THE archives of a radical 19th century politician from one of County Durham's most prominent families has been sold for £684,000.

Containing letters, speeches and petitions, as well as documents relating to key historical events in the region, the archive of John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham, will be opened up for study for the first time in more than 40 years.

Durham University has purchased the archive, which contains thousands of letters, dispatches and other papers, providing a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into one of the defining periods in British political history.

Lord Durham, known as Radical Jack for his strong support for political reform, was central to parliamentary reform, including the Great Reform Act of 1832.

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John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham Picture: DURHAM UNIVERSITY

He was also deeply involved in the regional politics of the North-East at this time and his archive includes documents relating to the establishment of Durham University and the construction of the Darlington-Stockton railway.

Dr Richard Huzzey, an associate professor of history at Durham University, said: “Lord Durham was a real firebrand in his time and through his archive we get to peak behind the curtain into a period of dramatic political reform.

“The range of correspondence is the equivalent of getting a look at the emails of politicians – it is a real ring-side seat! Lord Lambton’s letters cover a who’s who of nineteenth century society but also reveal his local influence as an employer and landed aristocrat.”

Lord Durham was a member of he prominent Lambton family, whose fortune derived largely from coal mining on the lands surrounding their ancestral home of Lambton Castle, near Chester-le-Street.

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Diaries belonging to Louisa, Countess of Durham, Lord Durham’s second wife Picture: DURHAM UNIVERSITY

He was married to the daughter of the 2nd Earl Grey, Prime Minister from 1830-1834, whose papers are also held at Durham University.

Lord Durham also held international diplomatic roles including two terms as Ambassador to Russia and a brief, controversial period as Governor-in-Chief of Canada and counted European monarchy amongst his personal friends.

Edward Lambton, 7th Earl of Durham, said: “I am delighted that the archive will remain in the First Earl’s native North East of England, just a few miles away from his home at Lambton Castle.

“The papers hold a wealth of rich material about the region and, in their wonderful new home at the university, they will not only be preserved for future generations, but also be properly studied and see their secrets unlocked for the very first time.”

Highlights of the collection include correspondence relating to local politics within County Durham including expenses, speeches and petitions related to elections in County Durham and Northumberland and original documentation relating to the "Committee of Four" (of which Lord Durham was one), entrusted by Lord Grey, as Prime Minister, with the preparation of the first draft of the Reform Bill, designed to make the British electoral system fairer.

There are also letters from prominent nineteenth century politicians including Lord Melbourne and Lord Palmerston, as well as Leopold I, King of the Belgians and Sir John Conroy, controversial and influential adviser to Queen Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent.

There are also letters and notebooks belonging to Lord Durham’s second wife, Louisa Countess of Durham, a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Victoria and correspondence giving an insight into the Lambton's family support for literature, art and science.

The purchase was overseen by Sotheby’s auction house in London, with help from a £302,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and grants from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Friends of Palace Green Library.

Once assessed and catalogued, the collection will be available to both scholars and the public for study, free of charge.

The university also plans to establish a series of projects and events to open up the archive to both the public and local schools.

Liz Waller, the university librarian, said: “Lord Durham was a prominent figure in political reform in the nineteenth century and we are proud to be the new home for his fascinating collection of papers, keeping them here in the North-East.

“For arts and humanities scholars a collection of this significance is the equivalent of new state-of-the-art equipment for scientists, and this purchase demonstrates the university’s commitment to research excellence in all fields."