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Home > Our history

Since its foundation in 1918, the English-Speaking Union has been promoting better communication between people of all cultures and countries. Read on to discover more...

Evelyn Wrench, founder of the ESU sits writing at a desk


Sir Evelyn Wrench founds the English-Speaking Union

An inclusive, non-party, non-sectarian club, the English-Speaking Union is open to men and women alike (unusual for the time), and has as its aim international fellowship and, ultimately, peace. ‘Believing that the peace of the world and the progress of mankind can be largely helped by the unity in purpose of the English-Speaking democracies,’ writes Wrench, ‘we pledge ourselves to promote by every means in our power a good understanding between the peoples of the USA and the British Commonwealth.’ Six months later, the membership has grown to 800, with local branches forming over the ensuing years.

If you can speak in this country, you can do anything.

Sir Winston Churchill

Chairman of the English-Speaking Union 1921-1925

The flag of USA and a building in the background.

The English-Speaking Union of the United States is formally founded.

The flag of Australia and a tree in the background.

The first English-Speaking Union of Australia opens in Melbourne.

A picture of Walter Hines

The first ESU Walter Hines Page Scholarship allows a teacher to visit the US on a research trip.


The English-Speaking Union buys Dartmouth House

After a long appeal, the English-Speaking Union buys Dartmouth House, still our headquarters now. It is officially opened by Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in February 1927 and operated as a club and travel bureau through which steamship and railway tickets and theatre and concert tickets can be procured. ESU US members donate money for the furnishings and 26 of the 38 bedrooms boast their own bathroom. Appropriately, given our name, each bedroom has its own telephone.

a 1920s passenger liner sails across the ocean


Eleven schoolboys leave for America on what is now known as the Secondary School Exchange. Founded by the Rev FH Sill, OHC, Headmaster of Kent School, Connecticut, this offers British students the opportunity to spend a year at a high school in the United States, and is often a life-changing experience. Past exchange students include comedian Dawn French, writer and director Dick Clement and singer-songwriter and musician KT Tunstall.

Could you or someone you know be next?


War is declared in September 1939

Dartmouth House remains open, albeit sandbagged and with the basement converted to an air-raid shelter. The ESU organises for many British children to be evacuated to America, though this ceases in November 1940 when a ship sinks with 90 children on board.

During the Blitz the ESU sets up a department to focus solely on war relief efforts. US donations of clothes, blankets and medical goods – even ambulances and mobile canteens (pictured) – are distributed across the country, and emergency parcels are given to those who have lost their homes in the bombings. Gracie Fields donates the entire proceeds of her US and Canadian tours.

America enters the war in December 1941 and the ESU begins to focus on providing hospitality to the thousands of American troops coming to Britain, offering a packed programme of talks, visits, dances and parties.

Black and white picture of couple cutting a wedding cake

Many people meet their future wife or husband through the ESU’s hospitality programme. This couple wed at Dartmouth House.

A black and white window display of clothing sent by the ESU to the USA

A display of clothing sent by the US ESU.

a family are pictured in workrooms having received donations from the ESU.

The Smith family, from Deptford, are given clothes in the ESU’s wartime workrooms.


The English-Speaking Union sets up an education trust undertaking to further Commonwealth-US relations by means of student, teacher and lecturer exchanges; scholarships; educational articles, books and films; weekend study courses; discussions and debates; and other educational means.

Black and white photo of a classroom of children sitting at old wooden desks.


The ‘Books Across the Sea’ initiative, founded in 1941 and chaired by TS Eliot, finds a new home at Dartmouth House. Intended to increase mutual knowledge between America and Britain, it saw thousands of books sent between the two countries covering their respective histories, geography, politics, music and more. As the scheme develops, the books are distributed to a network of schools, public libraries and ESU branches around the world, including India, Canada and New Zealand. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the US president, says of the scheme: ‘We can’t all visit each other, but at least let’s read about each other.’


Black and White image of 1954 debating competition.


The English-Speaking Union Debating Society is founded. ‘The Union after all exists, as someone has put it, so that those who speak English shall speak it to some purpose, and it therefore provides an atmosphere where the activities of a debating society are bound to flourish and prosper.’ Though the society is no more, debate remains at the heart of what we do – in our Schools’ Mace competition, Debate Academy, Discover Your Voice workshops, and our Discover Debating programme (see below).


Queen Elizabeth II awards the English-Speaking Union a royal charter.

ESU receives Royal Charter in 1957
A group of students enjoy share a smile at the Christmas party in 1962

Students from across the Commonwealth celebrate at the ESU Christmas party at Dartmouth House.

A group of children sitting on an aeroplane look backwards over their chairs at the camera.

Secondary School Exchange students from ten Bristol schools set off for their year in America.

A group of African students en route to Brussels, about to board an aircraft

A group of students from across Africa en route to Brussels, courtesy of an ESU travel grant.


ESU members form the studio audiences in London and Denver for the inaugural Town Meeting of the World, the first TV programme to feature world leaders in live debates, thanks to the recent launch of the Telstar communication satellite.


In May, the first national final of the ESU Public Speaking Competition (started by the Brighton & Hove branch in 1960) is held in Westminster School, and is won by St Edward’s College, Liverpool. Designed to encourage the art of public speaking and to enable young people to express their ideas on current affairs and subjects relating to international understanding, it is now the largest public-speaking competition in the UK. Current motions include ‘Should we welcome a cashless society?’ and ‘Washing products vs fish; what can be done to save our marine life?’

The outside a building behind the shades of a tree.
The Dean's Yard, which houses the School of Westminster
Two black and white polaroids show faces of the first ESU Lindemann scholars

Following a donation of £1,000,000 from Brigadier Charles Lionel Lindemann, the English-Speaking Union awarded its first two Lindemann Science Fellowships.

Rooftops of Brussels with a Belgian flag flying

The first English-Speaking Union is established in Europe, in Belgium.

Three primary school pupils (two girls and a boy) sitting inside a classroom.

The ESU is officially recognised by the Charity Commission as an educational Charity.

20 teenagers in marble courtyard of Dartmouth House


The International Public Speaking Competition commences with a contest between Australia, England and Wales. This soon gathers momentum, involving a growing number of countries – 51 in 2018.

The International Public Speaking Competition and other competitions that the English-Speaking Union runs are invaluable because they allow people from all over the world to put their thoughts into words and communicate with each other.

Alma Ágústsdóttir

Student at the University of Iceland, winner IPSC 2015

A picture of a graffiti and some men standing at the top.

The fall of the Berlin Wall marks a new era for relations with Eastern Europe.

A picture of Mikhail Gorbachev Former President of the Soviet Union

On 26th December the Soviet Union is dissolved and the Commonwealth of Independent States is formed.

A picture of the map of Eastern Europe

We expand our international reach into Eastern Europe, with Poland joining in 1993, Lithuania and Romania in 1996 and Armenia, Latvia and Russia in 1998.


The English-Speaking Union celebrates its 85th anniversary at Westminster Abbey, joined by International ESUs from all over the world.

A group of debate academy students (male and female) gathered outside the building.


Debate Academy, our week-long, residential summer school, opens its doors for the first time. Aimed at beginners and experienced debaters alike, it offers world-class coaching from expert mentors as well as stimulating lectures and social activities. Starting out with a handful of scholarships, since 2015 50 per cent of places have been fully funded to assist students in financial need. Read what one of our alumni, Fatima Conteh, has to say about her experience.

Four primary school girls sitting closed together.

Our first ever Discover Your Voice workshop takes place. In its first year, the majority of programme bookings come from primary schools and local education authorities.

A picture of a painting.

Working with partner organisation The Helen Bamber Foundation, our Experience English programme is launched, partnering volunteers with refugees and victims of cruelty.

Four primary school pupils (a boy and three girls) showcasing their certificates outside in the school garden.

Volunteers in our Ouse Valley branch initiate public speaking competitions for primary schools in their region. Thousands of children have now taken part.


Primary schools across the UK are now being given the chance to take part in our Discover Debating programme – for free. Our flagship programme uses debate to improve primary school students’ literacy and oracy skills in areas of the country that have a high proportion of pupils receiving free school meals, and/or for whom English is an additional language. ‘The programme is extremely beneficial to our pupils – the impact is obvious and clearly measurable in terms of oracy skills… but also in terms of enjoyment,’ says Dede Pourahmadi, a teacher at Al-Furqan Primary School.

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