The Common Room of The Great North – Knowledge and Collection; adapting our programme during a pandemic.

In the heart of Newcastle Upon Tyne’s city centre, you will find one of the largest, most comprehensive, public collections on mining engineering in the world. Established in 1852, The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers’ core purpose was to improve safety and to alleviate the horrific impact of disasters on mining communities across the Great Northern Coalfield. Their second objective was to “establish a literary institution, more particularly applicable to the theory, art and practice of mining”.

The early presidents and members of the Institute are synonymous with North East engineering. Through their meetings, their skills and expertise were documented in transactions and then applied across the country and beyond, with their knowledge being exported across the globe.

Influential members included Nicholas Wood, the engineer responsible for the technical drawings of George Stephenson’s Safety Lamp, and Robert Stephenson, the eminent civil engineer who built on his father’s work on the railways.  These influential members, amongst others, created an engineering hub of professionals within the heart of Newcastle.


Through the commitment to preserve this practical knowledge, our archive and collection has now amassed a treasure trove of over 35,000 printed books and unique archives including photographs, manuscripts, maps, objects, underground plans and more. Other archive material include many early scientific and technical reports relating to the development of the coal industry and associated mechanical engineering, especially the early work on safety in mines. Professor Margaret Jacob, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of the Industrial Revolution, researched her book, “The First Knowledge Economy”, in our archive, which she describes as “one of the two most important collections in the world for the study of the birth of the Industrial Revolution”.

North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers Members Montage

 The significance of the archive and collection has been recognised by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, who have generously awarded The Common Room with a grant of £4.1 million, as part of a £7.1 million project to restore our Grade II* listed building in Newcastle, preserve and fully digitise our historic archive and to revitalise our approach to heritage engagement.

Neville Hall Building News 1872

Like many heritage organisations, our delivery and accessibility has been greatly impacted upon, due to the recent global COVID-19 pandemic. Our challenge to raise awareness and engagement of our collection through community and education outreach workshops has stopped, with a resilience strategy being adopted to ensure that our stories and archive can still be explored remotely. Last month, The Common Room launched its Explore Online programme, which encompasses a range of heritage activities that everyone can use to explore our story. Moving to digital engagement has posed many challenges around accessibility, inclusivity and impact. How can we make sure that existing and new audiences can access our website? How can we ensure that our user journey is enjoyable and informative? How can we measure our impact through remote learning? One way in which we are currently combatting this is to consult with a range of specialists within the archive, heritage, IT and digital sectors to ensure that our activity is high quality and is informed by the needs and trends of the current market.

The Wood Hall at the Common Room


Despite its challenges, our Explore Online programme has offered people the opportunity to engage with: our Graft & Glory online exhibition of North East industrial heritage; our Pioneering Minds Podcast Series, which explores the eminent engineer and member of the Institute, Charles Parsons; our weekly Common Good Challenge videos based on archival material and heritage; and our education programme, ‘What’s Beneath Our Feet?’, inspired by our vast geology collection.

Although our collection is still in the process of being digitised, we are now, more than ever, resilient in how we can preserve, present and offer our archival material, not just during this pandemic but for life post-COVID.

  •  By Emily Tench, Programme and Engagement Manager, The Common Room (Emily.tench@thecommonroom.org.uk)

    To find out more about our archive and collections, please visit


To explore our online activities, please visit:


To contact our Library and Archives Manager, please email Jennifer.hillyard@thecommonroom.org.uk


  • About The Common Room

The Common Room of the Great North was established in 2017 to manage the redevelopment and refurbishment of The North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. The Common Room of the Great North was awarded £4.1m from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, plus a further £3m in match funding, to conserve the Grade II* listed building, refurbish its ground floor reading rooms, securely house its archive and collections and enhance its conferencing facilities.

One Reply to “The Common Room of The Great North – Knowledge and Collection; adapting our programme during a pandemic.”

  1. But why? Why is this so important to capture these voices? As industry continually transitions, it is important to record these changes and the impact that it has on the shape of our region’s societal, industrial and economic needs. From the mechanical apprentices to the Quality engineers, these experiences are vital in giving an in depth insight into what engineering is like today, instilling pride and showcasing the North East’s innovative spirit. The practice of oral history will enable The Common Room to capture, share and preserve personal first-hand accounts of industrial transitions, the impact of deindustrialisation and the passion for past and current innovation on the North East workforce. In doing so, we can use the archive to map how industry has changed over the last century within our region specifically and to showcase what industry is doing today.

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