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Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition

The Royal Commonwealth Society collections in Cambridge University Library contain the archives of the Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition. This competition, which still runs today, is perhaps the largest and oldest competition of its type in the world (see: The Queen's Commonwealth Essay Competition). It started life in 1883, when 'money prizes were first offered to school children and university students in the United Kingdom for the best essays submitted on a set imperial topic' (Trevor R. Reese (1968), 'The History of the Royal Commonwealth Society 1868-1968', p. 84-84, quoting from Council Minutes 3, 6 February 1883, p. 66). The competition had a disappointing start and after repeating the experiment in 1884 the Society's Council abandoned it until 1913, when it was opened to schools and universities throughout the empire.

None of the earliest essays survive in manuscript form, but essays submitted by school children are still held in Cambridge University Library from 1922-1960, from 1976/77-1979/80, and from 1982/3-1984/5. Some of the gaps in our holdings may be due to the sheer number of essays received, and thus the difficulties for the Society of storing them. By 1967 it is reported that the competition received 'over 800 entries a year from more than 140 schools in seventeen Commonwealth countries, from the Seychelles and Hong Kong to Canada and Britain'. (Trevor R. Reese (1968), p. 228, quoting from the Commonwealth Journal, 10 (1967), p. 110).

Essays were submitted by school children in three categories, according to their age. Category A for children aged sixteen and over, category B for those aged fourteen to sixteen, and category C for those aged less than fourteen years old. Each age group was assigned a different essay title.

Cambridge University Library has digitised only the prize-winning essays from its archive. These include 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prizes for each topic, plus winners of the Margaret Best Memorial Prize, the Sir Alwyn Ezra prize and any special prizes. They cover the years 1922-1937, 1939, 1941-1960, 1977-1980, 1983 and 1985.  In all, 336 essays have been digitised and may be read in pdf format.

Copyright in the essays resides with the Royal Commonwealth Society. Anybody wishing to re-publish the essays in any format should seek permission from the Society.

The Cambridge archive includes essays from the following countries: Canada, New Zealand, Australia including Tasmania, Tonga, Fiji, Singapore, Malaysia, (Federated Malay Straits, and Straits Settlements), Hong Kong, India, Burma, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Mauritius, South Africa, Zimbabwe (S. Rhodesia), Zambia (N. Rhodesia),  Botswana, Kenya (British East Africa), Uganda, Tanzania (Tanganyika), Ghana (Gold Coast), Nigeria, St Kitts, Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Malta, Gibraltar, the UK including Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England and the Channel Islands.

The current year's winning essays are available in digital format on the Society's website (at: along with more information about the competition and other RCS youth and education projects.

The easiest way of browsing the essays in the RCS Essay Competition archive on the Apollo repository at Cambridge is by 'Issue date'. Click on this button and you will find the essays listed chronologically. Alternatively, click on 'Author' to browse the list of authors whose essays have been digitised, or 'Title' to browse essay titles arranged in alphabetical order.

An additional document in the archive, entitled Observations on the Commonwealth Essay Competition entries held in Cambridge University Library’s Royal Commonwealth Society Archives gives the names of adjudicators, the number of entries received for each category of the competition, details of prizes awarded, and some additional information gleaned from the archive at the time of digitisation. Observations include the fact that the first typescript essay was received in 1931 and that from 1932 school mottos ceased to be quoted.

This digital archive would not have been possible but for enthusiasm, energy, dedication and scanning skills of Lawrence Brooks, who digitised the essays in his own time as a library volunteer.

For more information about the Royal Commonwealth Society collections in Cambridge University Library, please see:

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