History

History

The Debating Society at Imperial predates the formation of Imperial College, with the Debating Society of the constituent colleges. The “Normal School (later Royal College) of Science and Royal School of Mines Debating Society” grew into existence during the 1880s [1], holding its first recorded Annual General Meeting in 1886[2]. According to foundational member, H. G. Wells, the Society was unofficially known as “Our Talking Club [3].

This early society was held as a significant part of the student body and voice. Open to all students, they discussed important matters of the time, including empire, democracy, capitalism and socialism, British identity and devolution. Motions fundamental to Imperial College’s history were also debated, such as the consolidation of the colleges into a university and the creation of a Students’ Union.

The schools brought debating with them after Imperial College’s creation, to form the Imperial College Literary and Debating Society [4].

Through the 20th Century, the Society grew; continuing the tradition of the original society and being an integral part of the College populace. Some of the activities were even reported in “The Times” [5]. The Society played host to a number of MPs, Lords and influential guests as speakers, who occasionally debated with Imperial students. Among the guests were MPs Barbara Castle and Enoch Powell [6][7].

As time passed, teams were sent to international events and competitions, not just to those at our fellow British universities.

Despite a relative decline during the final decades of the last century, there has been a recent 21st Century resurgence in the Debating Society. The Society is growing and still playing host to speakers; holding debates with the local parliamentary candidates for the 2010 General Election at Imperial. Imperial’s debaters are also growing in reputation nationally, each year breaking into final rounds at more competitions and also sending Imperial students to international competitions.

There has, debatably, never been a more perfect time to be drawn into “our talking club”.

 

Curiously enough, though I remember the Debating Society very vividly, I do not remember anything of the speeches I made. I did make speeches because my friends remember them and say they were amusing. The meetings were held in an underground lecture theatre used by the mining school. It was lit by a gas jet or so. The lecturers’ platform and the students’ benches were surrounded by big models of strata, ore crushers and the like which receded into a profound obscurity, and austere diagrams of unknown significance hung behind the chairman. The usual formula was a paper, for half an hour or so, a reply and then promiscuous discussion. Those who lacked the courage to speak, interjected observations, made sudden outcries or hammered the desks. The desks indeed were hammered until the ink jumped out of the pots. We were supposed to avoid religion and politics; the rest of the universe was at our mercy.

I objected to this taboo of religion and politics. I maintained that these were primary matters, best beaten out in the primary stage of life. I did all I could to weaken and infringe those taboos, sailing as close to the wind as possible, and one or two serious-minded fellow students began to look out for me with an ever ready cry of “Or-der.“”

 

– H. G. Wells “Experiment in Autobiography” 1934

 

1 H. G. Wells, 1934, “Experiment in Autobiography”, p 190

2 Anon., Dec. 1886, “Science Schools Journal” Vol. 1

3 Anon., Nov. 1889, “Science Schools Journal” Vol. 2

4 President of Debates, 1962, President’s Report, Imperial College Archive

5 3rd February 1965, “The Times”, centre page

6 David K. Reich, 1965, President’s Report, Imperial College Archive

7 Anon, 4th February 1965, “Felix”, Issue No. 214, p. 12

 

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