In 1871 Watson helped to found the Durham College of Science, now known as Armstrong College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the university of Durham. For forty years he took a leading part in its government, becoming its first president in 1910, and one of its representatives on the senate of Durham University, which conferred on him the honorary degree of D.C.L. in 1906.
Spence Watson was also elected a member of the first Newcastle school board in 1871, and he continued to sit on the board for twenty-three years. He was a pioneer of university extension in the north of England and of the Newcastle Free Public Library. From 1885 to 1911 he was president of the Tyneside Sunday Lecture Society, and became chairman of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne grammar school in 1911.
Nor were Watson's interests confined to affairs at home. He was from an early age an ardent traveller and mountaineer, joining the Alpine Club in 1862. His recreations included angling as well as mountaineering. In 1870, at the invitation of the Society of Friends, he went to Alsace-Lorraine as one of the commissioners of the War Victims Fund for the distribution of relief to the non-combatants in the Franco-German war. In January 1871 he revisited France to superintend similar work in the department of the Seine. In 1873 the French government, through the duc de Broglie, offered him the legion of honour, but he declined to accept the distinction. He was, however, presented with a gold medal which was specially struck in acknowledgment of his services. In 1879 he visited Wazan, the sacred city of Morocco, which no Christian European had entered before. With the assistance of Sir John Drummond Hay, the British minister at Tangier, he obtained an introduction to the great cherif of Wazan and his English wife. In 1880 he published an account of his journey in ‘A Visit to Wazan, the Sacred City of Morocco.’
Spence Watson was an enthusiastic politician and a lifelong adherent of the liberal party. In 1874 he founded the Newcastle Liberal Association on a representative basis of ward elections, and was its president from 1874 to 1897. From 1890 to 1902 he was president of the National Liberal Federation. During that period he was probably the chief liberal leader outside parliament, influencing the policy of the party by force of character. His political friends included Joseph Cowen, John Morley, John Bright, Lord Ripon, and Earl Grey. Personally he had no desire to enter the House of Commons, and refused all invitations to become a parliamentary candidate. On 27 Feb. 1893 the National Liberal Federation presented him with his portrait by Sir George Reid, P.R.S.A. This he gave to the National Liberal Club, a replica by the artist being presented to Mrs. Spence Watson. In 1907 he was made a privy councillor on the nomination of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, then prime minister.
His political principles embraced zeal for the cause of international peace and for the welfare of native races under British rule, especially in India. He was president of the Peace Society for several years previous to his death, and he took an active part in the Indian National Congress movement. The development of free institutions in Russia was another of his aspirations. He co-operated with Stepniak, and other Russian political exiles in England, in the attempt to disseminate information among Englishmen of existing methods of governing Russia. He was from 1890 to 1911 president of the Society of Friends of Russian Freedom.
Spence Watson was a pioneer in the settlement of trade disputes by arbitration. He first acted as umpire in 1864, and he was sole umpire on forty-seven occasions between 1884 and 1894 in disputes in the leading industries in the north of England. Such services, which ultimately numbered nearly 100, were always rendered voluntarily.
Spence Watson was made hon. LL.D. of St. Andrews in 1881. One of the earliest in England to interest himself in the adaptation of electrical power to industrial purposes, he helped the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Electric Supply Company, Limited, on Tyneside to acquire parliamentary powers in 1890. He died on 2 March 1911 at his residence, Bensham Grove, Gateshead, which he had inherited from his father, and was buried at Jesmond old cemetery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He married on 9 June 1863 Elizabeth, daughter of Edward and Jane Richardson of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He had one son and five daughters.
Besides the book mentioned, Spence Watson published: 1. ‘Cædmon the First English Poet,’ 1890. 2. ‘The History of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne,’ 1897. 3. ‘The History of the National Liberal Federation,’ 1906. 4. ‘Joseph Skipsey, his Life and Work,’ 1909. Among his numerous pamph-