A couple of years ago, , I found myself desperately wanting to find a volunteering opportunity in order to bolster my university applications. I toyed with the idea of approaching Ayscoughfee Hall (a 15th-century merchant house and current museum), but instead, I discovered the hidden jewel that is the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society.
The Society was founded in 1710 and is still in existence today. I personally had never heard of it before I stumbled across its website, despite living locally all my life. It is the oldest learned society outside of London still surviving, with a museum built in 1911 to hold the Society’s collection. In the past, notable members have included Sir Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, and Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
It seemed incredibly mysterious to me: a small museum with such names attached, that I never knew of? I could’ve been convinced I was dreaming. Things like that just didn’t exist in Spalding. Still, I was more than intrigued, and I sent an email enquiring about a volunteering role. To my joy, I received a quick reply and an invitation to visit during an open day.
The museum is, in a word, surprising. I expected it to be a very localised place, but the breadth of the collection is astonishing. The foyer alone has items ranging from 17th-century swords to medieval keys. The collection is one of the oldest in the country and features such wonders as a 16th-century astrolabe and a 14th-century Charter of Deafforestation. It’s not a particularly large building, which only adds to the thrill of discovering just how many interesting objects it holds.
I spoke to two of the main curators, who agreed to let me volunteer on Thursday nights, despite the fact that I was only 17 at the time. Even though I wanted to volunteer to add some experience in my pursuit of a history degree, the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society became much more dearer to me than an addition to my UCAS application.
During my time there, I was trusted with tasks I never thought I would be. On the very first night, Ian, one of the curators, offered to show me the highlights of the Strong Room. He then handed me a book to hold, before lightly informing me of its age. Reader, it was 800 years old. I think I almost had a heart attack. I certainly handed it back quick, in fear of dropping it.
Other brilliant moments included keeping a watchful eye on the egg of the extinct great auk as it awaited a new box, and helping to return a mammoth tusk to its cabinet. In fact, I think the only part I didn’t enjoy was the checking of the bug traps. It’s an important job, but not one I would call fun for someone deeply suspicious of spiders.
My time at the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society was more than I could possibly have hoped for. I loved trawling through the trade tokens, theorising why we seemed to have two pairs of spectacles that were described as being exactly the same, and getting to know more about the heritage industry. I cannot wait to visit again; I’m sure there will be changes, as the place never stops striving to improve. I want to take this moment to thank everyone at the Society who took the time to explain the history, who trusted me with responsibility, and who were always up for a good conversation. Sharon, Ian, Louise, Mary, and all the others – thank you!
To my readers, if you ever want to try and volunteer in places like these, I really do encourage you to take the leap and ask. I had such a great time volunteering, and it taught me so much. Also, do research the history of your local area – it could toss up things you never knew were there.
You can find the Society on their Facebook here.