Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition

Queen’s Essay competition-winners, 2019, courtsey of Fergus Burnett

The Award Ceremony for the 2019 Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition was held at Buckingham Palace in the presence of HRH The Duchess of Cornwall on 31 October 2019. The competition was founded by the Royal Commonwealth Society in 1883 and is the world’s oldest international schools writing contest.  The 2019 theme was ‘A Connected Commonwealth’ and more than 11,000 entries arrived from students representing virtually every Commonwealth country. The competition archives are held by the RCS department of Cambridge University Library.  John Cardwell and Rachel Rowe from the RCS attended the ceremony with an exhibition of notable essays written by students from this year’s winning countries of Canada, Ghana, Nigeria, Singapore and Sri Lanka. 

2018 winner & familes at the UL

There are many other activities planned for the students during Winners’ Week, including writing workshops, visits to the House of Commons, museums, galleries, the theatre and popular attractions, such as Harry Potter World this year.  Usually the winners have a day in Cambridge, exploring the city and punting on the Cam.  The RCS team is always delighted to welcome the winners and their families to the library and provide a tour of the collections.  Although the winners were unable to visit this year, 2018’s Junior Winner, Janine Shum (in the pink coat in the facing photo), wrote this atmospheric account of her visit to the UL in her Winners’ Week diary:

2014 winners behind the scenes tour

‘We then went to the Cambridge University Library, where we met two lovely curators, Rachel Rowe and John Cardwell, of the archives. We were allowed to head underground into the basement of the library, where The Royal Commonwealth Society archives were. The archives appeared to be part of a maze of endless, dark rooms, with shelves upon shelves filling each room. Each shelf was packed to the brim with ancient books, artefacts and files. Centuries of knowledge must have been stored within those rooms, and one could easily get lost down there.

2016 visit to the RCS archival store

We were led into a specific room.  On the table, some folders and files had been thoughtfully laid out for us to look at.  They contained papers and objects specific to our home countries – Singapore, Canada and Pakistan. Because we were Singaporean, Woo Neng and I were shown old photos of colonial Singapore that our own museums did not have copies of.  They were kept in a thick binder bursting with black and white photos of long forgotten buildings and people.  There were many pictures of the Singapore River, with sail boats and old steam sailing ships that you would no longer see today.  It was fascinating.  Most of the buildings I was familiar with were replaced by empty fields, or rows of tiny shop houses.  A picture that had particularly struck me was one of a small boy dressed in old, worn-out clothes.  He grinned at the camera as he balanced on a rickety wooden stool. I wondered what his life was like, what his story had been.  I wondered if he was still alive, or if his grave was somewhere in Singapore.  That file was full of other people just like him, their memories forever encapsulated in those old black and white photos, their stories unknown.  

Digital Content Unit

We were also shown the Cambridge Digital Library… experts working with very powerful camera equipment to carefully record every tiny bit of the most important documents in the library.  If you went online to their website, you could see the most amazing, precious objects and texts, such as Newton’s handwritten notes, Darwin’s letters, Captain Cook’s observations on his sea voyages… and you could zoom right in to see the tiniest details on a page.  They even made real and virtual 3D models so you could look at an ancient object from every angle on your computer screen, or even print it out in 3D.  The best thing about the digital library is that it is free to anyone, anywhere in the world!’

We are very grateful to Janine for her evocative account of her visit to the library. The 2020 competition was launched in Christchurch, New Zealand, with the theme, ‘Climate action and the Commonwealth’ and we look forward to welcoming the winners to Cambridge next year!

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