The history of the society is very well documented through its volumes of minute books in huge ledgers and through many other archive items. Together they reflect social developments since the late Victorian age, the society having had an uninterrupted peacetime existence since its foundation in 1886.
It continued to meet weekly through the First World War and managed to keep going through the early months of the Second World War until bombing brought a halt to to the regular debates.
It revived in strength in October 1945, receiving a boost through the admission of women in 1947—long before those famous student debating societies, the Oxford Union and Cambridge Union, admitted women.
The rules of 1895, illustrated on this page, remain largely in force today, except that there are no stipulations regarding the number of visitors present (rule 11).
The ban on matters strictly theological (rule 6), while no longer appearing in today’s rules, is nevertheless honoured in practice. Matters of faith and religion can be so deeply and sincerely held that they do not lend themselves to the cut and thrust of a debating forum.
Kingston was one of very many literary and parliamentary debating societies flourishing in the late 19th century. Nearby in this part of Surrey were the Richmond Athenaeum (which lasted 1881–1939), the Wimbledon Athenaeum and the inviting-sounding Kew Coterie. This last group did not engage in debate so much as ‘light papers’ over ‘tea and light refreshments’.
Almost all such societies, across the nation, have now foundered. By retaining the original disciplined structure for the Kingston meetings the members and visitors are adhering to a type of performance art that has largely died out, yet is renewed afresh every week in the vitality and ingenuity of the speeches covering a wide variety of topics.
The centenary history
In 1986 the society’s 400-page centenary history was published, written by two members and lavishly illustrated. It incorporated the 1800 debates so far held, with the speakers, the numbers attending and speaking, and voting figures.
But it is far more than a catalogue of proceedings and of arguments raging at the time. Studies of the members, the meeting places, the society’s traditions, finances, special occasions and even its humorous moments, are approached in an analytical yet readable style. They reflect the huge number of changes taking place since 1886, while yet paying tribute to the stability of the tradition of debate.
Entitled The Kingston Debating Society: The first hundred years 1886–1986, by Margaret Bird and Richard Worthington, it is available for purchase by visitors in person at the debates at £15.75.
It would be helpful if you could e-mail the society’s hon. archivist in advance of your visit, so that a copy is brought to the meeting:
The story of the presidential medallion
You may have noticed that the President’s medallion, or badge of office, provides the backdrop to the start of every page on this website. It is seen in full colour on the Home page. The three fish form part of the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames’s arms, and represent the three salmon fisheries recorded here in Domesday 1086.
All the Presidents wear it while in the Chair. On getting up to speak during a debate they remove it from their neck, as they will be contributing not as chairman but as an ordinary member with a voice. Presidents are elected annually by the members, a new person being chosen each year.
In recent years we have had presidents in their early twenties and their late eighties: debating appeals to all ages.
The society only became conscious of its interesting history as it approached its 50th birthday in 1936. A few months earlier the medallion was commissioned, and looked in its early years as it does at the foot of this page.
A direct hit
During the war, after debating had stopped in 1940, one of the members stored the medallion for safekeeping in his deposit box in a bank vault in central London. The bank suffered a direct hit on the night of 11 May 1941.
The medallion was extracted from the rubble, intact.
Since then the phoenix arising from the flames, with the bombing date, has adorned the badge of office.
Our spring season of weekly debates runs every Thursday from 23 January to 12 March 2020.
You can view the eight topics under The Debates.