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. The Society employs a caretaker and a part-time librarian but otherwise everything is done by volunteers. 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. Nor is there space for temporary exhibitions. 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.
Meantime, members of the Society can come on Monday mornings and Thursday evenings. Members of the public are welcome but are asked to be in touch in advance so that suitable arrangements can be made. Most visitors come as a party to see the museum displays, while others come individually to study particular holdings. On selected Sunday afternoons, the Society is open for which no booking is required.
Some of the Society’s activities occur in premises other than the 1911 Broad Street building housing the holdings. At Ayscoughfee Hall Museum in Spalding, the former home of Maurice Johnson, there is a permanent display of part of the Society’s collection relevant to this history; some temporary exhibitions of Society holdings have been held there and others are planned. There is a well-established programme of twelve public lectures across the winter months, held at Spalding Grammar School.