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Manuscripts, Archives and Photographs of the Royal Commonwealth Society

RCMS 352/05 Indian mica painting of a Hujam or Barber

Archives and Special Collections
Preserving the collections
Copying photographs, manuscripts or archives
Ordering copies
Image reproduction rights
Picture research

Picture credit: Hujam or Barber, painted on mica in India c. 1869 (RCMS 352_5)


The RCS Library contains many special collections and archives, the majority of which have been re-catalogued online since the Library moved to Cambridge in 1993.  Work is on-going to sort, research, conserve and catalogue the remainder, plus additional collections which have been acquired since 1993.  Below you may link to specific online catalogues, some giving very detailed descriptions of individual files and photographs.

Update and news

The Library was delighted to be awarded a Wellcome Trust Research Resources Award to conserve, digitise and make freely available online the archives of two WWII civilian internment camps on Singapore, Changi and Sime Road which form part of our British Association of Malaysia and Singapore collections.  You can view digital copies of the the camp archives on Cambridge Digital Library and read blog posts about the archive and its conservation here.

RCS collections are being added to Cambridge Digital Library all the time.  You can read blog posts about recent releases here.

Archives and special collections

Archives of the Royal Commonwealth Society

Known successively as the Colonial Society, the Royal Colonial Institute, the Royal Empire Society and finally the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Society was established in 1868 with the objective of promoting knowledge and appreciation of the British colonies.

This collection is composed of the institutional records of the society. Major sections relate to its organisation and administration, charters and rules, membership, the construction and renovation of its headquarters in London, and the extension of branches within the United Kingdom and throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth. The archives also document the society's many cultural, educational and philanthropic initiatives, often undertaken as collaborative projects with other societies interested in Imperial and Commonwealth affairs.

The archives contain a collection of photographic portraits of Royal Colonial Institute members from 1881 to the late 1920s. Please refer to our blog post to read about them and link to a catalogue.

Bennett collection
Richard Bedford Bennett (1879-1947), Viscount Bennett of Mickleham, Calgary, and Hopewell and Vice-President of the Royal Empire Society (1930-1947) was Prime Minister of Canada during the period 1930-1935. Books in this collection have been catalogued on iDiscover.

British Association of Malaysia photograph collection

British Association of Malaysia paper archives

Church Missionary Society (CMS) photograph collection
The CMS archives are held at the University of Birmingham - see:


Cobham collection on Cyprus 
Collected by Claude Delaval Cobham(1842-1915), Commissioner of Larnaca, Cyprus, 1879-1907.  Books, pamphlets and periodicals in this collection have been catalogued on iDiscover.  The collection has also been microfilmed for preservation reasons.  Photographs in the Cobham collection have been catalogued on Janus,

Colonial Blue Books
Online catalogue records for all colonial 'Blue Books' held in the Royal Commonwealth Society can now be found in the University Library's online catalogue, iDiscover.  An article about them may be found here.


Fisher photograph collection
Collected by Alfred Hugh Fisher (1867-1945) for the Visual Instruction Committee of the Colonial Office (Great Britain).

French collections

Malcolm MacDonald collection
Malcolm John MacDonald (1901-1981), politican and diplomat
The University of Durham holds the majority of Malcolm MacDonald's papers.

Malcolm MacDonald photograph collection

Marshall Islands Sailing Charts

Military archives

Mission archives

Nursing archives

Official publications
The collections of the Royal Commonwealth Society include over 2213 metres of official publications in both serial and monograph format. These publications date from the mid 19th century to the end of British involvement and sometimes beyond. They include many rare and internationally significant reports. Colonial Blue Books, Staff lists and official publications from Malaysia, Hong Kong, the West Indies, and parts of Africa, have been catalogued on the University's online catalogue, iDiscover, and more information about them may be found here.

The RCS library contains a large and interdisciplinary collection of periodicals from around the Commonwealth.  Titles are catalogued in iDiscover, as well as in the RCS card catalogue. Periodical titles are often abbreviated and a very useful spreadsheet listing abbreviations commonly used, together with their classmarks and holdings may be found here.

Polar archives
The RCS collections contain photographs and archival papers relating to the Arctic and Antarctic, in particular to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Do also read our blogpost about photographs from the Falkland Islands and South Georgia which we have digitised and are freely available on Cambridge Digital Library.

Photograph collection
The Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Collection contains over 150,000 images from all over the world. Dating from the mid-1850s to the mid-1980s the photographs provide insight into the history of the Commonwealth, documenting developments in a wide variety of fields including medicine, education and industry.

Many images have been digitised and my be viewed on Cambridge Digital Library.
Others may be viewed on Apollo.

Photographic panoramas

Queen Mary Indian Collection

Queen Mary photograph collection on India

Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition

West Indian collections
The Royal Commonwealth Society collections hold a diverse and fascinating range of published, archival and photographic records of Britain's former colonial territories in the Caribbean - the islands known as the West Indies and British Guiana. The majority date from the late 19th century to the mid to late 20th century but there are some important earlier accounts too.

The collection comprises official/government reports, yearbooks and directories, guidebooks, bibliographies, monographs, periodicals and pamphlets, poetry and fiction, memoirs and correspondence, scrapbooks and press cuttings, and some photograph albums. For more details see:

You can read a blogpost about the Caribbean photograph collections we have digitised and made freely available on Cambridge Digital Library.

The collection DOES NOT include the minutes of the Society of West India Merchants or the West India Committee. These are held by the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, but microfilm copies are held by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Senate House Library, University of London. For more details search for West India Committee at:

Additional archives and photographic collections

A very large number of smaller photographic and archival collections have also been catalogued on Janus, the Cambridge archives portal. ( Select Advance search and restrict to Cambridge University Library, Royal Commonwealth Society collection.

Preserving the collections

Help us preserve the RCS collections. Please handle original photographs, art work and manuscripts with special care; in particular,

  • the print surface of photographs should not be touched
  • books and other objects should not be placed on top of manuscripts, photographs, or indeed any archival material
  • do not make tracings from photographs or write on paper placed over them
  • please do not remove prints from protective sleeves without the permission of a member of staff.
  • please replace batches of prints in their correct numerical sequence after use.
  • please report any damage you discover

Copying photographs, manuscripts, or archives

Researchers may take photographs themselves of materials they consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room, Munby Rare Books Room and Map Room for non-commercial research and private study only.

General photography (e.g. of people, locations, reading rooms) is not permitted.

To ensure the preservation of these unique and valuable collections, all photography is at the discretion of library staff.


Whilst the University owns the physical collections, it does not necessarily own the copyright in them. It is the responsibility of the researcher to pursue and obtain copyright clearance from the copyright holder before reproduction of any kind may take place.

Approximately 700 images are available on Apollo, including those in the Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Project gallery
Please refer to the Terms of Use and Notices before reproducing any of these images:

Biographical details of photographers and their studios are given in the Photograph Catalogues and in the Photographers Index. These should be used to help trace copyright owners:

Please refer to the Library’s Digital Content Unit for further advice on copyright. Email:

Ordering copies

Please use the online order form on the Digital Content Unit webpages:

Further information and advice on prices is available on the Digital Content Unit webpages:

Image reproduction rights

Images of works held by the library and those created by its Digital Content Unit are subject to copyright. The purchase of an image from the library does not confer the right to reproduce it in a print or electronic publication, either commercial or non-profit making. You must first obtain permission which will normally be granted on acceptance of licence terms and payment of the appropriate fees. Please refer to:

Picture research

Please note that the Library is unable to provide a photographic or picture research service.


The Royal Commonwealth Society Library is not actively collecting new archival collections, photographs or manuscripts. However, donations of small collections which complement its existing collections will be considered.

Potential donors should contact the Smuts Librarian with details of their collection including, in the case of photograph collections, approximately how many images, whether or not they are captioned, geographical regions covered, dates, and, where known, the names of photographers or collectors.

Consideration will be given to the size and condition of the collection, as well as its subject content and provenance. If the Library feels unable to accept a collection, advice about alternative repositories will be given.

Contact us

Please address enquiries about RCS holdings to:

Rachel Rowe, Smuts Librarian for South Asian and Commonwealth Studies
Cambridge University Library
West Road


Please note the Librarian is part-time and usually works at the University Library on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Rachel may be reached by phone on Wednesdays and Thursdays on +44(0)1223 333146, but it is preferable to email details of your enquiry.

If your enquiry concerns a valuation, please note that we are unable to provide valuations.  We recommend you contact a specialist antiquarian bookseller or auction house.