Kate Chapman visits the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society to learn about some of the hundreds of treasures in its care.
It has long been regarded as one of the town’s best kept secrets, but members of Spalding Gentlemen’s Society are keen to dispel this myth once and for all and show everyone just what it has to offer the wider community.
Founded by lawyer Maurice Johnson in 1710, it is one of the oldest learned societies in the country and the earliest provincial association for the encouragement of antiquarianism.
Since its formation it has amassed an enormous collection, comprising more than 20,000 books, 13,000 coins and medals, large numbers of stamps and shells plus 15,000 other historical artefacts such as clothing, maps and paintings, which today’s members and volunteers conserve, catalogue, digitise and share.
As part of the society’s community engagement drive it has extended the opening hours at its museum in Broad Street so that more people can wonder at curiosities such as a rare specimen of James Christopher le Blon’s tapestry A Head of Christ, a first edition Charles Dickens novel, a megalodon tooth, a Roman shoe and a 19th-century sedan chair.
“There really is so much in here, it’s hard to pick out the highlights. It really needs to be shared, used by our local schools and be available to the general public,” says society chairman Petronella Keeling, one of the first female members admitted in 2007.
“The place has been viewed as a bit of a secret society – it’s the town’s biggest kept secret, but we’ve changed our opening hours to give more people the chance to come in and have a look around. It’s about engagement and showing people what we have to offer – although not everything can be on display as there is just so much!
“It’s amazing that we have the collection that we do, although some of the items we have are ridiculous – like a bullet somebody used to commit suicide and a collection of large gallstones. There are local items too. If you have an interest in anything, you’ll be able to find something connected to it in some way in here!”
Caring for treasures
With volunteers acting as stewards, Spalding Gentlemen’s Society is now open for 30 hours across five days for people to grab a glimpse of the treasures in its care, while the library, archival and museum collections are also available for academic and personal research by request and have assisted many scholars in their work.
“The period of enlightenment, when people became interested in all kinds of things, started in England in around 1680 and continued through to the 1800s,” explains Ian Hoult, who has been museum curator for the past five years.
“It was a time of huge change in society, when people began exploring things and finding ways to do things.
“Maurice Johnson was sent to London to train as a lawyer, as was his father, and while he was there he got involved in the coffee house culture. He sat around talking about all sorts of things – and he got used to talking about everything.
“‘In around 1707-8, Maurice’s father became ill and he split his time in half, running both their businesses. When he arrived in Spalding there was a coffee house in Abbey Yard, but none of that free flow of thought. He got together with a group of friends and decided this is what they would do. They met on Thursday evenings to discuss things – everything apart from politics and religion – and read a new London periodical called Tatler.”
Membership quickly grew and notable names to join the group included Sir Isaac Newton, poet John Gay and Holbeach man Dr William Stukeley, who had a significant influence on the later development of archaeology, while later patrons included Sir Joseph Banks and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The first members paid £1 or bought a book for the collection to the equivalent value, leading to an eclectic array on the society’s shelves, covering every topic imaginable – even Cornish wrestling.
Today there are 350 members, many of whom live overseas as far afield as New Zealand, America and Australia. Despite its name, the society began admitting female members around 17 years ago, but is reluctant to change its moniker, due to its historical links.
Members enjoy a varied programme; each month there is a speaker from within their own ranks, to talk about a particular item from the collection. The society also hosts a series of lectures, which are open to the public from September to March.
There are plenty of other opportunities for people to get involved in the society’s work too.
“We’re very fortunate that we have a large number of volunteers – and I’d like to thank them all publicly, as we couldn’t do it without them,” adds Ian.
“Every Tuesday they come in and work to conserve our collections, catalogue them, store them away as well as work on a project to digitise some of our maps and books.
“It’s a constant cycle. There is something for everyone to get involved in, no matter what their skill set, and we’re always keen to welcome new members and volunteers.”
In the coming months the society, which is also a registered charity, plans to apply for grant funding to make structural repairs to part of the museum building, originally built in 1911 and extended in the 1960s.
It is hoped that by opening for longer more visitors will come through the doors, which will in turn help with the funding bids. Members will also be launching their own fundraising campaign to support this work.
Once complete, the programme of works will allow the society to offer an educational programme to local schools, as it currently doesn’t have sufficient space to do so.
Ian adds: “We’re often described as the town’s secret gem, a lot of people don’t seem to know we’re here. Hopefully we can soon change all that and show everyone what we have to offer the community.”
Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, 9 Broad Street, Spalding, is open to visitors 10am-4pm, Tuesday to Saturday. Entry is free, but donations are appreciated. For more information visit www.sgsoc.org
Photographs: Kate Chapman and Spalding Gentlemen’s Society