A mysterious journal found at Concordia offers a window into the past

Historian Robert Tittler reveals the secrets of a bygone Quaker era after a random discovery at the Vanier Library
January 31, 2020
By Elisabeth Faure

Robert Tittler: “It is wonderful to have discovered this rare artifact.”

Back in 2007, Vanier Library supervisor Wendy Knechtel received an inter-library loan request from an Australian scholar seeking to write a history of his family. Searching the library’s online CLUES system, he had discovered an interesting-sounding work he wished to borrow.

The catalogue entry had a long and intriguing title, but few details: An account of the weather &c. at Stockton from 1779 / kept by John Chipchase; including an account of remarkable seasons &c. by Robt. Stock from 1675-1716.

When Knechtel followed the call number and tracked it down in the Concordia Library’s Special Collections, she discovered that it was not a book at all. Instead, it was a handwritten paper manuscript with a sewn binding and a thin leather cover, produced by an English Quaker school master in the small northern English port of Stockton-upon-Tees more than two centuries ago.

She wrote as politely as she could to say that this unique, important, and frail manuscript couldn’t be lent to Australia! Then she phoned Robert Tittler, professor emeritus in the Department of History and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and asked him to come have a look.

Tittler recognized the manuscript’s importance immediately and set off to transcribe and edit it for publication. His annotated edition attracted the attention of a major British publisher for inclusion in a well-established series.

Along with a similar Quaker journal of the same era found in London, his volume appears as Two Weather Diaries from Northern England, 1779-1807; the Journals of John Chipchase and Elihu Robinson, published for The Surtees Society by Boydell Press last year.

'A fascinating read'

Chipchase was the son of a shoemaker. He was educated in a local school and then tutored by a mathematician. By the age of 17, he felt sufficiently confident to open a school to teach the art of navigation to local boys. He ran the school day in and day out for 35 years until 12 days before his death.

“To say the very least, Chipchase’s journal is a fascinating read!” says Tittler, explaining that the range of the author’s interests and his reading was remarkable; his curiosity unbounded.

Chipchase wrote of meteor showers, the aurora borealis, lightning strikes, gales, volcanoes, and droughts, but also about shipping and shipwrecks, the homing instinct of cats, the life cycle of snails, the state of the harvest and agricultural prices, and of wars and treaties.

He wrote and quoted poetry, and he transcribed a long section of a much earlier and now lost journal kept by a Stockton predecessor.

The work has excited considerable interest, garnering invitations for Tittler to speak about it at two universities and a scholarly conference. It also attracted the attention of climate researchers at the British Meteorological Office.

The National Meteorological Library now has a copy of the publication, and it is also registered with the Global Inventory of Pre-1850 Instrumental Meteorological Records, administered by Stefan Brönnimann from the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern.

“Such records are now considered important for extending further back in time the ability to simulate the pre-industrial climate of the globe,” wrote British meteorologist Chris Little in a letter to Tittler, signaling the importance of the volume to contemporary climate research.

“It is wonderful to have discovered this rare artifact,” says Tittler.

“But why no one thought to record the details of its acquisition, where it came from and why we have it at Concordia may always remain a mystery.”

Learn more about Robert Tittler.


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