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The creation of one body politic

On 17 February the Registrar attended the Houses of Parliament to receive the first new RCVS Supplemental Charter for nearly 50 years. To mark this historic occasion, veterinary historian Bruce Vivash Jones and RCVS Knowledge Head of Library and Information Services Clare Boulton look back at events leading to our first Royal Charter.


As we celebrate our new Charter, we look back to the first


The most prized historical document kept at Belgravia House is not on view, it is held safely under lock and key. While of little intrinsic value it is without question the most important manuscript held by the College.

The document is the Royal Charter, granted and sealed on 8 March 1844. It established the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, enabled the creation of the veterinary profession and achieved a goal defined in 1790.

Royal Charters are a peculiarly vestigial institution, they are interesting declarations as they have a perpetual effect and are a last remnant of the exercise of extra-parliamentary power by a monarch, although nowadays Charters and their supplementary additions are only issued with prior government approval. Since the date of the first Royal Charter in 1066, over 980 have been sealed, of which about 750 remain in use.

The Charter is known as ‘letters patent’ and this is the most important feature: it is a type of legal instrument in the form of a written order issued by the monarch, which grants the recipient, in this case a group, the status of a corporation. Typically they were written in high quality calligraphy on vellum with a seal pendant attached: so that the seal does not have to be broken to read the document

For the embryo veterinary profession the granting of the Charter meant that they were now a corporate body and a legal entity, having all the powers of a ‘natural person’.

The goal defined in 1790 was included in the ‘Plan’ published by Vial St Bel, the first Professor of the London Veterinary College, but drafted and written by Granville Penn. It set out what was required to teach veterinary medicine and also stated that when the College had gained full stature it should be “formally incorporated by Charter”, like other medical Royal Colleges.

Since the date of the first Royal Charter in 1066, over 980 have been sealed, of which about 750 remain in use.

The activity to gain a Charter started following the death in 1839 of Edward Coleman, the controversial Principal of the London College. The then graduates of the London and Edinburgh schools, the latter established by William Dick, represented a split profession. London graduates received a certificate of qualification that was accepted for admission to the Army and the East India Company, the two largest employers. Admission was controlled by Coleman who was also Principal Veterinary Officer (PVO). Edinburgh graduates received the certificate of the Highland Agricultural Society of Scotland, which Coleman refused to recognise.

There was much argument and call for reform. F C Cherry, a ‘reformer’ was appointed PVO after Coleman and he allowed Edinburgh graduates entry to the Service. Also in 1839 the Edinburgh School became a College.

In 1838 the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) had been set up by Charter, which, at the instigation of William Youatt, included a clause empowering it to take measures to “improve the veterinary art in its application to cattle, sheep and pigs”. The RAS then offered financial aid to the College if they would broaden the syllabus beyond the horse. However, it was Youatt’s action that provided the intellectual preliminary for the reform movement.

In 1840 a deputation of veterinary surgeons presented a memorial to the Governors of the College on behalf of themselves and 315 others demanding that it should apply for a Charter which would control unqualified practitioners, increase student fees and introduce regulations for student ‘apprenticeships’. The Governors rejected these proposals.

As a result the reformers, led by Thomas Turner, William Goodwin and Thomas Walton Mayer, quietly had a Petition for a Charter drawn up for submission to the Privy Council. They were able to also obtain the signatures of William Dick and the three London College teachers: William Sewell, Charles Spooner and James B Simonds, at that time the four leading veterinarians in the country

Feeling that they could now ignore the Governors of the College, the reformers went to Prime Minister Peel’s Home Secretary with their plea for the incorporation of the profession and the “creation of one body politic…” arguing that its granting would “materially contribute to the advancement of the veterinary art and the respectability of the veterinary profession”.

The Charter was drawn up and sealed on 8 March 1844 – 171 years ago.

Membership was limited to those certified by the two existing colleges, and by any new colleges which might receive royal approval, as being qualified to practise, and future students of the colleges had to pass examinations set by the new Royal College.

‘Veterinary Surgeon’ now became a professional title conferred only on those who were members of the Royal College, which was invested with the legal advantages of a corporation. Thomas Turner was elected as the first President.

Much had been accomplished and much more would be achieved in later years as Supplementary Charters would be granted, to date seven, which would strengthen the role of the RCVS and therefore of its membership.



First published in RCVS News (March 2015), page 22.

March 2015