The Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2016. It was established at a meeting held in the Crown Hotel, Penrith, on September 11, 1866, promoted by five business and professional men from both counties.

They were: John Whitwell, a carpet manufacturer in Kendal, six times its mayor and the MP of the borough; the Rev James Simpson, Vicar of Kirkby Stephen; George Mounsey, a lawyer from Carlisle; Robert Ferguson, a cotton mill owner and twice mayor of Carlisle; and the Rev Alfred Curwen, Rector of Harrington.

The meeting was attended by about 50 gentlemen and 'several ladies', and the purpose of the Society was defined as 'investigating, describing and preserving the antiquities of the two counties'. James Simpson assumed the chairmanship and the Earl of Lonsdale became the Honorary President. Simpson’s inaugural address ranged widely, covering prehistoric monuments, Roman antiquities, Runic inscriptions, and old documents, churches, castles and customs.

By the end of 1866 there were 115 members, including three ladies. More than a quarter were clergymen and over a third lived in Carlisle or Kendal.

A Printing Committee was formed to record the Society’s work and discoveries, leading to the Transactions that are a leading research resource. The first specifically Society publication was in 1877, with Ferguson’s edition of Bishop Nicholson’s Miscellany Accounts of the Diocese in Carlisle. The founder of Kendal’s well-known printing business, Titus Wilson, published the first and subsequent volumes for the Society and was also its Secretary.

The Society’s first foray into protecting archaeological remains was to draw the attention of the County Surveyor of Westmorland to the wanton removal of stones from the Dunmail Raise cairn, and the first dig was on the Roman fort at Low Borrow Bridge, near Tebay.

Day meetings began in 1873 with visits to such places as Furness Abbey, Hadrian’s Wall, ancient sites around Crosby Ravensworth, and Kendal’s castles. The Cumbrian weather did not deter the participants. On an excursion to Brampton, 'with a brisk breeze, driving heavy rain and a leaden sky, things looked hopeless enough to discourage anybody but antiquaries'.

James Simpson, a Westmorland man, was the driving force behind the society for the first 20 years. A keen antiquarian, he was described as having shrewd common sense, great local knowledge and a keen sense of humour. He became President in 1882, and was succeeded by Richard Ferguson, who was instrumental in founding Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

More recent Presidents have included many notable people with south Lakeland connections. These have included William Gershom Collingwood (1920-32) who was John Ruskin’s secretary and wrote his biography, and his son Robin George Collingwood (1932-38) whose academic work covered philosophy and Roman archaeology. Clare Isobel Fell (1963-66) drove ATS ambulances during WWII and was a leading prehistorian of her era, while the Rev John Compton Dickinson (1971-74) wrote two books on Cartmel that remain as standard texts.

The Society continues to move with the times and now has a significant online presence at