Founded at a meeting of sixteen interested parties in London on 16 May 1898, which included Alice Bertha Gomme, Kate Lee, A. P. Graves, J. A. Fuller Maitland, and Laura A. Smith. At the Society's formal inaugural meeting on 16 June 1898, Lucy Broadwood and Frank Kidson, who would both play a significant role in the Society's development, were added. The Society's ‘primary object’ was ‘… the collection and preservation of Folk Songs, Ballads and Tunes, and the publication of such of these as may be advisable’. Meetings were to be held, at which papers would be read and discussed, which would include ‘vocal and instrumental illustrations’ (Keel, 1948: 111). It should be noticed that from the start the tone of the Society was academic—collection and study, rather than performance and teaching were the objectives. The first four Vice-Presidents chosen—Sir John Stainer, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Sir Hubert Parry, and Dr Villiers Stanford—demonstrated the intended standing of the new Society in the respectable musical establishment of the late Victorian era.
The Society's annual Journal was launched in 1899, and for the rest of the Society's existence it served as the major source of raw material for the folk-song movement. A pattern soon evolved which was adhered to for many years. The proof sheets of the songs chosen for inclusion were circulated to members of the Committee, and their comments invited, and Frank Kidson in particular provided historical information from his own vast library. The journals thus included not only the songs themselves, but important comparative and analytic comments by the collectors themselves and a range of experts, but no unified editorial commentary. As time went on, articles began to appear beside the collections of songs, but they were always in a minority.
Despite its roster of distinguished names, the Society had got off to a somewhat shaky start. Already in 1900 there were discussions on the need to increase the subscription, and by 1904 it had almost ground to a halt. The main problem was the protracted illness, and death in 1904, of the Secretary, Kate Lee, who had been the driving force from the start. In that year, Lucy Broadwood took over as Secretary, Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams joined and reinvigorated the Committee, and the Society was set fair for a re-launch and increasing popularity and influence. Folk-song collecting became all the rage for budding English musicians until the outbreak of the First World War, and the membership soon included Percy Grainger, George Butterworth, Edward Elgar, and Edvard Grieg amongst others.
Throughout its life, the Society resisted suggestions to change its name to include the words ‘English’ or ‘British’, but its journals actually included very little that was not collected in the British Isles, and the bulk of the material was English. Nevertheless, important contributions on Irish, Manx, and Scots song were published from time to time. Until the war, individual members were busy collecting, giving lectures, demonstrations, and concerts, and were active in promoting folksinging through local music competitions, and so on. The Society itself, however, still had no structure, no unified voice, no Director to speak on its behalf, and could only act as a medium of exchange, not as a driving force. The Society was hit badly by the war, with several of its promising younger men being killed, and its continued existence was only ensured by the unflagging efforts of Kidson, Broadwood, Anne Gilchrist, and a handful of others.