The Society was founded in 1830 under the name Geographical Society of London as an institution to promote the 'advancement of geographical science'. It later absorbed the older African Association, which had been founded by Sir Joseph Banks in 1788, as well as the Raleigh Club and the Palestine Association.
Like many learned societies, it had started as a dining club
in London, where select members held informal dinner debates on current scientific issues and ideas.
Founding members of the Society included Sir John Barrow, Sir John Franklin and Sir Francis Beaufort. Under the patronage of King William IV it later became known as The Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and was granted its Royal Charter under Queen Victoria in 1859.
From 1830 to 1840 the RGS met in the rooms of the Horticultural Society in Regent Street, London and from 1854 -1870 at 15 Whitehall Place, London. In 1870, the Society finally found a home when it moved to 1 Savile Row, London – an address that quickly became associated with adventure and travel.
The Society also used a lecture theatre in Burlington Gardens, London which was lent to it by the Civil Service Commission. However, the arrangements were thought to be rather cramped and squalid.
The Society has been a key associate and supporter of many famous explorers
, including those of:
A new impetus was given to the Society's affairs in 1911, with the election of Earl Curzon, the former Viceroy of India, as the Society's President (1911–1914). The premises in Savile Row were sold and the present site, Lowther Lodge in Kensington Gore, was purchased for £100,000 and opened for use in April 1913. In the same year the Society's ban on women was lifted.
Lowther Lodge was built in 1874 for the William Lowther by Norman Shaw, one of the most outstanding domestic architects of his day. Extensions to the east wing were added in 1929, and included the New Map Room and the 750 seat Lecture Theatre. The extension was formally opened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) at the Centenary Celebrations on 21 October 1930.
The history of the Society was closely allied for many of its earlier years with 'colonial' exploration in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the polar regions, and central Asia especially.
It has been a key associate and supporter of many notable explorers and expeditions, including those of Darwin, Livingstone, Stanley, Scott, Shackleton, Hunt and Hillary.
The early history of the Society is inter-linked with the history of British Geography, exploration and
discovery. Information, maps, charts and knowledge gathered on expeditions was sent to the RGS, making up its now unique geographical collections. The Society published its first journal in 1831 and from 1855, accounts of meetings and other matters were published in the Society Proceedings. In 1893, this was replaced by The Geographical Journal which is still published today.
The Society was also pivotal in establishing Geography as a teaching and research discipline in British universities, and funded the first Geography positions in the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
2012 Poster for exhibition in the glass Pavilion on centenary of Scott's final expedition to the South Pole
With the advent of a more systematic study of geography, the Institute of British Geographers (IBG) was formed in 1933, by some academic Society fellows, including Andrew Charles O'Dell, as a sister body to the Society. Its activities included
organising conferences, field trips, seminars and specialist research groups and publishing the journal, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. The RGS and IBG co-existed for 60 years until 1992 when a merger was discussed. In 1994, members were balloted and the merger agreed. In January 1995, the new Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) was formed.
The Society also works together with other existing bodies serving the geographical community, in particular the Geographical Association and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
In 2004, The Society's historical Collections relating to scientific exploration and research, which are of national and international importance, were opened to the public for the first time. In the same year, a new category of membership was introduced to widen access for people with a general interest in geography. The new Foyle Reading Room and glass Pavilion exhibition space were also opened to the public in 2004 – unlocking the Society intellectually, visually and physically for the 21st century. For example, in 2012 the RGS held an exhibition, in the glass Pavilion, of photographs taken by Herbert Ponting on Captain Robert Falcon Scott's expedition to the South Pole in 1912.