A brief history

The Western Australian Historical Society was founded in September 1926 with the immediate objective of raising interest in the State’s forthcoming centenary. The young Society duly played a prominent role in the planning and conduct of the various public celebrations that marked the anniversary in 1929.

Happily, it succeeded in attracting a substantial membership quite rapidly from the ranks of the early colonists. High priority was given to recording their reminiscences. In similar fashion, five decades later, a new generation was treated to the personal recollections of the Society’s formative years as told by two of its most active early members - Mr Ivor Birtwistle and Sir Paul Hasluck. Their accounts were published in the Society’s journal, Early Days, in 1970 and 1977.

In those early years, the Society initiated many of the wide-ranging activities that continue to make up its regular program today. The most obvious of these has been the holding of monthly general meetings at which research papers are read on many different aspects of the State’s history, and with some emphasis on biography. Since 1927, most of these papers have been reproduced in the Society’s annual journal. This has helped to develop interest in Western Australian history among the general community. Thanks to specific benefactions since 1949, the wider public has been invited to take part in annual essay competitions for which monetary prizes are awarded.

The Society has built up an impressive library of printed materials, manuscripts, photographs and maps. It is used by the general community as well as by members. The Society has also assembled a sizeable museum collection comprising artefacts, costume and accessories, and artworks, many of which have been displayed periodically and through special loans to State and Local government agencies.

From time to time, the Memorials Committee has organised, often in partnership with Local Government, the placement of commemorative plaques on buildings and sites of historical significance. However, prime responsibility for the conservation of such features generally lies with the National Trust and other appropriate bodies.

Prior to World War II there were already half a dozen branches of the Society existing in country districts, and their successors today are the more than seventy independent Affiliated Societies. The Society supports the work of these groups in a variety of ways, including their annual State History Conference .

The annual Pioneers Memorial Service at the East Perth Cemeteries, inaugurated in 1953, is always well supported. Other social gatherings of many different kinds have long proved popular too, many of them sponsored by the RWAHS Auxiliary (previously the Women’s Auxiliary) and the Promotions and Marketing Committee. For many years the Tours and Events Committee has arranged an annual program of conducted tours.

During the early 1960s a monthly newsletter was introduced and secretarial assistance was engaged to deal with routine administrative work. Another great advance was made when the Society acquired premises of its own, which were given the appropriate name of Stirling House. In 1963, a royal charter gave the Society the honour of adding the prefix "Royal" to its corporate name, a dignity it enjoys along with three of its counterparts in other states. It is a founding member of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies Inc. which was formed in 1977.

One of the most important initiatives of recent years has been the establishment at Stirling House of a bookshop, which stocks a wide range of current publications on Western Australian history, including self-published works, and various kinds of archival products and stationery. 

The Society relies on members’ subscriptions and an annual government administrative grant for its regular income. This is augmented by a number of regular fund-raising events. Special purpose grants from a number of funding agencies, including Lotterywest and the National Library of Australia, have helped the Society fund important projects connected with the management of its photograph, library and museum collections and in the display of museum artifacts.

Source: Jack Honniball,  "Royal Western Australian Historical Society: Three Score Years and Ten", Royal Western Australian Historical Society Newsletter, October 1996.