Three Hundred Years of a Lincolnshire Archive: The Spalding Gentlemen's Society


A unique feature of Lincolnshire and indeed of Europe today is the Spalding Gentlemen's Society. It was founded in 1712, at a time when the town was regarded as ‘allmost out of the World’,1 as ‘A Universal Literary meeting for the sake of Improvement in Friendship and Knowledge’2 by Maurice Johnson (1688–1755), a local lawyer. The East Midlands at that time saw the establishment of other learned societies, particularly at Stamford, Peterborough and Northampton, but they lasted only a few years and left little trace of their activities. The only English society of a similar nature to survive today from that time is the Antiquarian Society founded in 1717, two of whose founders, Maurice Johnson and William Stukeley, were associated with the Spalding Gentlemen's Society. The SGS, as it has always been called, survives today with around 300 subscribing members, a library and museum and a remarkable archive containing manuscripts, letters and drawings ranging from the fifteenth century to the present day.

This article aims to examine the reasons for the creation of this archive, and to consider its development in its historical context and how its accessibility could be extended to historians, in the light of the current discussion of archive development. The SGS officers, responsible for the management of the Society's archive, are caught up in dilemmas. Does it exist to conserve every item relating to the Society? Has its function changed over time? How can it be made easily available to external researchers? As the Society in its twenty-first-century form has no publicly specified purpose,3 these questions are difficult.

It was different in the eighteenth century. Maurice Johnson was certain about the aims of his society. It was formally established in November 1712: ‘by subscribing at the coffee house then in the Abby Yard [in Spalding] … for establishing a Society of Gentlemen for the supporting mutual benevolence & their Improvem[en]t in the Liberal Sciences & polite learning’.4 The Society was to meet weekly. Members were expected to ‘communicate to the Society something new or Curious’ in person or by letter. A secretary was elected ‘to Minute their proceedings & keep all Papers etc belonging to them in good Order for the furtherance of their Laudable designe’. One proviso of membership was ‘That every Member on Admission give to the Library a book or Books of the Value of One Pound’.

Johnson as Secretary devised a system for archiving the Society's papers at a time when the development of systems5 was a topic of great interest. The Spalding system was to archive by subject matter, type and size: correspondence was sorted into eight folio-size files, on the inside of which the numbered contents were listed. The subject matter was subdivided into topics related to the arts or the sciences: ‘Theological, Ethical, Juridical, Historical Topics’ or ‘Physical, Philosophical and Mathematical Subjects’. Next, the topics were subgrouped as either letters or dissertations. The documents were then subdivided by size, depending on whether they were written on folio-size or quarto-size paper. The full list is published by the Lincoln Record Society in the calendar of the Society's correspondence6 and contains 638 items. The Society's extensive weekly minutes survive intact for the period 1725 to 1758, with many entries accompanied by illustrations. They record a remarkably wide-ranging account of the ‘new or Curious’ learning and interests of the period.

The Librarian, a central figure in the Society for 300 years, has been significant in maintaining its existence as a combined museum, library and archive, as its founder had intended. In his will Maurice Johnson bequeathed the income relating to ‘my Chapell at Wykeham in the Parish of Spalding’ to the ‘Governours … of the Free Grammar School’. He then gave the Governors the task of bestowing this income from the chapel of Wykeham on the Master of the Grammar School.

Provided that such Person so by them nominated doth … covenant premise grant and agree to and with the said Governours and their Successors that he will conscientiously constantly and honestly take charge and Care of the Museum Books Papers and Suppellex Literaria of and belonging to Spalding Gentlemen's Society herein before mentioned which I had the happiness to be the Institutor of and for many Years after Secretary and whereof I now have the Honour to be President being the best Service I could do to my Native Place.7

This system remains today and has ensured the survival of the books and papers of the SGS. The lawyers, doctors and clerics who were the original members of the Society used the letters and dissertations as source material for their weekly discussions and for communicating their findings to other learned societies. As the letters and books came into the Society's hands during the eighteenth century, so they were recorded and indexed in detail.

Like many organizations with such a long history, the SGS has experienced surges of activity and development, alternating with times of comparative decline. After the initial half-century of growth under Johnson, his sons and the Revd John Rowning who succeeded them as Librarian, activities came to centre mainly on the loan of books, although the minutes record the delivery of papers from time to time. There have been at least three attempts to reconcile the eighteenth-century archive with contemporary archival practice; this in itself makes the SGS a fascinating study. In 1826 a young Cambridge scholar, J. H. Marsden (1803–91), arrived in Spalding as Master of the Grammar School. On Monday 18 February 1828 he took on the duties of ex officio Librarian and Secretary under the new President, the Perpetual Curate of Spalding, the Revd Dr William Moore, and found the original minute books of the Society with the last entry dated 29 June 1758.8 Marsden was then ordered to examine the Society's records in order to ‘ascertain the terms upon which certain books were deposited in the Church and School; and if it should be found that such books are still the property of the Gentlemen's Society that a Catalogue of them be taken and deposited in the Society's room’.9 An excellent library catalogue was published in 1851, prefaced by a history of the Society,10 under the name of the President, Canon Moore, probably helped in the task by Marsden who had married Moore's daughter in 1840. Marsden later became the first occupant of the Disney chair in Archaeology at Cambridge. The Society was thus really a book club as a result of Marsden's interests. He remained an honorary member of the Society and was involved in the second revival by Dr Marten Perry from 1889 onwards.

Today the SGS celebrates the centenary of the opening of its 1911 building, created by the determined President, Dr Marten Perry, who transformed a book club into a lively and active organization centred on a purpose-built museum. The Society extended its library, taking in hundreds of books from several East Midland libraries about to close and developing its museum as large quantities of items, some of local interest and others drawn from across the world, were donated. Under Perry, the Society was ‘actively engaged in reading papers and placing on record all kinds of antiquarian and local history discoveries, manners, customs and superstitions and accumulating local manuscripts and a wealth of literature that would otherwise have been forgotten or lost’.11 Chris Renn analysed the lectures presented between 1889 and 1911; comparing this with the activities under Maurice Johnson, the nature of the changes in the Society becomes clear, as Table 1 indicates.

Table 1. The six largest topics as a percentage of the total number of topics discussed
Natural History13.74All branches of History50
Numismatics9.84All branches of Science9.2

The chief interest shifted by the late nineteenth century to historical topics, and under Dr Perry the museum became a central feature of the Society. However during the inter-war years of the twentieth century the SGS was appointed an archive depository for manorial charters and records, following the 1922 Law of Property Act which abolished copyhold and ended ‘all manorial documents [being] … under the charge and superintendence of the Master of the Rolls’.12 As a result of this and following legislation, manor court records ‘may be deposited in a record repository approved for this purpose by the Master of the Rolls’.13 Thus the Society gained the legal responsibility to care for the extensive collection of manorial records deposited there during the twentieth century and a strong-room was built in 1925. A Society which had been a book club and recently a museum was now faced with a national function: the maintenance of a provincial archive.

The third revival started when the Articles of Association were legally drawn up on 13 January 1955. The Memorandum of Association specifies the fostering among the public of knowledge, appreciation and study by the duty to ‘acquire, collect and preserve books, pamphlets, manuscripts, deeds, engravings, paintings, drawings, coins, antiquities, stuffed birds, birds' eggs’.14 The question which preoccupied the Society during this new period of activity during the 1950s and 1960s was: where should the Society's main focus be, as a museum, a library, an archive or a combination of all of these? In 1959 it was agreed that all the collections, from manuscripts to stuffed birds, from books to the collection of gramophones, should be brought together on one site, the Museum in Broad Street. The floor-space was extended by ‘1,300 square feet at a cost of £500’.15 Between 1956 and 1967 the Society's archives were catalogued by the staff of the Lincolnshire Archives. In 1981 the Lincoln Record Society published an edited facsimile of one year's minutes;16 the complete set of six volumes of early minutes was later microfilmed by Cambridge University Library.

The Headmaster in the mid-twentieth century, Mr S. W. Woodward, played a central role in the efforts to establish the Society on what was perceived as a modern footing. He encouraged the cataloguing of the archives and the development of historical research, delivering an entertaining account of the Society's history to the Society of Antiquaries in 1960.17 He was assisted by Herbert Hallam, who taught history at the Grammar School and later at Leicester University, finally becoming Professor of History at the University of Western Australia. The growth of research activity in the mid-twentieth century based on SGS manuscripts led to several publications, notably by Dr Hallam and his wife Sylvia. Dr Hallam's outstanding work was Settlement and Society: A Study of the Early Agrarian History of South Lincolnshire, published by Cambridge University Press in 1965, in which he demonstrated that local communities of free men were a major force in land reclamation during the medieval period. A central source for his work was the Myntling Register, a fifteenth-century document in the SGS archive which lists in detail the families of the local tenants of Spalding Priory. In addition the archive holds two other significant medieval manuscripts, the Wrest Park Cartulary of Croyland Abbey and a manuscript of the Croyland Chronicle, a collection of transcriptions dating from the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Dr Sylvia Hallam shared her husband's work on the fens surrounding Spalding in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing on aspects of the SGS's collection18 for her published work.

This indicated the potential for research use of the SGS archive and library collections. During the ensuing years academic research using the Society's collections developed especially the fascinating work of Dr Ernie Jones on the Myntling Register19 and David Roffe's work during the 1980s, which drew on the Croyland Cartulary.20 During the later years of the twentieth century, the SGS was controlled by Norman Leverett, first as Curator and later as Curator and President. An assiduous investigator into the archives and books held in the Society's collections, he made extensive card indexes with emphasis on his particular interest, the history of Nonconformity in the locality; the SGS is the repository for the archives of Holbeach Methodist Circuit from 1845 to 1957. Leverett and Michael Elsdon drew on the archives for several well-illustrated volumes of pictorial history of Spalding in the past 150 years. Unfortunately Norman Leverett's inward-looking tendencies during his years in office did not encourage researchers outside the Society to learn about the contents of the SGS archives or to draw on them for their work. Whilst Maurice Johnson in the eighteenth century and Marten Perry in the early twentieth century had encouraged active participation by non-members, the SGS under Norman Leverett's leadership felt that the Society was for its Spalding members. He was willing to answer queries from outside scholars and made his own knowledge of the archives available to them, but strongly discouraged wider extension of knowledge of the precise details of the archives, certainly not through national and international publicity.

Ultimately, two developments broke down this inward focus. More external students heard of the Spalding archive and wished to make use of it. Three doctoral theses drew on the SGS archives, those of R. J. Evans,21 David Haycock22 and Michael Honeybone.23 The initial reaction of the SGS to such outside interest was to maintain their inward-looking attitude, but a second development broke this down. In January 1955, the Society became a registered charity, ‘subject to the jurisdiction of the Charity Commissioners for England and Wales’.24 The full legal implications of this took time to sink in. As a result of its charitable status, the Society received tax relief on members' subscriptions, which is a significant part of its revenue. However, the conditions require the SGS to be an open organization. This directly contravened another clause of the SGS's Articles of Association of 1955: ‘No female shall be eligible for admission as a member of the Society.’25 After much debate, the first women members were admitted in 2007. These two factors have led to a change in the SGS. It has adopted a more open approach, welcoming and answering enquiries by email. The opening up of its archives and museum to researchers is now under way enabling historians to investigate the full extent of the Society's manuscript holdings.

The Society continues to be a voluntary body, as in Johnson's day, with the same officers: a President, Curator, Treasurer and Librarian and an elected Council; the day-to-day work is carried out chiefly by retired people living in the local area. None of these has formal training in archive work. Following Norman Leverett's work, there is a good awareness of the location of documents. This is an improvement on the situation in the early 1960s when the professional archivists from the Lincolnshire Archives listed the ‘documents discovered in a cabinet in the hall there, also some documents in boxes in a store room’.26 A list of the archive's contents is now available on the Society's website,27 though only as a series of 560 sets of collected manuscripts. This archive list rarely indicates original ownership, content or authorship though these are crucial for provenance.

The original members met weekly to study a wide range of subjects. Today, members still meet on Thursday evenings, but these are informal gatherings, no longer minuted. In addition, the SGS has fortnightly lectures during the winter. Does the different nature of the Society impose a changing view of the nature and function of the Society's archive? Looking at earlier attempts to establish and organize the SGS's archives and collections, first by Johnson in the early eighteenth century, then by J. H. Marsden around 1830, then by Dr Perry at the beginning of the twentieth century, and finally following the mid-twentieth century legislation, it is possible to understand their changing state. In the eighteenth century what mattered were the letters and dissertations, which were used to provide materials for the weekly discussion. A museum was a place of study, organized to enable research to be undertaken. Johnson's ‘musæum’ was a working environment containing air pumps, one made by the members themselves, telescopes, microscopes, orreries, a hortus siccus and equipment for weighing Roman coins. In 1830 the important aspect was the well-catalogued books available to the members. One or two dusty survivals of Johnson's working laboratory survived in the Society's room, but they had little significance compared to the books. As the twentieth century began, what mattered to the Society was set-piece lectures, all minuted at length, taking place in a museum built to display relics of the past. The eighteenth-century Society was receiving artefacts and manuscripts on a weekly basis, and the revived Society of the earlier twentieth century began to rebuild its collections.

Today, however, the letters coming to the modern Society are rarely kept, unlike Johnson's systematic storage of correspondence, partly because much communication today is by email. This has necessitated a new attitude to archives based on the growing significance of the computer for access to knowledge. The present SGS Curator, Tom Grimes, states that he is responsible for four areas of activity: the museum artefacts, the Society's archives, the books and the computer-generated materials. The central question facing today's legally established SGS is how to ensure the survival and preservation of 300 years of intellectual effort while making it accessible both to locally based students and to the wider world of academic historians. This will require a thorough modernization of the archives in line with the latest developments in archive conservation techniques and practice. One of the most significant aspects of this would be to make central elements of the archive available to scholars online, thus allowing wider access while preserving the more fragile items. In addition to the medieval MSS already noted, these include royal charters, collections for the history of south Lincolnshire and the Banks-Stanhope papers of the later eighteenth-century Banks family. There are extensive papers relating to drainage and water transport from medieval times to the twentieth century, as could be expected in the Lincolnshire Fens. A distinctive element in the collection is the outstanding documentation relating to the development of the SGS itself. Few other English learned societies have minute books, membership records, accounts and correspondence going back to 1712; these include drawings, notes and letters by one of the most active eighteenth-century members, the Revd Dr William Stukeley.28 The Society now needs to grasp the nettle and appoint a professional archivist to oversee this extraordinary collection of European significance. Then online presentation via the Society's website, <>, would ensure that today's SGS upholds its founder's intention: ‘Every member to Communicate whatever is Usefull, New, Uncommon or Curious in any Art or Science.’29


  1. 1

    Letter from Roger Gale to Maurice Johnson, 2 Sept. 1735, archives of the SGS.

  2. 2

    SGS Minute Book I, fos. 50 and 75, archives of the SGS.

  3. 3

    Neither the present-day website nor the membership card and lecture programme specify any objective. The 1955 Articles of Association of the SGS state that it is established: ‘To promote and foster among the public knowledge, appreciation and the study of art, literature, music, science, archæology, natural history, ornithology and general knowledge’, a rather wide-ranging remit.

  4. 4

    SGS Minute Book 1 fo. 7r, archives of the SGS.

  5. 5

    M. Honeybone, ‘Sociability, Utility and Curiosity’, in Science and Beliefs, ed. D. M. Knight and M. D. Eddy (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 7173.

  6. 6

    D. Honeybone and M. Honeybone, The Correspondence of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society 1710–1761 (Lincoln, 2010), pp. 240256.

  7. 7

    Will of Maurice Johnson, dated 16 Dec. 1752, proved 30 May 1755, PRO.

  8. 8

    SGS Minute Book VI, fo. 41v. The date written is 29 July 1758, but as this is a Saturday it must be a mistake for Thursday, which was the Society's usual meeting day. The most probable date is Thursday 29 June. The President, the Revd John Johnson, died on 31 July 1758; perhaps this is why the minutes were no longer recorded.

  9. 9

    SGS Minute Book VI, fo. 448v.

  10. 10

    W. Moore, The Gentlemen's Society at Spalding, its Origin and Progress (1851).

  11. 11

    C. Renn, ‘Keeping the Flame Burning: The Revival of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society from 1889 to 1911’, Lincolnshire History and Archæology xlii (2002), 2939, an excellent account of the Society around 1900.

  12. 12

    P. D. A. Harvey, Manorial Records, Archives and the User no. 5 British Records Association, rev. edn (1999), p. 10.

  13. 13


  14. 14

    Memorandum of Association of Spalding Gentlemen's Society, 1955 Clause 3 (c).

  15. 15

    The Museum Building of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society S.G.S., ed. Susan Martinelli (Spalding, 2011).

  16. 16

    The Minute Books of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, ed. Dorothy Owen (Lincoln, 1981).

  17. 17

    ‘The Archives of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society’, paper read to the Society of Antiquaries of London by S. W. Woodward, Librarian of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, 13 Oct. 1960.

  18. 18

    ‘Stukeley's Itinerarium Curiosum, Camden's Britannia, Nichols' Reliquiæ Galeanæ and Bibliotheca Topographica … Trollope's Sleaford, Sketchley's Geology of the Fenland and of course the MS minute book of the SGS’, personal communication from Dr Sylvia Hallam. She contributed to The Fenland in Roman Times, ed. P. Salway, S. J. Hallam and J. I'Anson Bromwich, ed. C. W. Phillips (1970).

  19. 19

    Dr Jones was one of Professor Hallam's associates and he has written eleven academic articles using the papers of the SGS.

  20. 20

    D. Roffe, ‘The Historia Croylandensis: A Plea for Reassessment’, English Historical Review, cx (1995), 93108.

  21. 21

    R. J. Evans, ‘The Diffusion of Science: The Geographical Transmission of Natural Philosophy in the English Provinces’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, 1982.

  22. 22

    D. A. B. Haycock, ‘Dr William Stukeley 1687–1765: Antiquarianism and Newtonianism in Eighteenth-Century England’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1997.

  23. 23

    M. J. Honeybone, ‘The Spalding Gentlemen's Society: The Communication of Science in the East Midlands of England 1710–1760’, unpublished PhD thesis, The Open University, 2001.

  24. 24

    Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, p. 2.

  25. 25

    Memorandum and Articles of Association of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, clause 3, p. 2.

  26. 26

    Personal communication.

  27. 27


  28. 28

    These letters form half of a lifelong correspondence with Maurice Johnson, extending from 1714 to 1754, which will be published in a forthcoming volume of the Lincoln Record Society's publications, edited by Honeybone and Honeybone.

  29. 29

    Rules of the SGS, Minute Book I, fo. 126v, in the archives of the SGS.