One of Newcastle upon Tyne’s best kept secrets is the Lit & Phil, as it now brands itself.
Two blue plaques — permanent signs installed in public places in the UK to commemorate a link between that location and a famous person, event or former building on the site — provide a capsule history of the society.
It was founded in 1793 as the Literary and Philosophical Society, a place for debate, lectures, discussion and scientific experiments.
The current building, which was opened in 1825, was designed by John Green, a well-known architect in the region who worked in partnership with his father Benjamin.
The father and son’s work was mostly church and railway architecture with a few public buildings, which includes their masterpiece, Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.
This where the chemist and physicist Joseph Wilson Swan first demonstrated his invention, the incandescent light bulb, in 1879. Nearby Mosley Street was the first street in the world to be lit by such electric bulbs.
The second plaque marks the Robert Stephenson Bi-Centenary in 2003. Robert Stephenson (railway engineer and son of George Stephenson, the “Father of Railways”) was president of the society from 1855 to 1859.
The staircase leading from the impressive lobby displays portraits and statues of notable members of the society.
They include a portrait of Earl Grey (1764-1845), on the right of the picture, a Northumberland man and prime minister in the 1830s, during which time his government oversaw the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. And yes, the tea is named after him.
There is also a memorial statue of James Losh (1763-1833) in the centre, a well-known lawyer, reformer, abolitionist and businessman who was vice-president of the Lit & Phil in 1802.
Also here is a portrait of a rather vain-looking Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex (1773-1843) on the left, who laid the foundation stone of the building in 1822.
He was the favourite uncle of Queen Victoria and quite a colourful character. He married his first wife without telling his father, King George III, who later annulled the marriage.
He had a mistress or two and when he married his second wife, it was again in contravention of the Royal Marriages Act and she was never recognised with the title Duchess of Sussex.
The interior of the Lit & Phil is lovely. It has the air of a private members club in London, like the Reform Club that Phileas Fogg belonged to in “Around the World in Eighty Days”.
It is actually older than the Reform Club but, unlike that august organisation, it is open to anyone and visitors can read the books on the premises free of charge.
Those who want to borrow books must become members for a fee of £133 per year (concessions available).
That might seem expensive for what is basically a library, especially with the Northumberland County Council’s network of libraries available free of charge.
But the Lit & Phil does have a certain cachet and it has a huge collection of 200,000 books.
Visitors are encouraged to browse and stay as long as they like with comfortable seating, tea, coffee and cake and a quiet atmosphere for students and book lovers.
The music library is the biggest in the North of England and the Lit & Phil is a popular venue for musical events.
This article first appeared on Thrifty Traveller