The beginnings of the Palestine Exploration Fund are rooted in a literary society founded by British Consul James Finn and his wife Elizabeth Anne Finn. Many photographs of Palestine have survived from this period.
On 22 June 1865, a group of Biblical archaeologists and clergymen financed the fund, with initial funding of £300. The most notable of the founders were Arthur P. Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, and George Grove, who later founded the Royal College of Music and was responsible for Grove's Dictionary of Music. Its founders established the fund "for the purpose of investigating the Archaeology, Geography, manners, customs and culture, Geology and Natural History of the Holy Land."
Frederick J. Bliss wrote of the foundation that "[a]s far as its aims were concerned this organization was but a re-institution of a Society formed about the year 1804 under the name of the Palestine Association... it is interesting to note that the General Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund recognized an organic connection with the earlier Society."
The preliminary meeting of the Society of the Palestine Exploration Fund took place in the Jerusalem Chamber of Westminster Abbey. William Thomson, the Archbishop of York, read out the original prospectus at the first organisational meeting;
[O]ur object is strictly an inductive inquiry. We are not to be a religious society; we are not about to launch controversy; we are about to apply the rules of science, which are so well understood by us in our branches, to an investigation into the facts concerning the Holy Land. "No country should be of so much interest to us as that in which the documents of our Faith were written, and the momentous events they describe enacted. At the same time no country more urgently requires illustration ... Even to a casual traveller in the Holy Land the Bible becomes, in its form, and therefore to some extent in its substance, a new book. Much would be gained by ...bringing to light the remains of so many races and generations which must lie concealed under the accumulation of rubbish and ruins on which those villages stand ...
The PEF conducted many early excavations of biblical and post-biblical sites around the Levant, as well as studies involving natural history, anthropology, history and geography.
In 1867, Charles Warren led PEF's biggest expedition. Warren and his team improved the topography of Jerusalem and discovered the ancient water systems that lay beneath the city of Jerusalem. The water system was later named Warren's Shaft, after Charles Warren, due to the discovery. They also made the first excavations of Tell es-Sultan, site of biblical city of Jericho.
In 1875, the Earl of Shaftesbury, a prominent social reformer, told the Annual General Meeting of the PEF that "We have there a land teeming with fertility and rich in history, but almost without an inhabitant – a country without a people, and look! scattered over the world, a people without a country". It was one of the earliest usages by a prominent politician of the phrase A land without a people for a people without a land, which was to become widely used by advocates of Jewish settlement in Palestine.
In 1878, the Treasurer's statement listed over 130 local associations in the United Kingdom (including Ireland). There were also branches in Canada and Australia as well as Gaza City and Jerusalem. Expenditure in 1877 amounted to £2,959 14s 11d.
Among other noteworthy individuals associated with the fund were:
The first 21 years of the fund are summarised in PEF (1886). Its chapters and personages mentioned include the following:
- The Foundation of the Society
In his opening address (p.8), Archbishop Thomson laid down three basic principles for the Society:
- That whatever was undertaken should be carried out on scientific principles
- That the Society should, as a body, abstain from controversy
- That it should not be started, nor should it be conducted, as a religious society.
Regarding the latter, great emphasis was placed upon the nomenclature "Holy Land", so the notion of religion could never have been far away. Also (p.10) stress was laid upon the fact that "The Society numbers among its supporters Christians and Jews". (Muslims were not mentioned.)
- The Chronicle of the Society
- The First Expedition
- The Excavations at Jerusalem
- The Desert of the Exodus
- The Survey of Western Palestine
- The Archaeological Expeditions
- The Survey of Eastern Palestine
- The Geological Survey
- Smaller Expeditions
- The Monuments of the Country
- The Work of the Future
- Chronological Summary of the Fund's Work
- Captain Conder's identifications
Elsewhere the following activities have been reported:
The Palestine Exploration Fund was also involved in the foundation of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem in 1919. The School worked with the Fund in joint excavations at Jerusalem's Ophel in the 1920s. The school's second director, , was Chairman of the PEF from 1945 to 1950.