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
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.