Dedication of the statue of John Winthrop, Jr. , 1905
A Short History of the New London County Historical Society
Founded in 1870, the New London County Historical Society is the oldest historical organization in eastern Connecticut and one of the oldest in the country. It has always had a regional focus, with the Thames River’s connection between the two commercial centers, New London and Norwich, clearly cited as key in the earliest documentation of the organization. In 2020, it will celebrate its 150th anniversary.
The early Society collected widely from the region but the collection was mostly limited to paper archives as the headquarters moved from city hall to the new library to private rooms in New London. In 1907, one of the most important historic families in New London offered to sell their 1756 home to the Society to use as their headquarters, and after a quick public campaign the necessary funds were raised and the Society moved their archives into the Shaw Mansion, still filled with fine colonial furniture.
Francis Manwaring Caulkins was a historian who wrote extensive histories of both Norwich (1845 and 1866) and New London (1850 and 1860). These were “social histories” written more than 100 years before there was such a thing as social history. And her work was accepted by academic historians – she was elected to membership in the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1849; the next woman to be so honored was not until 1965! Her half-brother, Henry Havens, with whom she had lived, was a leading founder of the society the year after her death in 1869, and he donated most of her research and notebooks to the society. The historical society President for the first ten years was La Fayette S. Foster, from Norwich, who had been President Pro Tempore of the United States Senate when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and thus served as the acting Vice President of the United States when Andrew Johnson became President.
In the early part of the 20th century the historical society was largely dominated by President Ernest Rogers who later became mayor of the city and then in 1923 Lieutenant Governor of the state. The society was involved in major historical celebrations such as the erection of the statue of John Winthrop, Jr., and the state’s tercentennial celebration and dedication of the Soldiers and Sailors monument.
The Society’s recent history begins in the late 1990s, when a new group of dedicated members of the board of directors took over. Part of the excitement was the work to republish Joshua Hempstead’s Diary – an astounding primary source from the period 1711 to 1758. Part of the excitement was the publication of Linwood Bland’s history of the Civil Rights movement in New London, A View from the Sixties, and the subsequent mounting of a major award-winning exhibit, From Slavery to Civil Rights, on the history of African Americans in the region.
After a report commissioned under the national Conservation Assessment Program, the Society’s leadership began to make improvements to the Shaw Mansion including new wiring throughout the house, a new security system, a new five-zone HVAC system, complete restoration of a1792 eight-sided ornate summer-house, a new roof on the 1845 wing of the house, new slate shingling on the 1756 wing, complete restoration of 300 feet of cast iron fencing surrounding the front of the property, and renovation of the smaller front parlor to an exhibit room.
The first full-time executive director was hired in 2004. He began work immediately to find a professional librarian who would be able to manage the archive and grow the knowledge of the collection through partnerships with the Library of Congress, Yale University and the Connecticut State Library systems.
The past ten years have yielded a number of accomplishments. A collections assistance grant from the Institute for Library and Museum Services allowed the librarian to re-house and reshelve much of the collection. A National Endowment for the Humanities grant allowed NLCHS to hire conservators to examine the entire collection of oil paintings and create a conservation plan. New sliding storage panels have been added for the painting collection. Improvements to the property funded by state and foundation grants include restoring a brick outdoor cellar, new drainage and new walkways creating a wheel-chair accessible entrance to the Shaw Mansion, an accessible bathroom and classroom and kitchen, repointing and sealing the chimneys, and upgrading the heating systems control. A window restoration project is currently in the works.
Programmatically there have also been a number of successes: Five books have been published, two receiving awards from the Association for the Study of Connecticut History (ASCH); a new first-person interpretive program, “Tea with Miss Perkins,” has brought new visitors through the doors; Flock Theatre has produced a number of “parlor plays” in the mansion bringing visitors in what would normally be off hours. Most recently, the Society partnered with four other museums and historical societies to bring, The Rockets’ Red Glare – Connecticut and the War of 1812 to the public, a project that included an exhibition, book and website to share the impact of that war on the region, which received the Bruce Fraser Award from ASCH and a Leadership in History award from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH).
We invite you to learn more as you explore our website through the resources we have available online, or through the books you can purchase, and we invite you to visit the Shaw Mansion as well. Here we have some wonderful treasures and amazing resources in our collection.