Long-term goal to spread Spalding’s best kept secret

It is expected that items from South Holland will be included in an important exhibition about the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta next year.

A book of legal documents from Crowland Abbey, an early bible and an astrolabe, once used by astronomers and navigators, will be part of the display at Lincoln Cathedral.

The museum is taking part in Heritage Open Days and is showing its World War 1 collections.

The museum is taking part in Heritage Open Days and is showing its World War 1 collections.

They are just a very small selection of the historically important and precious artefacts contained in what has been described as ‘Spalding’s best kept secret’.

It is Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, which has the second oldest museum collection in the country in its 1911 museum in Broad Street.

The collection pre-dates the British Museum and includes things of national and international importance.

Academics and people from the museum world have long known about the treasure that is Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, and many visit to carry out research, such as the curator from the British Museum.

Unfortunately, the museum is rather less known on its own doorstep, but that is something its 350 or so members have agreed they would like to change.

The society would like to return to its roots, to looking outwards to and engage with the world, something honorary secretary Michael Chisholm admits the society has, “to a considerable degree”, moved away from.

He is being harsh: the museum is open to the public on Mondays (9am to noon), although it’s wise to ring first to make an appointment. It is also open to groups that would like to make a pre-arranged visit.

The society holds fortnightly public lectures at Spalding Grammar School on Friday evenings during the winter months.

It is also opening its doors during Heritage Open Days, on Saturday, September 13 (10am to 4pm) for people to tour the exhibits as well as a significant display of World War 1 items; and on Sunday, September 14 for a talk at 3.30pm on the Royal Flying Corps. The talk is free but as space is limited it is necessary to pre-book.

And space is at the heart of the museum’s current dilemma: torn between wanting to make the collections accessible to the greatest number of people, but with the real difficulty of lack of room to display the holdings.

Michael says: “This building is full to the gunnels and we need more space, if only to be able to show what we have properly.

“We want members of the public to come in without being escorted by stewards, but we are nowhere near that at the moment. It’s a long-term goal, perhaps within ten years.”

And what visitors see on display are many thousands of items from prehistory to 1960, such as flints and arrow heads, beautiful Chinese porcelain, manuscripts, paintings, scientific instruments and a Roman shoe rescued from a Lincolnshire bog and donated to the society about 250 years ago. Items found with it and given to the Royal Society were lost.

The number of treasures increases dramatically if the coin collections and books are included – many of the latter are early editions given by 18th century members who could choose to pay £1 or donate a book on admission to membership of the society.

Much of the collection has been donated, by society members or members of the public, and reflects the diverse and wide-ranging interests of donors. For instance, a metal detectorist recently gave four items he had discovered.

Pieces are also bought at auction, such as the recent acquisition, thanks to funding from the Friends of the National Libraries, of a manuscript compiled by the society’s founder, Maurice Johnson, detailing the histories of the main families of Lincolnshire in his time. It is intended that this will be shown at Ayscoughfee Hall Museum in a special exhibition.

Honorary curator Tom Grimes says: ”Because we have been going so long and collecting so long we have some things which are unique and well worth seeing, certainly comparable with the things you see in a big London museum.

“The problem we have is where do we put things we get, and it’s a real problem.

“We refuse anything that is over-size and that is going to take a significant amount of space, unless there is a good reason to take it.”

The society, which has its roots in 18th century London coffee houses – to “discuss everything but religion and politics, which is still the case,” says council member Julia Gant – has also opened up its membership.

From 2007 women were admitted – interestingly, Julia says Maurice Johnson speculated in 1740 or thereabouts about the inclusion of women, but was voted down.

More recently, the society has switched from a secret ballot to a more open admission system, so that almost anyone over 18 who supports the objectives of the society, other than known felons, can apply and will normally be accepted.

Contact the museum on 01775 724658 or visit the website at spalding-gentlemens-society-org