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Archives and Special Collections: Other Collections and Sources: Societies

Our collections

The collections include the archives of some of the area's significant historical societies with their often now extensive runs of publications available on open access in the Barker Research Library at Palace Green Library, including:

- The Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, established in 1861 and regularly publishing the Durham Archaeological Journal, with records dating back to 1897.

- The Surtees Society, the oldest extant English records publishing society, established in 1834, and still publishing annual editions of record sources for the area; these cover the former kingdom of Northumbria, with records including significant files of correspondence from its earliest years.

- Also held on open access in the Barker Research Library are, amongst others, the publications of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (Transactions), the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle (Archaeologia Aeliana), the Yorkshire Archaeological Society (Journal and Record Series), and the Borthwick Institute (Lists and Indexes and Texts and Calendars).

- The Catholic Family History Society's set of copies of Catholic parish register transcripts are also held.

- Some papers are also held of the Carilef (1962-1964) and then New Carilef (1966-1981) Societies in Durham. The former was established "to make better known the artistic riches of Durham Cathedral, especially of its Library, by musical and dramatic performances, illustrated lectures and other activities, to be held if possible in the Cathedral buildings or precincts, in order to contribute both to the development of those riches and to the cultural life of the city and county of Durham”. The Society briefly organised a variety of cultural events - plays, concerts and lectures - but was wound up for lack of a chairman and treasurer. Its residual funds were passed on, amongst others, to the New Carilef Society, which sought to focus more on the manuscripts, printed books, maps, prints and other moveables of churches, houses, libraries and museums of Co Durham, and its neighbours, the means by which they were made, and the people from whom they came, such as Bishops Carilef and Cosin. The activities were to consist of illustrated talks on these subjects, special viewings of notable collections, and members exhibiting and discussing their own possessions, with, if funds permitted, perhaps a periodical and gifts to relevant local institutions. The Society was instrumental in setting up the Bow Trust to which it handed over its remaining balance when the Society folded. 

Cremation is a now widely accepted and pragmatic way of disposing of the dead. Space for burials in cemeteries and churchyards became ever more problematic in the rapidly expanding towns and cities of the 19th century, leading to the development of cremation of a solution to this dilemma. 

Full details on the archive, books and journals collection of the Cremation Society of Great Britain, extending back to the establishment of cremation and the first crematoria in the 1870s, can be found here. This collection is truly international in its range, and also includes material of the International Cremation Federation.

Related to this collection is the archive of the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, also held amongst ASC's collections.

The archive of the Diocese of Durham also has many records on burials, especially the bishops' transcripts of parish burial registers for the century from roughly the mid 18th to the mid 19th centuries (with some similar records held for some Catholic parishes in the Catholic Family History Society Mission Register Transcripts). There are also records of faculties concerning churchyards and cemeteries, and the reservation of burial plots.

The Society of Christ and the Blessed Mary the Virgin (Lightfoot House)

The Society began in 1887, when a group of women volunteers were licensed in the Durham Castle chapel by Bishop Lightfoot. The women had previously looked after victims of the 1884 smallpox epidemic in Durham City, after Canon George Body provided a band of nursing Sisters to support a smallpox hospital on Gilesgate Moor. The Society was formally established in 1901 and was known also as Durham Diocesan Church Workers
Run by a Head Deaconess , it was based in the Diocesan Mission House in the College. After George Body's death in 1911, the house at 19 North Bailey was secured and bought by the trustees of the Canon Body Memorial Fund, and known as Lightfoot House. Work was initially paid for from the Durham Mission work fund (raised originally by George Body), later by George Body himself, and after his death by the Canon Body Memorial Fund.
The society was dissolved in 1963, and its funds transferred to the Board of Finance to support ongoing women's church work. Its archive is comprised within the Durham Diocesan Archive.

Vernacular Society of Great Britain

The English Liturgy Society was founded in 1943 to promote the use of the vernacular in the liturgy of the Mass. It began its work with a translation of the Rites of Baptism and Churching (excluding the form of the Sacrament) with a view also to compiling an English version of Vespers and Compline. The relationship between the Society and the Catholic Hierarchy was a fractious one throughout the 1940s and, following the refusal of the bishops to endorse the Society in 1952, it changed its name to the Vernacular Society of Great Britain. This relationship did not improve, reaching something of a nadir in 1959 when the Society became embroiled in controversy with the Westminster Diocesan Council of Censorship, who forbad the publishing of an article in the Society's new journal, Language and Worship. However, following the decision of the Second Vatican Council in October 1962 to actively promote the use of a vernacular liturgy, the Vernacular Society acted in an advisory capacity to the Hierarchy for the English translation of the Mass. Its purpose achieved, the Society disbanded in 1967.

St Cuthbert's Society (Ushaw)

St Cuthbert's Society is a registered charity, founded in 1854 as an Alumni association of Ushaw College. Through subscriptions and donations, the Society organises annual meetings and alumni events, most notably its annual Grand Day event held at Ushaw College. Following the closure of the college in 2011, the Society has broadened its membership to encompass all those with an interest in the future of Ushaw and its role in performing a wider mission rooted in Catholic educational activities.

The Spennymoor Settlement was founded by William and Elizabeth Farrell in 1931 to provide a community centre in Spennymoor, a small industrial town in the depressed South West Durham Coalfield. It was an initiative directed by the British Association of Residential Settlements and supported financially by the Pilgrim Trust. The Settlement formally opened on 1 April 1931 at 36-38 King Street in Spennymoor. Its declared objectives were “[t]o encourage tolerant neighbourliness and voluntary social services and give its members opportunities for increasing their knowledge, widening their interests, and cultivating their creative powers in a friendly atmosphere”. It fostered amateur drama, art, literary and musical activities, provided a children's play centre, a citizen's advice bureau and poor man's lawyer service, and a range of other recreational, educational and welfare activities, and housed a branch of the county library. The Settlement was particularly renowned for the quality of its drama and art. In 1938-1939 it built its Everyman Theatre-Art Gallery, designed by Charles Elgey, and which opened on 29 March 1939. Among the painters and writers the Settlement encouraged were Norman Cornish, Herbert Dees, Tom McGuinness, and Sid Chaplin. Bill Farrell retired in 1954, when the Settlement ceased to have a resident warden; Betty Farrell resumed her teaching career in October 1948 in Co. Durham, then transferring to Huntingdonshire, retiring finally in 1962. Upon the natural withdrawal of funding by the Pilgrim Trust in April 1947, County Council support was then secured, necessitating a new constitution for the Settlement. However, when this funding was also withdrawn in March 1954, the Settlement became a voluntarily funded organisation. It continues today as the Spennymoor Settlement Community Association, with an active Theatre Group still using the (refurbished) Everyman's Theatre.

The university's archive contains a whole section on the various societies, and sports clubs, that are and have been very much part of the life and experience of the university since its inception. These have comprised both staff and student societies, and some which have encouraged membership and participation from both. Their archives have traditionally been made up of minutes and records of meetings, and accounts, but more recently have rather been such as printed ephemera.

Staff societies have included such as: the Women's Tea Club, later the Women's Society; the Kemble Society for dramatic performances; Durham branches of university unions, AUT and then UCU, and ASTMS; a University Staff Club or Common Room; the Ramsey Society for Christian fellowship; and perhaps the most active one at present, the university Retired Staff Association (DURSA). 

Student societies across the university have ranged alphabetically from at least the African Society to Women in Science, Technology and Engineering. The oldest is the Durham Union Society, still providing a regular programme of debates and social activities. Others include a range of dramatic (e.g. Ooook! Productions), musical (e.g. Palatinate Orchestra), ethnic (e.g. Pakistan Society), subject (e.g. Physics Society), faith (e.g. Quaker Society), political (Labour Club) and special interest (e.g. Railway Society) groupings. Some have been more long lasting than others, and some focus on specific genres within those broad remits. Some are numerous enough to require an over-arching organisation such as Durham Student Theatre or Music Durham. Otherwise, the Durham Students Union provides some format and oversight for them. Furthermore, there is often a similar range of societies within each college, many of whose activities are reflected in the archives of those colleges, or within such as the handbooks or yearbooks in those archives.


One of the university's colleges is still proud of its status as St Cuthbert's Society rather than College. It is to be distinguished from its namesake, the alumni association for Ushaw College, for more on which see a further tab in this series. The university college was established in 1888 as a non-residential college for mature and local students who did not wish to reside in either Hatfield Hall or University College and instead preferred to lodge in houses within Durham City. In order to distinguish itself from residential colleges, it was given the title 'Society'. A member of University staff was appointed to oversee the running of the Society, referred to as a Censor, and the students were mature and traditionally from the local area who tended to have family responsibilities.
St Cuthbert's Society was "refounded" in 1946 and the University appointed its first Principal, rather than its previous censor. It settled at its current home of 12 South Bailey in 1951. Today, St Cuthbert's Society's relationship with the University is formalised as that of a college, yet it still retains the independence of spirit founded by its predecessors, whilst offering its students all the advantages of being officially part of Durham University. In 2008 the University agreed to allow Cuth's to retain the title of 'Society' as a reflection of its heritage.

Availability online (digital images)

These collections have not been digitised, so that only the catalogues are currently available online.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections, please get in touch.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

Our collections are at one of two sites.

  • Palace Green Library: open Monday to Friday (appointments recommended - required during April and May, see below), 10am to 4:30pm
  • Ushaw College Library:  access is currently limited. Please submit an enquiry form for further details.

For further details, see our guide to Visiting us in person.  To make an appointment, please use our enquiry form.  Please give three working days notice for appointments and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.

See information on Using Our Collections for further information on accessing our collections and on our facilities and services.

Details of opening times can be found in our Library Sites guide.