Provincial Library and Museum
One of the earliest newspapers to be published in Newcastle upon Tyne was the Newcastle Courant which came out in 1725 and was issued every week until it closed in 1902. From its earliest edition, the Courant carried advertisements and news items concerning Freemasonry in Newcastle and indeed from a careful perusal of the newspapers over the years, it is possible to reconstruct an accurate picture of the state of our Province in those heady days.
One of the earliest advertisements which concerned Freemasonry appeared on 14 September 1728 and read as follows:
‘Books by auction which will be sold on Wednesday 18 September 1728, at Mr. Bartholomew Pratt’s Inn, The White Hart, in the Flesh Market, beginning at 5 o’clock in the evening, and continuing until all books are sold.’
Among the books offered for sale by the unknown seller, was a copy of ‘The Constitutions of Freemasonry’ by James Anderson, published in 1723. This book was one of the very first to be printed concerning Freemasonry and one can only conjecture how it came to Newcastle and how it came up for sale. Original copies of this are quite rare, but a facsimile edition was issued in 1923 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of its first publication.
The formation of a Masonic Library is intended to encourage and stimulate Brethren and other interested bodies in the history, philosophy and development of local and national Freemasonry.
The Province of Northumberland is fortunate that there is not one but two Libraries devoted to Freemasonry and related Orders. The first of those is that maintained by the Societas Rosicrucania in Anglia, commonly abbreviated to the SRIA which meets at Maple Terrace. This Order which is open to Freemasons who seek more esoteric knowledge has been in existence in Newcastle since 1890 and almost from its inception, it began to develop and maintain a library. The objective of the library was ‘the collection and preservation of Masonic documents relating to Freemasonry in general, and especially those which have such reference to the past history of the various Orders in the Province’.
From its earliest days, the SRIA library was overseen by Frederick Schnitger who was a prominent figure in the Province who also donated a large collection of German books relating to Freemasonry and esoteric writings which to this day, still forms an important part of the collection of the SRIA library. The SRIA also keeps the original manuscripts of the ‘Old Charges’ known as the Alnwick MS which had belonged to the old Alnwick Lodge which was in existence in 1701. A number of facsimile copies were reprinted by the SRIA in 1894. All applications to view the SRIA library should be made to W Bro. Ian W Brown PProvGReg at Neville Hall.
With the growth of Freemasonry in Northumberland, there was of course, an increasing interest in the histories and traditions of Freemasonry and there were by the 1890s, literally hundreds of books appertaining to Freemasony and other Orders.
One of the earliest Masonic Historians of our Province and indeed who may be considered as the first Provincial Librarian was John Bell (1783-1864). He was initiated into the Athol Lodge No. 131 in 1805, became one of the first members of Chapter of Unanimity in 1809 and was a prominent member of the various Royal Kent bodies. His remarkable talent was recognised by the Province when he was appointed Provincial Grand Registrar in 1815, a position he held for the next 30 years.
John Bell was an ardent collector of old documents relating to Freemasonry and in due course, his collection passed into the hands of another local Masonic Historian, John Strachan author of that noted book ‘History of Northumbrian Freemasonry’ in 1898. Strachan’s book at the present time is so far the only history of the Province. It is comparatively rare and not an easy read. When the book was near completion, Strachan was a very ill man and he might not have corrected any errors in proof reading but with all its imperfections, it still stands today as the foundation for any future Masonic research.
Increasingly a number of local Lodges began to form the nucleus of a small library. Most local Masonic Halls had books in small cupboards or bookcases.
It is uncertain when the Provincial Library and Museum was first established. The bulk of the collection appears to have originated from Broomfield Hall and also from a bequest made by John Stokes, who was a prominent Yorkshire Mason and who had local connections. He divided his Masonic books between Northumberland and Yorkshire.
W Bro. E. L. Jones ran the library for some years in the early 1960s and then the library fell into abeyance until the late 1980s when the late W Bro. Dennis Dixon assisted by W Bro. Tony Markey took it over. In this venture, they were greatly encouraged by the late R W Bro. John Sherwood Stephenson who assisted with funding and furniture. The library was later named the John Sherwood Stephenson Library and Museum in his memory after he passed away in 1992.
Upon the death of W Bro. Dixon, the library again fell into abeyance until 2008 when W Bro. Ian W Brown PProvGReg took over. The books in the library were extensively re-catalogued and issued with a Classification Number within the following divisions for ease of location.
M00 General Reference Works
M10 History and Philosophy
M20 Customs and Paraphernalia
M40 Charity and Benevolence
M50 Art and Architecture
M60 Literature and Music
M70 Education and Fraternalism
M80 Women and Freemasonry
M90 Prince Hall Freemasonry
In addition to books, the library contains many items of local Masonic interest, including regalia, jewels, firing glasses, pottery etc. One bookcase contains books, summonses and individual Lodge histories of the Province. There are memorial cases containing regalia of previous Provincial Grand Masters and several pictures and banners of interest, and also adorn the walls including three original 18th century tracing boards. One catching feature of the library is the old wooden chair which belonged to the old Wooler Lodge and has been dated to the early 1800s.
There are a number of surplus books for sale including several copies of Goulds History of Freemasonry and also many back copies of the AQC research volumes published by the Quarto Corontai Lodge of Research. Prices are available on application. The library is always happy to receive donations of books or other items of Masonic interest.