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In 1699 a group of friends who were concerned about the "growth of vice and immorality" in the country -  Sir Humphrey Mackworth, Colonel Maynard Colchester, Lord Guilford, John Hooke and the Reverend Dr Thomas Bray - decided to meet on a regular basis to see how they could increase understanding of Anglican Christianity.  By the end of the year they had begun to raise money for several strategies to combat the "gross ignorance of the Christian religion" through evangelical philanthropy by:-

  • erecting schools and libraries in market towns
  • establishing parochial libraries in the English plantations in the American colonies.
  • distributing books to increase knowledge of "the Christian religion"
  • instructing and converting Quakers, who they felt were numerous in the American plantations
  • providing support for widows and orphans of clergy who died while working overseas
  • providing a thorough instruction in the Christian Faith for young people in "the Indian Nations" to encourage them to convert their people

The SPCK also supported the establishment of the Church of England in "colonies and plantations", especially, in the 18th century, in America and India.  In the 19th century most missionary activity passed to other societies, but the SPCK continued to send its publications overseas, to provide spiritual support to emigrants en-route to the colonies by employing chaplains on ships, to endow new dioceses and provide funds for church-building, and to promote the training of medical missionaries.

The collection contains information that deals with many social and political issues.  The SPCK was involved in prison reform from its foundation and supplied many books to prisons.  It was also concerned about the fate of British captives enslaved on the Barbary coast.  Throughout its history there are references to slaves in British colonies in America and the West Indies: again, the Society’s main concern was the provision of literature and basic education.  There are interesting accounts in the Annual Reports from clergy in the Caribbean before, during and after Emancipation in the 1830s.

One of the most important areas of their work was the support of charity schools throughout the country.  There are numerous letters concerning the running of charity schools and the need for the children to be given work to do alongside their education.  The Society expressed the belief that schools that did not find work for the children would be regarded by many as encouraging idleness.  They needed to demonstrate that the children were “useful” to society.  Although there are numerous letters and references to charity schools in the records, they are usually not indexed under the individual school. 

The SPCK did not extend to Scotland.  An independent society – the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge – was founded in 1709.

The records consist of:-

  • minute books of the main meeting from 1698, and of subsidiary and ad hoc committees;
  • printed annual reports (containing much statistical information not retained in manuscript form);
  • account books;
  • correspondence (mostly 18th-century: later correspondence was not retained);
  • records of district committees handed in at headquarters;
  • publishing records (mostly 20th-century);
  • records of missions to the Scilly Isles and Pitcairn Island
  • records of Stepney Training College;
  • some 20th century administrative records.

An old card index covering people and subjects exists that may be useful despite using former internal reference numbers.  There are indexes in many of the volumes of minutes and correspondence but there is no compounded index.

Printed histories of the SPCK:
William Osborn Bird Allen and Edmund McClure, Two hundred years: the history of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1698-1898 (London: SPCK, 1898).
William Kemp Lowther Clarke, A history of the S.P.C.K. (London: 1959).