MAURICE Johnson has gone down in history as the man who formed Spalding Gentlemen’s Society 300 years ago.
Unfortunately, more current members have unearthed the fact that his principal work – to assemble a history of Spalding – was partly based on forged documents.
“He wasn’t a historian and didn’t know about documents,” says president Dr John Cleary, pointing our that analytical methods for detecting forgeries are a 21st century phenomenon. “It would be unfair to say Maurice was naive because he was actually quite a bright and determined chap. He was doing the right thing and the fact he was working with forged material wouldn’t have occurred to him.”
Neither was Maurice a scientist, but the new thinking that surrounded the subject and which was being discussed in London at the time stimulated him. When he returned to his home in Spalding, to become agent to the manor of Crowland and clerk to the sewers, he wanted to re-create that type of intellectual meeting of minds and so established the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society.
On visits to London, Maurice would talk about the society and encourage people to join, which is how a club in Spalding can list names such as Sir Isaac Newton and Lord Tennyson among its previous members.
Maurice never actually stipulated the definition of a gentleman.
“Gentlemen know who a gentlemen is,” says John enigmatically.
However, there is very little likelihood that Maurice envisaged that they came in the form of women, but for the past four years a select band of 30 females have joined their august ranks. “We haven’t had a rush of resignations,” says John, while admitting that one member won’t sit in the same room as a woman.
What Maurice can be credited with is forming a society that went on to establish a museum to contain the many and varied things that had been brought to fellow members for identification over the years.
John explains that Maurice Johnson, a lawyer by training, had been a member of the London Society of Antiquaries, and it was this sort of society he wanted to form in Spalding, one where members could identify coins and engravings and so on, “and show off their Latin,” adds John.
That museum and the members’ meeting place was transferred to a building in Broad Street in Spalding in 1911 and it is that anniversary which was commemorated with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony performed by MP John Hayes on Friday.
The museum building is crammed with objects, from the humblest – such as the ‘Beware of Trains’ and the ‘Crescent Gardens’ signs and a window frame from Spalding prison – to the rare and valuable.
The best of these are kept in a strong room, and include pieces of Meissen, a book handled by Henry VIII, and Chinese porcelain, but the museum’s cabinets are filled with an assortment of Roman pottery, scientific instruments, porcelain, medals and medallions, jewellery, stamps and books, as well as Bronze Age axe heads.
John said: “Until 1910 this society was the only repository of knowledge in Spalding because there was no other museum. We have a collection of objects entrusted to us over hundreds of years and if we didn’t exist we would have to find a home for them. They are the collected heritage of the people of Spalding and it does deserve a resting place. Everywhere deserves a record of its history. It doesn’t have to be a museum of objects but having the objects does make a difference. You have a tangible link to the past, which isn’t the same as just photographs.”
John admits he gets a lot of satisfaction from the reaction of people who spot items remembered from childhood during public visits. Yes, the museum is open to the public, preferably organised as a group or club visit so that everyone arrives and departs together. In addition, members of the public are able to enjoy, for a fee, the society’s well-attended lectures held at Spalding Grammar School. The next one, on Friday, is on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible while the November 18 lecture is Archaeological Excavation at Pinchbeck.
However, readers may be interested in joining the 300 people who can count themselves members of the second oldest museum in the land – on joining, no doubt they will hear about the taxing subject of the varying dates attributed to both the society and the museum. It might be useful to know it’s not so much necessary to be a professional as to have a practical bent, as there are ongoing repair jobs that have to be performed by members. Of course, prospective applicants must also be gentlemen.