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The Barbour Foundation backs historic North East home of visionaries and radicals

The Barbour Foundation has made one of its largest donations to date, with £1m going to the historic Lit & Phil in Newcastle.

The charity was set up by Dame Margaret Barbour, of the South Shields fashion brand.

The cash will be used to maintain the Grade II listed building, which opened in 1825 and houses almost 200,000 books. It will also be used to enhance its reputation for “enlightened discussion.”

Hundreds of authors, including Oscar Wilde, EM Forster and the archaeologist Gertrude Bell have entertained at the Lit & Phil, and in the 19th century it was known as a home for inventors and visionaries.

In 1815, George Stephenson, Robert’s father, demonstrated his miner’s safety lamp there and 65 years later another North East inventor, Joseph Swan, demonstrated his incandescent light bulb.

“In the 1820s the Society was at the cutting edge in terms of debate about energy and other matters,” said Mary Durkin, chair of the Lit & Phil.

“Our aim, 200 years later, is to have a building that embraces and exemplifies radical thinking and generates ideas in a new age.”

Durkin added: 

“The Lit & Phil was supported by local industry and commerce during its early years, notably by locomotive designer Robert Stephenson who in 1855 rescued the building at a time of financial difficulty.

“Dame Margaret and The Barbour Foundation have echoed that support with this fantastically generous donation which goes a long way towards helping us achieve our aims for the Lit & Phil.

“For nearly 200 years it has been at the heart of cultural life on Tyneside, a place of enlightenment valued by people from all walks of life.

“Our intention is that it should continue in that role for many more years and that more people should benefit from its collections and extensive programme of events.”

Lit & Phil President, broadcaster Alexander Armstrong said:

“The Lit & Phil is a very special place. How fitting that it should be supported so handsomely by a Tyneside company whose products are known around the world.

“This is a marvellous boost to the campaign to make the Lit & Phil secure for decades to come.”

The Lit & Phil is the library on Westgate Road and was the brainchild of the Literary & Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, founded in 1793, in the early years of the Industrial Revolution, as a forum for sharing ideas.

Its collection of books and other artefacts grew so quickly that after a few years in rented spaces, a permanent home was commissioned.

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