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.

English and Scottish Ethnic Associations in North America: A Comparison

By Tanja Bueltmann

In 1901 their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York embarked on Royal tours of both Australia and Canada, visiting locations throughout the two countries. At the end of September 1901 their journey brought them to the Canadian capital, Ottawa. Pavilions had been erected in the city, special Reception Committees were at hand to welcome the Royal couple, and there was a procession to the Parliament grounds. Four thousand school children flanked the main route, singing the national anthem and waving ‘their flags with great heartiness’. ‘On reaching the pavilion the Mayor … read the civic welcome. [And] then followed the presentation of addresses’ from several cities and organisations. Among the latter were presentations from both the Ottawa St Andrew’s and St George’s Society – the two associations united in dispensing a cordial welcome to the heir apparent, his wife and entourage. ‘As Scots and descendants of Scottish men, from his Majesty’s ancient kingdom of Scotland’, wrote the President of the St Andrew’s Society, ‘we rejoice that this Crown still unites Canada and ourselves with the country of our birth and origin, as well as with the kingdoms and possessions of the British Empire.’ – thus following, it seems, the motto of the Ottawa visit (see photo). Similar sentiments were expressed by the members of the St George’s Society, who stressed that ‘the national societies of Canada, although nominally separate, are … heartily united in devotion to the crown’.

The Royal Tour provides, of course, a very specific context for these expressions of loyalty to the old world, the crown and Empire. The St Andrew’s and St George’s societies’ involvement in the proceedings nonetheless highlights the important role ethnic associations played not only for their members, but also in wider social life.

Emigrants carried a rich array of associations with them to the new worlds in which the settled, often coming together along ethnic lines shortly after first foot fall. Yet while a key aspect of expatriate community life, two of the richest examples of this formal sociability, that of the English and Scots, have received only patchy attention. While Scottish associationalism, though understudied, has at least been an acknowledged feature of the Scots’ ethnic behaviour abroad—kilted lads and bagpipes providing a suitable iconography here—English associations have not been viewed in the same light: they have largely been dismissed, for instance by Charlotte Erickson, as elitist and out of touch with the larger immigrant community. More broadly, this view also reflects the frequent dismissal of ethnic associations as harbourers of nostalgia and romantic sentiments, their activities being perceived by many to simply replicate old world traditions for the purpose of keeping alive the memory of the native land. This view has been challenged recently by scholars like those of the English Diaspora project who recognise that ethnic associations serve much more varied purposes, providing a unique means to capture the experiences of migrants, their activities and networks. A comparison of the evolution of English associations and their activities with those of the Scots,  will help us better undestand the importance of English ethnic associations.

The first Scottish society in North America was the Charitable Society of Boston, which was set up in 1657 to provide relief for local ‘needy Scotch people, after proper investigation’.  One of the Society’s main roles in the eighteenth century became the provision of relief for the aged on a long-term basis—essentially a type of pension. The Society also maintained the Scots Temporary Home and a plot on the Mount Auburn Cemetery, setting the scene for the dispensation of Scottish charity through ethnic associations.

By the mid-eighteenth century St Andrew’s Societies had then been established in Charleston, South Carolina in 1729, in Philadelphia in 1747 and in New York in 1756.  What makes this establishment pattern of Scottish ethnic societies along the eastern seaboard of what were then still the original 13 colonies of the British Empire of particular interest is that the English followed very much the same pattern: Charleston’s St George’s Society was founded in 1733, New York’s in 1770 and Philadelphia’s Sons of St George’s Society in 1772. Perhaps an element of competitive ethnicity at play?

The first step towards the organization of the Charleston St Andrew’s Society was taken at a meeting of gentlemen ‘chiefly natives of Scotland’, who had come together on 30 November 1729 for the purpose of celebrating St Andrew’s Day. As the preamble of the Society’s rules highlights, it was founded on wide-ranging philanthropic principles designed to aid newly arrived Scottish migrants in distress. This focus on benevolence is a key characteristic of both Scottish and English associationalism in North America. Typically, for instance, the founding statutes of the Philadelphia’s Society of the Sons of St George declared it existed ‘for the ADVICE and ASSISTANCE of ENGLISHMEN in DISTRESS’. The Scottish and English associations’ most practical application was the provision of support for immigrants,  and one often underpinned by a patrician sense of benevolence felt by the societies’ leading members.

But such characteristics and development patterns were not uniform throughout the English and Scottish diasporas. In Canada, for instance, ethnic associations were slower to emerge—this being a direct result of migration trends: Canada was not one of the principal destinations migrants until after the American Revolution.  The first recorded Scottish ethnic association in Canada appeared in 1768, when the North British Society (originally called the North British Society, or Scots Club),  was founded in Halifax Nova Scotia.  Apart from the St. Andrew’s Society of St. John, New Brunswick, established in 1798, other Scottish ethnic associations only emerged in Canada during the early nineteenth century, with their establishment often coinciding with the incorporation of major urban centres, such as Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, all of which had St. Andrew’s Societies by the 1840s.  Similar patterns are again traceable for the English. During the first-half of the nineteenth century, St George’s societies also spread with mass migration. In Canada, equivalents of the early American societies thus appeared in Toronto (1834), Quebec (1836) and Ottawa (1844).

For both groups sociability was a key factor for the establishment of ethnic associations, and one shaped by the class of participants. This explains, too, why activities differed. While the middle classes enjoyed lavish, civic dinners, working men organised earthier pursuits. Canada’s Sons of England in the prairie towns of the mid-west, for example, organized coyote hunts,  while the Sons of Scotland could be found enjoying picnics and football matches.

The English, like the Scots and many other ethnic groups, developed a lively scene of ethnic clubs and societies – and one that deserves to be fully recognised.