One of the oldest museums and learned bodies in the country is not in London or Cambridge, but in the fenland market town of Spalding.

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An unlikely setting...

The solid-looking frontage in Broad Street conceals a unique Aladdins cave of treasures and curiosities. Its deceptively spacious interior has been likened to Doctor Whos Tardis, for there is much more than meets the eye to the Spalding Gentlemens Society. Its history dates back nearly 300 years, and the society continues to thrive. Scholars and researchers from as far afield as America and Australia make use of its extensive local archives, while its roll call of past members reads like a Whos Who of the 18th and 19th century intelligentia.

How did it start?

Maurice Johnson was the second of six in his family sharing the same christian name to own medieval Ayscoughfee Hall on the banks of the River Welland. In the early 18th century the river was the key to the towns wealth, for this tidal waterway was navigable to the sea. The wharves either side of the Welland were swarming with commercial activity, and the town boomed. Johnson, born in 1688, was a leading figure in Spalding. A barrister, trained at the Inner Temple, he also had links to the capital. It may well have been while relaxing and networking in the newly-popular London coffee shops, such as Lloyds, forerunner of the modern insurance giants, that he came up with an idea. In 1710 he decided to export these gatherings of like-minded people to the provinces. It began with a series of informal meetings of local gentlemen at a coffee house in Spaldings Abbey Yard to discuss local history and read London periodical The Tatler. Within two years these meetings became permanent, minutes and records were kept, and the Society of Gentlemen was born. Its stated aims were for the supporting of local benevolence and their improvement in the liberal sciences and polite learning.

What did they talk about?

By order of the founder, only politics and religion were barred a rule followed to this day. Johnson was a keen antiquarian. His friend, another Lincolnshire man, was William Stukeley, the first man to excavate Stonehenge, who became the societys first vicepresident. This eccentric churchman, born at Holbeach, was another with influential friends in London circles. Johnson later helped refound the Society of Antiquaries in London. A reputation like this attracted distinguished people to join the Lincolnshire society, including poets Alexander Pope and John Gay and Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal Society, whose museum and library formed the nucleus of the British Museum. Sir Isaac Newton was a member, but was unable to attend meetings on account of his advanced age. From its early days members would bring an object of interest to meetings to present to the society and help spark discussion. The museum collection grew from this. Later, members included Alfred Lord Tennyson, church architect George Gilbert Scott, who renovated Ely Cathedral in the 19th century, the grandfather of the celebrated naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and Lord Peckover of Wisbech. Although French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau visited the town in 1772, and stayed at the former White Hart Hotel, a legend that he was also a member is, sadly, not true.

They must have quickly outgrown the coffee shop...

The society later moved to the now demolished Holyrood House. In 1911, its bicentenary, members and a public appeal helped raise the cash to open the current Broad Street museum. As it approaches its 300th anniversary, the museum is said to be the oldest in Britain apart from the Ashmolean in Oxford. Unashamedly old-fashioned, this is not the place for trendy interactive displays. It is the museum for the connoisseur. Generous members have over three centuries given a collection of rare books, pottery, coins dating back to the Romans, artwork and artefacts. Anyone interested in the history of the fens and its people will find much of interest, from everyday objects to a royal medieval charter, complete with the seal of King Henry IV a grand looking document with the rather prosaic purpose of granting the right to cut down trees! The regions schools and workplaces are well represented, with a series of evocative old photographs capturing a long-gone age. The museum also holds original engravings of Lincolnshire churches made by Hilkiah Burgess in the early 19th century and a 1730s map of Spalding and environs much prized by historians by early member John Grundy, a surveyor, mathematician and engineer. For ornithologists there is the stunning Ashley Maples Collection of British Birds. The society is particularly proud of its Loewental collection of rare and exquisite Chinese glass, ceramics, jade and jasper. Prof Arthur Loewental was an Austrian Jewish sculptor who escaped the Nazis in the 1930s taking his collection with him. It was bought for the society in 1949.

Anything for people tracing their family tree?

Television shows such as the BBCs Who Do You Think You Are? have made genealogy increasingly popular. The Spalding Gentlemens Society houses a probably unique collection of original church records that are invaluable to researchers. People are welcome to visit the museum by request.

And the modern day?

Today the society has about 350 members who meet on Thursday evenings. Any new applicant has to be personally known by the member who sponsors them, and then must be democratically elected by a ballot. Maurice Johnsons founding ideals are carried on by a series of autumn and winter lectures on cultural, scientific and antiquarian subjects. Already under way, this year they are held at the towns grammar school. Subjects include the world of Clarice Cliff and the explorations of James Cook. Nonmembers can attend, but there is a charge.

Applications for visits should be made to the curator at: The Museum, Broad Street, Spalding, Lincolnshire, PE11 1TB.

Website: www.spalding-gentlemens-society.org/

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