The Society was founded in Adelaide on 10 July 1885, and held its first meeting in October of that year with Sir Samuel Davenport as it’s first President. It was originally intended as a branch of the “Geographical Society of Australasia”, which had been founded in Sydney two years earlier. Thus the present RGSSA was originally the “Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) Inc. However, the ‘parent’ organisation never developed after its early start, but the South Australian Branch went from strength to strength, as described in “The Branch Without a Tree: The centenary history of the RGSSA Inc. 1885-1985" by Ken Peake-Jones. In 1996 the Society came fully of age by adopting its present name and separate status.
The Society played a role in two major exploratory expeditions (the Elder and Calvert expeditions) at the close of the 19th. Century. In 1905 the Society purchased the York Gate Library, a major private collection amassed by a London merchant relating to geography, exploration and colonisation. Through this purchase, the Society acquired the permanent home which it still enjoys through its affiliation with the Public Library, now the State Library of South Australia. The Society’s extensive library was built around this core, and the books made available to the public for all time in return for the provision of accommodation. Initially housed in purpose-built premises in the Institute Building, the Society is currently located in the Mortlock wing of the main State Library Building on North Terrace.