The Society was founded early in 1793 as a ‘conversation club’, with an annual subscription of one guinea. The subjects of the conversations - and the books that supported them - were wide-ranging, but religion and politics were prohibited.
From its outset, the Society had an enterprising, inquisitive and liberal nature: the first women members were admitted by 1804, various groundbreaking demonstrations of new technology took place, such as George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp in 1815. In 1820, The Newcastle upon Tyne Society for the gradual abolition of Slavery in the British Dominions was established at a meeting held in the Society’s rooms. The society’s lecture theatre was the first public room to be lit by electric light, during a lecture by Sir Joseph Swan on October 20th 1880.
In 1822 the foundation stone of the current building was laid by the Duke of Sussex, followed by a grand celebration and meal with 35 toasts and 53 speeches; it was finally opened in 1825.
Books were always at the heart of the Society’s interests, even though some early practices seem strange today. The first catalogues were sorted by the size of books, and it was only in 1891 that the decision was made to purchase novels; nobody seemed any the worse for this radical move excepting possibly, as one distinguished member pointed out, “those unfortunate enough to read them”. Novels now form a significant part of our collection of 150,000 books, and an active bookbinding and restoration programme manages the condition of our older volumes.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Society became involved in other spheres of activity. Chief amongst these were our active contribution to the University Extension scheme and the establishment of a thriving lecture programme that continues to this day. Over the years it has attracted many eminent speakers; a scan through the list reveals names such as Oscar Wilde, Edith Sitwell, F.R. Leavis, Mary Kingsley, Dorothy Sayers and John Betjeman.
No history of the Society would be complete without mentioning our involvement with music. Some one hundred years ago the library started to acquire scores, and in 1942 an official gramophone library was created that formed the basis of our current collection - one of the finest in the North of England.
If you want to know more about the history of the Lit and Phil, then there are two books that can help you. Robert Spence Watson documented our story up to 1896, and Charles Parish, our librarian from 1963 - 1987, continued the story up to 1989. Both books are, of course, available in the library.
The Society has been at the heart of activities in the region for over two hundred years - with interests in the arts, music and science. Tens of thousands of people have been through our doors - we keep a complete list of members since 1895 - but some of the more notable include:
- W.G. Armstrong, President of the Society 1860-1900 Inventor, industrialist and businessman.
- John James Audubon, American ornithologist and artist.
- Thomas Bewick, Wood engraver.
- Sid Chaplin, Vice President of the Society 1976-1985 Prize winning writer and founder member of Northern Arts.
- John Dobson, Architect.
- Ruth Dodds Author, councillor and the first woman 'Freeman' of Newcastle.
- Richard Grainger, Architect
- Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, Prime Minister and social reformer.
- James Losh, Vice President of the Society 1799-1833 Barrister and reformer.
- Harriet Martineau, Political journalist.
- Robert Stephenson, President of the Society 1855-1860 Mechanical and structural engineer.
- Joseph Wilson Swan, President of the Society 1911-1914 Pharmacist, chemist, electrical engineer and inventor.
- Neil Tennant, Co-founder of the Pet Shop Boys.
- Elizabeth Spence Watson, A pioneer of the women's movement.
- Robert Spence Watson, President of the Society 1901-1911 Solicitor, lecturer and writer.