The Newcastle Collection

The Newcastle Collection

In 1880 Newcastle upon Tyne established a public library service.  It was thirty years after the Public Libraries Act of 1850, and the decision to provide a library service for the town was reached only after much debate and some opposition. One of the objections was that women might be tempted to waste their time in the library rather than concentrating on their household duties!

The reference library was officially opened in 1884, and from that time the library service has built up extensive collections of rare books and heritage material. Some of the items date back to the fifteenth century.

For many years, much this material formed part of the City Library's general reference or local studies stock. However as time passed and certain items became rarer, and often irreplaceable, they were kept in special collections shelved behind the scenes at the library.
With the opening of the new City Library in 2009, the opportunity arose to display some of these treasures which belong to the people of Newcastle and reflect their proud cultural history. The City Library has facilities for storing and displaying items from the special collections in environmentally controlled conditions and a two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project provided the means to conserve and promote some of this unique material.

You can arrange viewing of an item from the Newcastle Collection in advance, giving at least 5 days notice, please email

The Avison Collection

Newcastle born Charles Avison (1709 - 1770) is regarded as England's greatest eighteenth Century concerto composer.  The collection, formed in partnership with the Avison Ensemble, contains workbooks with ideas for compositions and musical arrangements in Avison's own handwriting.  They were bought with Heritage Lottery Fund support.

The James Alder Archive

James Alder (1920 - 2007) was a local painter, illustrator and sculptor.  His work which featured animals, birds and plants is seen as continuing in the tradition of the legendary North East naturalist, engraver and artist Thomas Bewick.

The late Queen Mother was a fan of his work and commissioned him to produce an illustrated guide to the birds and flowers of her beloved Castle of Mey in Scotland.  She loved the book so much that the Queen asked Mr Alder to produce a second book on the birds of Balmoral.

The original copies of the books were returned to Mr Alder after her death.  After Mr Alder died in 2007, his family decided his work should be presented to the City he loved, and the two volumes now form part of the Newcastle Collection.


The Bewick Collection

John William Pease, a local businessman (1836 - 1901) spent forty years collecting the work of artist and engraver Thomas Bewick (1753 - 1828) and his pupils.  When he died he left the collection to Newcastle Libraries.  The original collection contained over three hundred volumes, in fine bindings, of first and later editions of all illustrated books, over a thousand woodblocks by Thomas Bewick and his workshop, letters, drawings and watercolours as well as Bewick's own tool chest and the table where he worked.  Nationally and internationally important, it has been described as the finest and most complete collection (of printed material) relating to Bewick now in existence.

You can view the Stock Book of the Bewick Collection here.

The Collinson Collection

Richard Collinson (1810 - 1883) a naval officer and explorer donated 3 volumes of exquisitely detailed watercolour paintings of the plants of Northumberland and Durham to the library.  It is not known who actually painted the works.

The Crawhall Collection

Between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries three members of the Crawhall family were recognised as some of the most distinctive artists the region has produced.  The collection contains the work of each of these artists.

Joseph Crawhall the first (1793 - 1853) amateur landscape painter, figure and animal artist, caricaturist, lithographer, etcher and wood engraver was apprenticed as a ropemaker as a young boy and subsequently became the owner of St Anne's Ropery in Newcastle upon Tyne and an affluent member of the Newcastle society of the time.  He served as Sheriff and Mayor, was a magistrate and held other important local offices but he never lost his love of drawing, often filling his account books with sketches.

Joseph Crawhall the second (1821 - 1896) inherited his father's artistic talents.  He was interested in writing and painting and his interests in angling, music and antiquarianism is reflected in his art. He was fascinated by the past and this led to a specific interest in reproducing the kind of woodcuts and engravings associated with ancient chapbooks and ballad sheets. Although medieval glass and manuscripts were part of his inspiration, other decisive influences included the work of Thomas Bewick, which he much admired.

Joseph Crawhall the third (1861-1913) one of Northumberland's most talented animal and bird painters would go on to distinguish himself as a member of the 'Glasgow Boys' by virtue of having studied and worked there. His father introduced him to the practice of working from memory and never correcting his work, which remained with the artist for the rest of his life and contributed to the distinctiveness of his work. In addition to his work in oil and water-colour Crawhall was an accomplished illustrator in line drawing.

Gibsone's Conches

The collection consists of 7,260 watercolours of 3,025 species of sea-shells, painted in meticulous detail by local entrepreneur George Gibsone.  They were bought by public subscription in 1890 and presented to Newcastle Public Library where they have been housed ever since. 

The Mackey Collection

This unique library of locally printed works focuses on pamphlets dating from 1640 - 1660 and relating to the activities of the Scottish army in the North East of England.  Matthew Mackey was a local businessman and member of the Public Libraries Committee.

The Merrifield Collection

In 1883 the Library Service bought over a thousand, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century books on science and mathematics from the collection of C.W. Merrifield reflecting the North East's continuing interest in science, engineering and technology.

The Thomlinson Collection

Dr Robert Thomlinson (1668 - 1748) left his private library to the people of Newcastle, creating the first 'public library' in the town. There are over 5,500 volumes in this collection with many rare items including two incunabula (early printed books) printed in 1489 and 1490.

The Seymour Bell Collection

This is part of a collection compiled by the Bell family of Newcastle and Gateshead during their work as booksellers and land surveyors. Material collected by the family is scattered amongst the major libraries and record offices of the North East. This collection consists of 25 portfolios containing plans, inventories of properties, valuations, correspondence, surveys and auctioneers' notices relating to estates in Newcastle and Northumberland from the late 18th century to the early 20th century.

The C. P. Taylor Collection

His widow presented this collection to the library in 1990. It consists of 146 folders containing scripts etc. written by the local playwright C.P Taylor (1929 - 1981). This is in addition to the volumes of his work listed in the catalogue. There is an index volume to this collection.

The Foster Harvey Collection

A collection of 19th century books containing illustrations by two local artists, Myles Birkett Foster and William Harvey.


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