In 1913 Mr Thomas J Lennard founded in Bristol the first branch in the UK of the Royal Colonial Institute. Initially, members met in the Victoria Rooms but within a short time Mr Lennard (later to become Sir Thomas Lennard), who was the current Sheriff of Bristol, had purchased an adjoining house, had arranged for it to be demolished and had provided a splendid new building purpose-built for the branch.
This building – recently refurbished – features figures representing Africa, Australia, Canada and India on each corner. It still contains stained glass windows depicting Colonial flags. The opening ceremony took place in the early days of World War 1 amidst much patriotic fervour and leading figures of the day attended. In addition to Thomas Lennard who presided, those present included Early Grey (President of the Royal Colonial Institute), Sir Isambard Owen, Sir Frank Wills and the Lords Mayor who opened the proceedings.
The Royal Colonial Institute in due course became the Royal Empire Society and after World War 2 it changed its name to the Royal Commonwealth Society. The Bristol branch remained at its original building until it moved along the road to its current site in the early 1960’s. This happened because it needed its own car parking facilities due to stringent car parking restrictions brought in at that time.
In addition to the provision of the building Thomas Lennard, who owned a chain of Lennards shoe shops, endowed the branch with Lennards Loan Stock valued at £10,000 so that there was capital as well as property to support the branch.
Over the years there have been many who have dedicated years of service to the branch. Notable among these was Charles MacInnes CBE who was Professor of Imperial History at Bristol University. Born in Calgary Canada in 1891, and totally, blind, he committed much of his life to the welfare of the branch. He was Vice Chairman from 1934 to 1952 and Chairman from 1952 until his death in 1971. He was also Vice President from 1969 to 1971.
The branch has always maintained strong ties with Bristol University and the City of Bristol. The Lord Lieutenant of Bristol is its Patron and the Lord Mayor used to be its President until in more recent years this post has been occupied by the Vice Chancellor of Bristol University.
When in the 1960s the branch moved to the property comprising Nos 12 and 14 Whiteladies Road it was decided to let No 12 to the University Air Squadron as No 14 itself was large enough for its needs. In 1994 the lease was not renewed and No 12 was sold.
During this period it was discovered that under the terms of the Constitution of the Royal Commonwealth Society that should there be any question of insolvency, at the last resort the assets of the branches could be called upon. Since the assets of the Bristol branch had become quite considerable it was felt that it would be wise to become completely independent and so on January 1st 1996 the branch became the Bristol Commonwealth Society affiliated to the Royal Commonwealth Society.
During the late 1990s there was much discussion over whether or not to sell No 14, invest the proceeds and either rent rooms or use hotel accommodation for meetings as and when required. Eventually those who wished to remain and capitalise on our present property won the argument.
Subseqently during the years 200 and 2001 most of the inside of the building has been refurbished, a new Clubroom and Bar constructed and new tenants now take up the first and second floors.