History of the Hakluyt Society

The History of the Hakluyt Society

The History of the Hakluyt Society

By Raymond John Howgego for the Society

The Background

The Hakluyt Society was created at a meeting convened in the London Library, St James’s Square, on the afternoon of Tuesday 15 December 1846. The early to mid-nineteenth century had seen the emergence of a large number of so-called ‘societies’, many of them little more than clubland gatherings of well-to-do gentlemen whose pleasure it was to meet over dinner to argue and discuss matters of common academic interest. Others, however, like the Hakluyt Society, would attract into their ranks men of formidable scholarship, adopting formal constitutions and expanding their horizons to proselytizing among the wider public. The early years of the century had seen the creation of many of the great societies that subsequently took Royal patronage and became household names, while the decade immediately preceeding the foundation of the Hakluyt Society had been particularly fruitful, witnessing the birth of the Ethnological Society (1843), the British Archaeological Association (1843), the Agricultural Society (1838) and the Numismatic Society (1836). Most closely allied to the Hakluyt Society in terms of its objectives was the Camden Society, founded in 1838 for the publication of early historical and literary material. But while the Hakluyt Society succeeded in retaining its identity through to the present day, the Camden Society lasted barely sixty years before its absorption into the Royal Historical Society.

Foundation and Early Years

Sir Roderick Impey Murchison
Sir Roderick Impey Murchison

The first meeting of the Hakluyt Society, under the chairmanship of the geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison, established an eight-man steering group which included the geographer and historian William Desborough Cooley; the Army medical officer Dr Andrew Smith; the naval officer and surveyor Sir Charles Malcolm; the antiquary Bolton Corney; the British Museum Principal Librarian Sir Henry Ellis; the scientist Sir William Rowan Hamilton; and John Edward Gray, Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum. The projected society had in fact been the brainchild of Cooley, who had previously criticized the Royal Geographical Society for relying too heavily on contemporary materials in the solution of geographical problems, arguing that the scientific study of geography should involve a far wider analysis and appreciation of earlier sources. Cooley had already established pre-eminence in this field, having in 1841 produced the masterly Negroland of the Arabs, which drew on Arabic and ancient sources. In 1845 his ‘The Geography of Nyassi’, later elaborated into the book, Inner Africa Laid Open (1852), attempted in a similar way to shed light on the geography of the yet unknown interior of Africa. Sadly, Cooley’s subsequent refusal to accept first-hand observations that in any way contradicted his hypotheses made him the object of ridicule. However, it was Cooley who took the major role during the Society’s formative period, ably assisted in key initiatives by Corney and Smith, while Murchison, throughout his long but somewhat distant association with the Society, occupied no more than a largely figurehead position.

William Desborough Cooley
William Desborough Cooley

Cooley had proposed that the new society should be known as the ‘Columbus Society’, but at the inaugural Council Meeting, 26 January 1847, it was decided that it be named in commemoration of the Elizabethan historian and expansionist Richard Hakluyt the Younger, celebrated collector and editor of narratives of voyages and travels and other documents relating to English interests overseas. Not only did Hakluyt’s name, as a recorder of voyages rather than an explorer in his own right, better reflect the nature of the society, but it also proclaimed the central ambition of the society, which was to advance Hakluyt’s work into the modern age. A resolution was adopted whereby the Society would print and circulate to its members, for a subscription of one guinea per annum, rare accounts of voyages, travels and geographical records dating from any period prior to William Dampier’s circumnavigation, effectively before the end of the seventeenth century. Meetings were held in a room at the London Library, but in 1849 these transferred to the offices of Mr Richards, the Society’s printer, first in St Martin’s Lane, then from 1850 in Great Queen Street. It was not until 1872 that meetings were convened at the Royal Geographical Society’s premises, originally in Savile Row and subsequently in Kensington Gore. The Society got off to a flourishing start, attracting 220 members in its first two years.

A General Meeting of the Hakluyt Society was arranged for 4 March 1847 to decide a prospectus, a set of laws and a list of works which were to be published. A constitution was hammered out, providing for a President (R. I. Murchison), two Vice-Presidents (Charles Malcolm, and the historian and man of letters, Revd Henry Hart Milman), a Secretary (W. D. Cooley) and seventeen other council members elected annually. The first year’s Council included, in addition to the original members of the steering group, the eminent biologist Charles Darwin, the scholar and traveller Charles Tilstone Beke, the Royal Navy officer Captain (later Admiral) Charles Ramsay Drinkwater Bethune, and the celebrated scholar Richard Henry Major, the last of whom would throw himself enthusiastically into the Society’s affairs, promising by the end of the year a complete translation of the letters of Columbus. At another meeting, held in August that year, Council voted that the vignette of Magellan’s ship, the Victoria, should be imprinted on the cover of all volumes.

Early Publications and Membership

The Society’s first publication, Captain Bethune’s The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, appeared in December 1847, closely followed by Major’s Select Letters of Christopher Columbus (imprinted 1847 but published in January 1848). Publication of Richard Hakluyt’s Divers Voyages touching the Discovery of America, which the Society had intended for its inaugural volume, was suspended until 1850 pending negotiations with the American bibliophile Obadiah Rich, who was working on a facsimile edition. In the event, Rich’s failing health caused the abandonment of his project, clearing the ground for a transcript in plain text under the editorship of John Winter Jones. In the meantime, Sir Robert Schomburgk’s classic edition of Ralegh’s voyage to Guiana had appeared (1849), together with Cooley’s Sir Francis Drake his Voyage (1849), Thomas Rundall’s Voyages towards the North-West (1849), and Major’s Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (1849). Unlike the Society’s more recent publications, some of its early volumes were hurriedly rushed into print by Council members and showed wide variations in the degree of annotation; the difference between Schomburgk’s lavishly annotated Ralegh, and Cooley’s minimally footnoted Drake being the most striking. In addition, the hastily prepared volume by Thomas Rundall, an East India Company clerk in the company’s correspondence department, broke early with tradition by being written largely in Rundall’s own hand and only occasionally digressing into transcriptions of primary documents.

Total membership of the Society remained relatively static for many years, numbering around 240 in 1850 when the first membership list was published, most of them personal subscribers and five of them female (one of whom was Lady Franklin). By 1854, it had risen to 321, but by 1887 it had declined to 230, of which 96 were institutions and libraries, and only one of its members was female: Mrs [Sophia] Perry Herrick of Beaumanor Park, Loughborough. (Mispelt ‘Horrick’ in the membership list, she was one of the wealthiest untitled women in England.) In fact the wording of the Society’s prospectus for 1887 was almost a positive discouragement to female membership, referring only to ‘gentlemen desirous of becoming members’. Remarkably, the membership fee of one guinea (£1.05) remained unchanged until the early 1950s when it was increased to two guineas (£2.10), which at that time represented extraordinary value for money. Early print-runs of the Society’s publications were relatively small – around 250-350 copies to satisfy the existing membership, with a few to spare – at a cost to the Society in the region of £50–60. Since its foundation the Society had allowed members to backdate their subscription in order to acquire earlier volumes, but in 1854, in an attempt to dispose of unsold copies, it was decided to allow all subscribers to obtain earlier publications at a reduced cost. Even so, some of its books remained effectively ‘in print’ for many decades after their publication date, the 1887 Prospectus noting that, with the exception of four of the very earliest volumes, all seventy-three of its editions to date were available for purchase at a ‘give-away’ price of £21 for the complete set!

The Late Nineteenth Century

Sir Henry Yule
Sir Henry Yule

Murchison continued as President of the Hakluyt Society until his death in 1871, but he frequently absented himself from meetings and his influence was minimal, most of the executive decisions being made by the Secretary and members of Council. He was succeeded in turn by Sir David Dundas (1871–77), retired lawyer and politician, and then, on the death of Sir David, by Sir Henry Yule (1877–89), the celebrated Oriental scholar and former East India Company soldier. Yule, very much a ‘hands-on’ President with a natural affinity for the work of the Society, took a considerably greater interest in the editing of the society’s publications than either Murchison or Dundas, and it was his decision that all future volumes should be indexed. R. H. Major, who had taken over as Secretary from Cooley in 1849, held the office until 1858 when his place was taken by the eminent geographer, historian and expedition promoter Clements Robert Markham. Markham’s dynamic relationship with the Society, for which he personally edited no fewer than twenty-nine volumes, lasted more than fifty years, first as Secretary (1858–87), then as President (1889–1909). By the turn of the century, when the Society embarked on its Second Series, precisely one hundred volumes had been published. However, it was not until 1908, the final year of Markham’s rule, that the Society, with Bolton Glanvill Corney’s Voyage of Captain Don Felipe Gonzalez, finally broke with tradition and published its first post-1700 text. (Bolton Glanvill Corney, a colonial medical officer, was the son of founder-member Bolton Corney.) From 1893 Markham was assisted by William Foster, the East India Company historian and India Office archivist, who served as Secretary until other commitments forced his resignation in 1902. The Society’s finances, which in early days were handled by underpaid agents or reluctant volunteers, had by 1897 become so difficult to manage that the appointment of a permanent Treasurer was proposed, but it was not until 1908 that the first Treasurer, Edward Heawood, the Royal Geographical Society’s librarian, actually assumed office and held it for a remarkable thirty-eight years.

The Twentieth Century to the Present Day

Sir Clements Markham
Sir Clements Markham

In 1909 Sir Clements Markham was succeeded as President by Sir Albert Gray, an ex-member of the Ceylon Civil Service, and it was under Gray that the Society began for the first time to extend its activity beyond that of publication. It supported the establishment of a memorial to Richard Hakluyt in Bristol Cathedral in 1911, and in 1914 Gray represented the Society on the British Academy Committee involved in organising the Shakespeare Tercentenary. The period also saw the emergence of women as editors and translators, notably Bertha Phillpotts, Lavinia Anstey and Zelia Nuttall. Membership increased steadily, albeit largely on account of institutional subscriptions which by 1911 accounted for half of the 440 members. Sir William Foster returned to the fold as President from 1928 to 1945, then as Vice-president until his death in 1951. Foster’s exemplary skill in annotating rubbed off on his editors and resulted in a period distinguished by considerable improvements in the quality of the Society’s publications, together with a steady growth in membership to more than 2000. Foster was succeeded in 1945 by Edward William O’Flaherty Lynam, Superintendent of the Map Room at the British Library and the first of a long line of post-war presidents whose terms of office were restricted to a period of five years: Malcolm Letts (1950–54); Professor J. N. L. Baker (1955–59); Sir Alan Burns (1959–64); Sir Gilbert Laithwaite (1964–69); C. F. Beckingham (1969–72); Esmond S. de Beer (1972–78); Glyndwr Williams (1978–82); David Beers Quinn (1982–87); Sir Harold Smedley (1987–92); Professor Paul E. H. Hair (1992–97); Sarah Tyacke (1997–2002); Professor Roy Bridges (2002–08); Professor Will Ryan (2008–11); Capt. Michael Barritt (2011–16); Professor Jim Bennett (2016–2021); and Dr Gloria Clifton (2021-). In the post-war period the Society’s publication programme greatly benefited from the dedicated labours of those of its voluntary officers who have borne the editorial responsibility of ensuring that the issued volumes conform to the Society’s standards and conventions and seeing them through the press, among them R. A. Skelton, Eila Campbell, Terence Armstrong, Sarah Tyacke, Michael Brennan, Robin Law, Will Ryan, Gloria Clifton and Joyce Lorimer. As a non-profitmaking institution dedicated to educational advancement, the Society became a registered charity on 1 August 1966. Its council and officers meet three times per year, in March, June and October; the June meeting being followed by the Annual General Meeting and Annual Lecture, which all members of the Society are invited to attend.

The 1950s saw the introduction of the first titles of the so-called Extra Series: books which were too lavish and costly in their production to be freely distributed to subscribers but were made available to members at reduced prices. Publications of this type had first appeared in 1903–07 with C. R. Beazley’s annotated extracts from Hakluyt and the multi-volume MacLehose editions of Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations and Purchas’s Pilgrimes. However, although now regarded as volumes 1–33 of the Extra Series, only a few sets of the MacLehose printings appeared in Hakluyt Society binding, and none of these books carried the Extra Series imprint. In 1955–67 the Society launched the new series with the 4-volume Journals of Captain James Cook, closely followed by other titles which included the monumental Charts & Coastal Views of Captain Cook’s Voyages (1988–92). The Second Series had reached 192 volumes when the Society marked its entry into the twenty-first century by the introduction of its large-format Third Series, which by 2022 had accounted for thirty-nine volumes. These include the magnificent 3-volume journal of The Malaspina Expedition, published in association with the Museo Naval, Madrid.

It had long been recognized that early publications from the Society were still in demand and commanded high prices due to their relative scarcity. As a result, a major initiative was launched in 2010 which involved the digital scanning of every book ever published by the Society so that, in conjunction with Ashgate, the Society’s former publisher, and now with Routledge, they could be made available in print-on-demand and eBook format. A comprehensive bibliography of all editions published by the Society can be found elsewhere on this website.

Historical documents

A collection of documents from the early years of the Hakluyt Society is available for free download in pdf format by clicking on the links below. Further documents will be added as time allows.

Members of Council, 1846-1860. Selected early Council lists.

Membership list for 1850, in which the names of all of the founder-members and earliest subscribers to the Society are given.

Annual Report for 1854 and statement of accounts.

Prospectus and membership list for 1887.

Further reading:

R. C. Bridges and P. E. H. Hair, eds, Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth, Studies in the History of the Hakluyt Society, London, 1996.
Roy Bridges, ‘William Desborough Cooley (1795–1883)’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, 27, 2008, pp. 43–62.
Roy Bridges, ‘The Literature of Travel and Exploration: The Work of the Hakluyt Society’, The Journal of the Hakluyt Society, April 2014. Download.
G. R. Crone, ‘”Jewells of Antiquitie”, the Work of the Hakluyt Society’, The Geographical Journal, 128, 1962.
William Foster, ‘The Hakluyt Society, a Retrospect 1846–1946’, in Edward Lynam, ed., Richard Hakluyt & his Successors, A Volume issued to Commemorate the Centenary of the Hakluyt Society, London, 1946.
Dorothy Middleton, ‘The Early History of the Hakluyt Society 1847–1923’, The Geographical Journal, 152, 1986, pp. 217–24.
Dorothy Middleton, ‘The Hakluyt Society 1846–1923’, Annual Report [for 1984], Hakluyt Society, pp. 12–23.

This history last revised in October 2021.