Founded in 1710, the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society is Britain’s oldest surviving provincial learned society. Since 1955, its charitable purpose has been: ‘To promote and foster among the public knowledge, appreciation and the study of …’ what we now call the Arts, Sciences and Humanities. It is a membership society that welcomes women, notwithstanding its history and name. Membership is open to anyone aged eighteen or over.

Early in the eighteenth century, lawyer Maurice Johnson came back to Spalding having completed his training in London. Coffeehouses flourished in London, meeting places where a vibrant social circle eagerly discussed the news, new discoveries and inventions, new publications. Johnson wanted to replicate this stimulating circle in his home town and gathered a group of men to meet in a newly opened coffeehouse. Over the ensuing decades, the Society attracted eminent locals and also men of national stature (as corresponding members) such as Sir Isaac Newton. Johnson and his friend William Stukeley were instrumental in re-founding the Antiquarian Society in London, and Stukeley was a member of the Royal Society’s governing body.

From its early days, the Society has collected ‘curious’ things, established an important library and an archive holding. It was donations by members and also specific purchases that made possible the accumulation of many items, some of national and international importance. There is also much that relates to the rich local heritage. As a museum collection in Britain, only the Ashmolean’s in Oxford has a longer history.

With the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century and thereafter, the role of the Society changed and it became little more than a lending library, guarding its possessions but no longer at the forefront of learning. But, for a combination of circumstances, it survived, to be re-founded at the turn of the twentieth century but still essentially as a society for its members. Although this enabled the Society to survive through the twentieth century, it was not fully living up to its purpose as declared in 1955. Now, in the twenty-first century, serious effort is being made to make the Society more accessible to the public.

People become members because they support the Society’s objective. Some become involved in working with and maintaining the collections; acting as guides for visitors is an important role; and there are the administrative roles to be filled. Overall management is vested in the Council, whose members are elected by the membership at Annual General Meetings. His Grace the tenth Duke of Buccleuch is the Society’s Patron.

The Society’s home is the Grade II listed building on Broad Street, purpose-built to house the Society’s collections. The intent in 1911 was to store and display the holdings, primarily for the benefit of members, and a lecture room provided space for lectures given to members. The collections outgrew the space provided. Though it was possible to create additional space, the Society again faces the problem that the space is inadequate. New accessions now usually number between sixty and eighty items annually and the building is no longer big enough to store, curate and display the entire collection properly. Space is limited for temporary exhibitions and to ensure a viable future for the Society, some major changes will be necessary.

The Society has adopted a Vision Statement the fundamental basis of which is to improve public access – access in person and by electronic means. Part of this vision is the desire that members of the public should be able to visit the museum collections without the need for a guide, to wander at will and return when they want to in the advertised hours. How this may be achieved is a matter being addressed by Council.

Members of the public are welcome but are asked to be in touch in advance so that suitable arrangements can be made for group visits. The museum is open Tues to Sat 10-4pm until the end of September 2024 when it will close for major building work. The museum will maintain an active presence in two galleries at Ayscoughfee Hall and the Centre for Fenland Studies will also be established there. Entry is free but a donation helps us care for the collection.

There is a well-established programme of twelve public lectures across the winter months, held at Broad Street Methodist Church (opposite the museum).


The future

Our Vision

For more than 300 years the Society has been a beacon of Enlightenment ideals. It is Britain’s oldest surviving provincial learned society and second oldest museum. Today, we aim to connect members, visitors and the wider public with the world through interactive engagement with our collections on-site, virtually and through outreach. We believe that curiosity, discovery and the search for knowledge can and should be nurtured and open to all.

Our Mission

Our mission is to support the creation and sharing of knowledge by providing access to those collections and by offering innovative social and educational projects for all people.

We aim to:

Ø Tell the unique story of the Society, its collections and its members

Ø Maintain and develop a range of public programmes that reflect the range and diversity of our collections, our members, our community and society more broadly, and that are accessible to all

Ø Safeguard, develop and display our collections to ensure their continued improvement and benefit for future generations

Ø Provide opportunities for members, volunteers and visitors of all backgrounds, living locally or further afield, to enjoy and engage with our remarkable collections through participation in lifelong learning and creative expression

Ø Provide volunteers and students with opportunities to learn new skills in collections care, research, management and conservation

Our Values

As a Society we believe that:

Ø The pursuit of knowledge should be free and open to all

Ø Openness, honesty and respectful dialogue are at the foundation of knowledge making and knowledge sharing

Ø Inclusivity and accessibility must guide all of our working practices

Ø Lifelong learning, personal development and self-discovery are fundamental parts of being human

Ø As custodians of the Society’s collections, we have a responsibility to research and interpret our collections and their provenance honestly and transparently, including where that provenance may be sensitive or difficult