The Society's seal and three photographs

The Society's History


The plaque commemorating the Society's founding, beside Ramsden's in Grainger Street

The Society's History

Find out here about our Bicentenary Book, 200 Years: the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne 1813-2013

The Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne is the oldest provincial antiquarian society in England. It was founded in 1813 with just 68 members, in the Long Room of the Turk's Head Inn, just by what is now the junction of Grainger Street and Newgate Street. In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of our founding, a plaque has been placed on the wall close to the site.

Its membership is now spread across the globe while its refereed journal, Archaeologia Aeliana, can be found in libraries throughout Europe, the USA and Australia. For nearly two centuries, through its meetings and its publications, the Society has encouraged a deeper understanding of the history and archaeology of North-East England. Though much of its activity has been focused on Hadrian's Wall, both prehistoric and medieval periods are well represented in its work. There is also is a strong interest in industrial archaeology. Many of the leading figures in the history of British archaeology were members of the Society and published in its journal: John Collingwood Bruce, Sir Ian Richmond, Professor Eric Birley, John Gillam and Professor George Jobey are among a distinguished list of former members.

Almost from the beginning, the Society began collecting books and artefacts. The books, thirty thousand volumes or more, are in our Library at the Great North Museum: Hancock. The archaeological items, once housed in the Black Gate Museum, now form a major element in the displays of the Great North Museum: Hancock. This collection continues to grow; recently the Society purchased an Anglo-Saxon hoard discovered at Bamburgh to strengthen its pre-Norman holdings. The Society's main manuscript collection is now looked after by Northumberland Archives, while the bagpipe collection is in the Chantry Bagpipe Museum at Morpeth.

The Castle Keep and Black Gate

The Castle Keep was administered by the Society on behalf of the City until 2013, when it became part of the Old Newcastle Project. It had been purchased by the (then) Town in 1808, and the Society began holding meetings there in 1813. Although it provided a highly evocative, atmospheric and seemingly suitable place for the Society, it was cold and uncomfortable and, from 1819, members moved to more practical rooms elsewhere in Newcastle. By 1847 the Keep was in danger from the development of the railways but the Society successfully campaigned against proposals to demolish both the Norman Castle and surrounding Garth. In the following year the Antiquaries were given a long lease from the Corporation on the building for a nominal rent and the Society celebrated its new acquisition with a Grand Antiquarian Banquet in the Great Hall. Later, in 1883, the Society leased the Black Gate from the newly-created City in order to house its museum and the building was then extensively renovated for its new purpose. During the 20th century the Society's library was moved into the Black Gate.

You can read more about Newcastle Castle's history in the Guidebook

The Great North Museum

In the 1950s it was decided that neither the Keep nor the Black Gate were suitable for the storage or display of delicate artefacts, and an agreement was reached with the University of Durham that a Museum of Antiquities would be opened on the campus of what was then King's College, which became Newcastle University in 1963. The agreement was signed in 1956, and the Museum opened in 1960.

The original plan was for the Museum to take only the Society's prehistoric, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon material. Over the years much else has been added from other collections and from excavations in Newcastle and Northumberland. In 1978, the Museum's collecting policy was extended to take material up to 1600. In 2007 the Museum of Antiquities was closed, and has now been demolished. The collections and the library were moved to the Great North Museum: Hancock in 2009.

The Chantry Bagpipe Museum, Morpeth

The Cocks collection of bagpipes, which consists of over 100 sets of Northumbrian pipes and similar instruments from elsewhere was bequeathed to the Society by Will Cocks of Ryton in 1971. It was initially displayed in the museum room in the Black Gate but in the 1980s, in partnership with Castle Morpeth Council, a new museum was established in the Chantry at Morpeth to house this collection and related material. The Chantry building had begun life 700 years ago as a bridge chapel beside the River Wansbeck. Since then it has been school, lemonade factory, shop, café, and ladies' toilet, before finally housing the Bagpipe Museum.

You can read more about the Bagpipe Museum and the collection in the Souvenir Guide.


In the future, don’t forget your past