The Literary and Philosophical Society – or the Lit & Phil – is one of Newcastle’s best literary venues. Book club took a tour of the building and got up close and personal with its beautiful library.
You’d be forgiven for not realising the Lit & Phil exists. To the untrained eye, its exterior looks like any other in the centre of Newcastle – beautifully designed in the ‘Tyneside Classical’ style that spills over from Grainger Town and the nearby Central Station. It is demure but elegant, with an entrance flanked by pillars and sash windows. Clues to the importance of this venue are given by two blue plaques – one either side of its main door like Blue Peter badges proudly displayed on jacket lapels. It’s one of many Newcastle buildings that hold a treasure of secrets behind its unassuming doors.
I’ve been to several events at the Lit & Phil – including the annual Newcastle Noir festival and a writing for well-being class I attended in an attempt to control my chaotic mind – but had never been further than the reception and main function room. So, when I discovered that the Lit & Phil offers free tours of the building on the first Saturday of the month I signed up – and brought most of book club with me to explore this literary gem.
Now, the Lit & Phil is quite a place. It’s the largest independent library outside of London. It has over 160,000 books on its shelves. It has been in existence since 1793. It was originally set up as a ‘conversation club’ where the men of Newcastle could debate anything other than religion or politics. It developed into a place of learning and education, with a mission to bring innovative thinking, philosophical ideas and discussion to the ordinary people of the city.
It has some impressive achievements under its belt. The inter-library loan system was invented here and its most famous members include Robert Spence Watson and Robert Stephenson. It was one of the first societies in Britain to admit female members, a Miss Dear who joined in 1801. In fact, the Ladies Room still exists to this day to give female members a refuge from mansplaining.
The society’s competitions nurtured the region’s engineering expertise, with a miners’ safety lamp (the design of which is rumoured to have been stolen from George Stephenson’s competition entry by Humphrey Davey who went on to launch the infamous Davey Lamp) debuting here. In 1820, the society established an anti-slavery group to campaign for the abolition of slavery. By 1881, the society “witnessed the first public exhibition of lighting” when its 70 gas lamps were extinguished and Joseph Swan switched on his own lamp to illuminate the building. What an achievement to see the concepts and ideas nurtured here put into practice within its own walls.
The Lit & Phil is a place of debate, learning and invention. Its establishment and growth was inspired by a collective desire to share knowledge – not just with the gentry, rich or powerful but with everyone who wanted to learn. That inspiring principle remains in place today and is an ethos that continually makes me proud to call the North East my home.
Alongside all of the fascinating history and achievements of past members, the Lit & Phil is a visual delight. It’s a bibliophile’s playground of ornate bookshelves, ancient texts, archives, spiral staircases and exhibitions. It smells of old books and oozes with literary charm. Book club wandered through it in awe and delight.
The Lit & Phil has over 2,000 active members to this day and continues its regular programme of events and lectures. Its mission to educate and extend learning to all remains firmly in place and we must all support this most precious of institutions.
Find out more about the Lit & Phil on its website.