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date: 03 December 2022

Spalding Gentlemen's Societyfree

(act. 1710–1770)

Spalding Gentlemen's Societyfree

(act. 1710–1770)
  • Michael Honeybone

Spalding Gentlemen's Society (act. 1710–1770), met weekly between the 1720s and the 1760s in Spalding in the Lincolnshire fens to discuss antiquarian, literary, and scientific interests and to receive correspondence from national and international members. The Spalding Gentlemen's Society was started in 1710 by a local barrister, Maurice Johnson, to conserve Spalding's parish and grammar school libraries and to communicate learned matters in the style of the coffee-house conversations he had enjoyed in London while reading for the bar. Johnson recorded that

This Society was instituted for supporting mutual Benevolence, raising and preserving and rendring of general Use a Publick Lending Library pursuant to the statute of the 7th of Queen Ann chapt.14th. And the Improvement of the Members in All Arts and Sciences.

minute book 1, fol. 217a

Johnson was the society's secretary from 1710 to 1748, when he took over as president, and it flourished as a learned society throughout Johnson's lifetime and into the following decade.

The Spalding society numbered more than 400 elected members in the period 1710–70. Initially it consisted of 'regular' members who met informally over coffee to discuss Joseph Addison's and Richard Steele's popular essay periodicals The Tatler (1709–10) and The Spectator (1710–14). Professional Spalding men such as the Revd Stephen Lyon (d. 1748)—a French Huguenot and the society's president between 1713 and 1748—and other local clergy, lawyers, merchants, physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries were later joined by fen drainage engineers like John Perry, John Grundy, and his father, also John. The elder Timothy Neve, master of Spalding's grammar school, took an active part in meetings, particularly during Johnson's absences. On his move to Peterborough, Neve was inspired to start a similar society, the Peterborough Gentlemen's Society (act. 1730–c.1752) which corresponded regularly with the Spalding society. Thirty-four letters from Neve are preserved in the Spalding society's archive. Another mainstay of the society was John Green (d. 1756), a physician and Johnson's son-in-law, who became second secretary in 1729 specializing in medicine, mathematics, and natural philosophy, while Johnson concentrated on antiquarian and literary matters. The activities of the society's regular members are charted in six surviving minute books which record in detail the virtually unbroken series of weekly meetings between 1724 and 1757.

The 1720s saw a remarkable development of the society's membership that distinguished it from similar but short-lived clubs. This increase began through Johnson's work as a land steward and barrister, which brought him into contact with aristocrats, gentry, and professional men, particularly during the London legal terms. He began to solicit the interest of the capital's intellectual circles and drew on his network of contacts. Johnson was assisted in this by his friend the antiquary William Stukeley, a fellow fenman, from Holbeach. Stukeley and Johnson helped to re-establish the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1717, with Stukeley as secretary and Johnson as librarian. Stukeley was also an active member of the Royal Society, taking Johnson as his guest, and both were involved with freemasonry. Stukeley became a member of the College of Physicians and Johnson retained a lifelong contact with the inns of court.

Through these connections Johnson was able to invite high-profile literary, scientific, and political figures to become 'honorary' members of the Spalding society. Sir Isaac Newton, a fellow Lincolnshire ‘countryman’, joined in 1724 and the writers Alexander Pope and John Gay followed four years later. Richard Bentley, who had been the schoolmaster at Spalding, Sir Hans Sloane, Edward Harley, second earl of Oxford, Francis Scott, second duke of Buccleuch (1695–1751), grand master of the freemasons in 1724, and Sir Joseph Banks were all elected as 'Honourary' members 'for the Honour and Advantage of the Society which he [Johnson] has ever heartyly Endeavourd to promote by engaging his Friends to encourage the Undertaking — so much out of the Vulgar road & for the Creditt of the Company' (minute book 1, fol. 142a). Johnson had come to know Scott at Eton; Johnson's father was Lincolnshire steward of Scott's grandmother, the duchess of Buccleuch, which also brought friendship with John Gay, the duchess's secretary. These impressive names encouraged other London figures to accept honorary membership including some, such as Abbot Dositheos from Mount Athos and Job Dgiallo, a west African Muslim scholar and former slave, who were notably exotic. The Spalding society gained a further benefit as its membership grew; newcomers were required to donate a book of the value of at least £1 to the society's library in Spalding, which remains in place today.

A third type of associate was the 'corresponding' member. Johnson asserted that the society stood or fell through its capacity to maintain correspondence with the wider world: 'Seeking … Epistolary Commerce and Communication with learned societys abroad and Eminent Forreigners is what in the Judgement of our late Great Member Sir Iz. Newton can alone give great Spiritt and Vigour to the society' (minute book 2, fol. 23a). These letters formed the core of discussion at society meetings, and their contents were often passed on to the Peterborough society and on occasions to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. More than 550 letters still remain in the society's archive, revealing both the number of corresponding members and the range of their intellectual interests—antiquarian, medical, scientific, and literary. Among the archive thirty-seven letters are from the antiquary Beaupré Bell, explaining his work in numismatics, an interest he shared with Johnson, Stukeley, and others; nearly 10 per cent of topics discussed at the society's meetings related to numismatics. This enthusiasm for coins encouraged antiquarians such as Martin Folkes, George North, Andrew Ducarel, and Richard Southgate to become corresponding members. Overseas correspondents included Robert Hunter in Jamaica and Henry Johnson in Panama.

Its interest in numismatics, which included scientific analysis of metals as well as antiquarianism, typified the society in this period. Johnson and Stukeley were determined to avoid 'dividing the stream' of knowledge, in Stukeley's phrase, regarding their study of antiquities and natural philosophy as equally 'scientific'. Members of the Spalding society often belonged to both the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries: in the period 1710–70 fifty-seven members also belonged to the antiquarian society, fifty were fellows of the Royal Society, and of these thirty-two were members of both. Five presidents of the Royal Society were Spalding members (Newton, Sloane, Folkes, Banks, and James West), as were three of its secretaries, James Jurin, Cromwell Mortimer, and Thomas Birch, the last two of whom were also members of the Society of Antiquaries. Folkes was also president of the Society of Antiquaries while Alexander Gordon, its secretary, identified the members of the Spalding society as 'our brethren of the Cell' at Spalding.

Stukeley recorded Royal Society discussions to be read to the Spalding society, and his accounts of astronomical observations and earthquakes were of particular interest. The society shared the contemporary fascination of many English intellectuals with comets and the series of solar eclipses visible in England between 1715 and 1739. Spalding members worked with the Royal Society to study the partial eclipse of 7 May 1733, and their record 'agrees with Dr Halley's calculation to 15″' (minute book 2, fol. 86a). Astronomical and meteorological observations were sent to Spalding by George Lynn senior and by a Norwegian observer, Andreas Bing. Though the Spalding society never equalled the Royal Society in experimental natural philosophy, its members possessed and used microscopes, a magic lantern, barometers, thermometers, an air pump, and a tin armillary sphere, made and presented by Thomas Hawkes of Norwich in 1754. The society's last recorded active study used microscopic slides on natural history, listed in 1763.

Natural history was the most popular subject for discussion, accounting for nearly 14 per cent of all topics and including regular members' observations as well as communications by letter. The minute books contain meticulous drawings of plants and insects. This interest was reflected in the establishment of the society's museum and herb garden, begun in 1727 under the inspiration of Francis Pilliod (d. 1736?), a Swiss soldier settled in Spalding. The museum was consciously modelled on the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, and the garden on Philip Miller's re-establishment of the Society of Apothecaries' Chelsea physic garden in 1722. The Spalding society also corresponded with Johann Dillenius, Oxford professor of botany, and the Cambridge gardener John Harrison; Andreas Celsius was elected to membership in 1736 and the naturalist Thomas Pennant in 1768, along with Joseph Banks. The society's museum was a workshop designed for practical study, containing collections of ‘curiosities’: objects of scientific interest such as fossils, insects, animal remains, and medical specimens. Plants were grown or collected in dried form by correspondents, particularly foreign travellers, for the hortus siccus. In 1746, for example, plants as varied as fungi, grasses, the African fig-marigold, the African passion-flower, a pineapple, and Scandinavian cabbage were studied.

After natural history, one of the largest areas of correspondence was antiquarian matters, notably William Stukeley's thirty-three surviving letters. Another significant correspondent in this field was William Bogdani (1699–1771), son of the still-life painter Jacob; thirty-two of his letters, mainly on antiquarian, military, and mathematical topics, survive in the society's archive. A clerk to the ordnance, Bogdani also introduced his colleague from the Tower of London, the mathematician John Muller, to the society. Bogdani was a fellow of the Royal Society and became director of the Society of Antiquaries in 1739. Bogdani's correspondence, together with Roger Gale's twenty-nine letters, helped to focus the Spalding society's interest on such antiquarian finds as the Corbridge silver plate and Roman inscriptions at Chichester. Gale's letters queried the antiquity of the Corbridge plate and in 1740 he disagreed with Johnson and Stukeley over their belief that the emperor Constantine had minted coins at Lincoln. Gale introduced the Scottish politician and antiquary Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, while Samuel Pegge, another noted antiquarian, was brought in through his friendship with a regular member, Benjamin Ray.

The Spalding society's belief in the unity of the arts and sciences was evident in its musical and artistic activity. William Bogdani wrote a technical treatise on music, and regular members met to play instruments, including the society's harpsichord. Anniversaries were marked by concerts to which ladies were invited, featuring music by 'the divine Corelli' and the society's own composer, Musgrave Heighington of Yarmouth. The London trumpeter John Grano also became a member in 1724. Thirteen painters, sculptors, and engravers were members in this period, notably Samuel Buck and his brother Nathaniel Buck, Nathan Drake, John Michael Rysbrack, and George Vertue. Besides major literary figures like Pope and Gay, the society also included local poets such as Edmund Walpole and William Jackson. The philosopher and Jacobite sympathizer Andrew Ramsay became a member in 1730 following publication of his popular Les Voyages de Cyrus three years earlier.

A final important feature of the early Spalding society was its encouragement of young men. In 1746, for example, the future physician John Hill and the naturalist Emanuel Mendes da Costa, both then enthusiastic students of fossils and plants, became members at the ages of thirty-two and twenty-nine respectively. Membership was also offered to promising undergraduates; Timothy Neve junior and George Johnson, both later clergymen and scholars, were at Oxford University in the 1750s. Medical students like John Green, then studying at Cambridge and Leiden, and Richard Falkner (d. 1737) also became active correspondents. While at Lincoln College, Oxford, Falkner sent twenty-two letters to the society and in 1735 constructed the society's air-pump. This association with the medical profession was a further strength, providing fifty-two members between 1710 and 1770, including Richard Mead and James Jurin.

The success and longevity of the Spalding society owed much to its avoiding the quarrels which disrupted other gatherings, such as that at Peterborough. This was partly due to its emphasis on religious toleration. As well as Anglicans the Spalding society included Roman Catholic and dissenting members and one of its primary rulings, perhaps derived from freemasonry, was a ban on political and religious disputes. The society's members were also bound together by ties of kinship and friendship; Johnson's relations and friends were among the officers and the most prolific contributors. Professional interests likewise contributed—as well as more than fifty medical men, the membership included seventy clerics and over forty lawyers—as did patronage at all levels, from the role of the second duke of Buccleuch as patron to the society's support for young artists and natural philosophers. But above all the Spalding society flourished in the mid-eighteenth century because of the enthusiasm and determination of its founder, Maurice Johnson, his family and friends, and the links they forged with the Royal Society, the Society of Antiquaries, freemasons, and other local societies. The result was an assembly characterized by wide intellectual interests and a focus for learning which gave it an extraordinary reputation for a provincial society. It was, in Roger Gale's words, 'a sett of Virtuosi almost out of the world' (Gale to Maurice Johnson, 2 Sept 1735, Spalding Gentlemen's Society).

Maurice Johnson died in February 1755. Following the deaths of his sons John (1722–1758) and Walter (1720–1779) the society's president and treasurer respectively, and of its secretary, John Rowning, the Spalding Gentlemen's Society declined into a book club in the late eighteenth century. Over the next century it enjoyed periods of only spasmodic activity until it was revived in 1890 by a local doctor, Marten Perry. The Spalding society continues in the early twenty-first century as a membership society providing regular public lectures and good research facilities in its library and archives.

Other members of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society (with their dates of election to the society) included: Joseph Ames, 1740; John Anstis, 1741; Sir Joseph Ayloffe, sixth baronet, 1738; Sir George Baker, first baronet, 1759; Charles Balguy, 1734; Francis Bellinger, 1712; William Bowyer, 1743; Zachary Brooke, 1746; David Casley, 1728; Edmund Castle, 1747; Mark Catesby, 1743; Richard Collins, 1727; John Theophilus Desaguliers, 1730; William Dodd, 1751; Francis Drake, 1747; George Edwards, 1743; Sir Richard Ellys, third baronet, 1730; Sir Charles Frederick, 1751; Samuel Gale, 1733; Samson Gideon, 1751; Giuseppe Grisoni [see under Venetian painters in Britain], 1741; John Hardy, 1724; Henry Hare, third Baron Coleraine, 1727; Mark Hildesley, 1741; George Holmes, 1728; Giles Hussey, 1745; Dale Ingram, 1751; Charles Jennens, 1748; James Keir, 1757; John King, 1725; Samuel Knight, 1733; John Landen, 1749; Bennet Langton, 1769; Edward Laurence, 1731; Smart Lethieullier, 1733; Francis Lockier, 1726; Roger Long, 1733; George Lynn the younger [see under Lynn, George, elder], 1723; Walter Lynn, 1712; Richard Manningham, 1724; Thomas Martin, 1733; Christopher Middleton, 1743; Andrew Motte, 1729; William Noel, 1724; Sir Chaloner Ogle, 1743; James Parsons, 1746; Zachary Pearce, 1729; Richard Pococke, 1746; Richard Reynolds, 1727; Thomas Rutherforth, 1742; Abel Smith, 1751; Joseph Sparke, 1722; Alexander Stuart, 1740; John Taylor, 1738; James Theobald, 1733; John Thomas, 1744?; John Ward, 1745; Samuel Wesley senior, 1724; Samuel Wesley the younger, 1729 [see under Wesley, Samuel], 1729; Isaac Whood, 1729; Browne Willis, 1747; Bernard Wilson, 1733.


  • Spalding Gentlemen's Society, Broad St, Spalding, Lincolnshire, minute books 1–6; treasurers' account books 1–3; archive of correspondence; grand catalogue with additions, 1715
  • minute books 1–2, Peterborough Gentlemen's Society, Peterborough City Library
  • W. Johnson, letter to William Stukeley, 16 April 1764, BL, Add. MS 4440
  • J. Nichols, ed., Bibliotheca topographica Britannica, 3 (1784)
  • W. Stukeley, ‘Memoirs of the Royal Society’, 3 vols. MSS, Spalding Gentlemen's Society
  • letters to Stukeley, 2 vols., Bodl. Oxf., Eng. misc. c. 113–14
  • P. Clark, British clubs and societies, 1580–1800: the origins of an associational world (2000)
  • J. Evans, A history of the Society of Antiquaries (1956)
  • D. B. Haycock, William Stukeley: science, religion and archaeology in eighteenth-century England (2002)
  • M. J. Honeybone, ‘Sociability, utility and curiosity in the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, 1710–1760’, Science and beliefs: from natural philosophy to natural science, 1700–1900, ed. D. M. Knight and M. D. Eddy (2005)
  • M. J. Honeybone, ‘The Spalding Gentlemen's Society: the communication of science in the east midlands of England, 1710–1760’, PhD diss., Open U., 2001
  • N. Kenny, Curiosity in early modern Europe: word histories (1998)
  • D. M. Owen, ed., The minute-books of the Spalding Gentlemen's Society, 1712–1755, Lincoln RS, 73 (1981)
  • S. H. Perry, ‘The Gentlemen's Society at Spalding’, Transactions of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, 53 (1947)
  • List of fellows of the Royal Society, 1660–1998, Royal Society (1999)
  • R. Sweet, Antiquaries: the discovery of the past in eighteenth-century Britain (2004)


  • Spalding Gentlemen's Society, Spalding, Lincs.
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J. Nichols, , 9 vols. (1812–16); facs. repr. (1966)
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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British Library, London