devolved English parliament. Ostensibly this increasing desire for English devolution is a relatively modern phenomenon, advanced most noticeably by Scotland’s acceleration towards independence. In truth, the issues being raised at present by those campaigning for English devolution had already been broached over a century ago as members of the upper and middle classes began considering England’s constitutional future.

In the early years of the twentieth century the case for English devolution was tied up with wider debates about Irish Home Rule and the future of the British Empire. The 1904 publication Problems of Empire made reference to the enduring argument that too much time was, and some would argue still is, spent in Parliament debating issues of Scottish concern. ‘At present we find that a large proportion of the time of our representatives in Parliament is taken up in dealing with Irish, Scotch, or Welsh business, with matters which only indirectly concern ourselves. If the Irish have a right to manage their own affairs, have not we Englishmen a right to manage ours?’ This question about England’s political future, posed by the work’s author Thomas Allnutt Brassey, a man well-known and respected in imperial circles, was picked up on a number of occasions and by a variety of people.

In 1912, as the Third Home Rule Bill was introduced in Ireland, the question of English Home Rule was prominent in the minds of many and featured in a number of House of Commons debates. The possibility of establishing a scheme of Home Rule for England was mooted by Captain George Sandys; seven years later, and with no real progress having been made, Sir Ryland Adkins pondered: ‘Is it not time that England and the case for its Home Rule was considered?’. The formation of the London-based Scots National League in 1920 and Plaid Cymru in 1925, coupled with the partition of Ireland as a result of the Fourth Home Rule Bill, all contributed to a heightened state of national consciousness in Britain. If ever there was a time for Englishmen to transform their desires into a more solid movement, it was at this point in time.

In the 1920s those who supported English Home Rule could look to the Royal Society of St George (RSStG) for support. The RSStG was an association established in 1894 with the overriding objective to ‘strengthen and encourage the instinctive patriotism of the English people, and to develop the race consciousness all of English birth or origin’. Given the remit of this association it is not surprising that the RSStG was fully alert to the importance of the issue of home rule and identified in its official journal The English Race that ‘Home Rule for England would undoubtedly quicken the race-consciousness of our people’. At this time of growing nationalism in the home nations, the calls for home rule in England looked likely to develop into something of a more robust, political nature with the RSStG at the helm. In 1920 the RSStG published an article entitled ‘Home Rule for England’ in The English Race. The article, written the previous year by Thomas Brassey, proposes that the association should become the centre of a movement concerned with securing English Home Rule and urges the patriotic members of the Society to take up the cause, ‘If the Royal Society of St George believes as I do that Home Rule for England is a necessity, and will be the means of arousing Englishmen in the matter, it will do an invaluable service to the country and to the Empire’. In the same issue the Earl of Selborne declared that devolution in England would ‘give the English people freedom to deal with purely English affairs in a purely English way and would relieve them from the ill-informed influence of Scottish and of Welsh Members of Parliament’. The publication of these commentaries buoyed members of the RSStG who supported Brassey’s position and were quite vocal in their desire to see the vision of Home Rule for England realised.

However, as we know, his vision did not come to fruition. Given the nationalist discourse in Britain at the time it may seem surprising that the sentiments expressed by Brassey, and supported by the Royal Society of St George, did not crystallise into a solid political movement interested in establishing English Home Rule. We do know that the RSStG tended to engage itself in the promotion of cultural Englishness rather than political Englishness and was not often drawn into discussions of a distinctly political nature. Perhaps following the buoyant reception to Brassey’s proposals the association quickly returned to the promotion of Englishness at a more local level. Or, perhaps it was the loss of the movement’s advocate in 1919 owing to Brassey’s untimely death? Had he not been killed at the age of fifty-six would he have gone on to establish a party similar to the Scots and the Welsh? Perhaps he would. Which begs the question: if he had, would England also be counting down to an historic debate on its constitutional future? What do you think? We’d love to hear your views.

What Magna Charta Means to Americans

By Don MacRaild

David Cameron’s failure to recall the meaning of the Latin phrase Magna Charta (‘Great Charter’) received widespread news coverage (see for example The Telegraph or BBC Magazine). One conclusion from the ink spilled was that Americans feel more affinity to Magna Charta than the English or British do. Is that so? And if so, why is it so?

In truth, the English have always been rather indifferent to their English identity. Englishness has always been better articulate beyond England’s shores by neo-English or neo-Britons in America and the colonies, for instance through the global tradition of St George’s societies. Matters of ethnic provenance, and what that ethnicity meant, always seemed more important in colonial melting pots than it did at home. The great imperial historian, J.R. Seeley, recognised this when, nearly 130 years ago, he stated in The Expansion of England (1883), that ‘the history of England is not in England, but in America and Asia’.

However, the American love of Magna Charta is about more than springing from English roots, and there is more to the American affinity for Magna Charta than ethnic identification with a single homeland. In one sense, a shared tradition of liberty passing back to 1215 is a truer manifestation of the ‘special relationship’ than an unbalanced military and strategic partnership. Magna Charta represents the beginning of a sinewy cultural connection.

Importantly, Magna Charta has acquired resonant meanings for Americans with no homeland associations with England or Britain. During the later 19th century, as I have explained earlier in an item on the International Magna Charta Day Association, Magna Charta became a keystone of American liberties—a document which Americans associated with as a precursor to their own Constitution. Americans fought to defend their liberties against what they saw as arbitrary British governance during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), and its words of liberty are enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution.

Later, Anglo-American relations improved and the frosty atmosphere of the 19th century gave way to a situation in which the English-speaking people would fight two global wars in defence of shared liberties. However, Magna Charta held a meaning to Americans which was independent of British aspects and did not require this rapprochement for it to thrive.

This is the context in which an even greater flowering of Magna Charta worship prevailed. In the early 20th century, Americans tied Magna Charta to their search for ethnic roots in the form of a variety of organisations which made the link real: the Baronial Order of Runnymede (1898), which is now the Baronial Order of Magna Charta, and the Magna Charta Dames (founded in 1909) provided associational contexts in which values of liberty and piety could be shared. The International Magna Charta Day Association (1907) organised annual celebrations in the US, Britain and around the English-speaking world, where Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and others demonstrated their own empathy with the great charter. In all cases, promotion of liberty was crucial.

Magna Charta connections also then became literal and physical. When WWII broke out, one of four copies of the Magna Charta was in the US for New York’s World Fair (1939). Because of the risk of transporting it back across the Atlantic, it was taken, with the American Constitution, to Fort Knox for safe-keeping, and it remained there for the duration of the war. In the 1950s, the American Bar Association paid for a monument to liberty and Magna Charta at Runnymede. American courthouses across the land depict the barons wresting powers from King John in 1215. And in the most remarkable example of individual Magna Charta appreciation, the billionaire businessman and politician, Ross Perot, bought a copy (dated 1297) and lent to the National Archives in Washington. He sold it in 2007 for over $20m. The purchaser, David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group, also lent it to the National Archives, where it remains to this day.