Cryptograms. Remember those? Cracking that code, figuring out what the letter “A” represents in this puzzle. Some members of the archives committee at St. Mark’s Anglican Church are keen fans of this type of brain teaser.
Since 2014, three scholars-of-sorts have spent Tuesday mornings in the Addison Library — “some hours spent in pleasant discussion,” says Donald Combe — looking to make the best sense of the collection within. “The archives committee is a very intriguing group of people who gathered together principally because we like each other,” he continues. This is most fortunate, given the opportunity for deep discussion and potential disagreement.
Three years ago, they stumbled upon a slim, hand-written volume that had not been catalogued. Says Combe, “Peter looked at it and thought it might be fun to transcribe it.”
Babcock might have since revised his idea of “fun.”
The “book club” met weekly in the Addison Library at St. Mark’s church for three years to painstakingly crack the code of that journal, dated from 1785. Locals Babcock, Murray Wilcox and Combe have dedicated patient hour upon hour —upon hour — to the transcription and re creation of “Ten 1785 Sermons from Robert Addison’s Library.”
The title is precise: While it is supposed by some this hand-written book found among the books donated by his descendants is the work of Robert Addison himself, there are doubters. Even within the group, Babcock remains unconvinced these are penned in Addison’s hand, despite the confirmation from reputable and respected experts. “It really doesn’t matter who wrote it,” says Combe, practically. “Somebody wrote it, and that’s what’s important.”
In the beginning, Babcock kicked it old school, using a trusty magnifying glass, pen and paper, and great reserves of patience and curiosity. “I might spend 15 minutes trying to figure out a word,” he says.
When Babcock had a few pages transcribed in his own, legible handwriting, St. Mark’s parishioner Susan Peacock would kindly input the work into a Word document. No decisions had been made at this early date as to where this would all lead.
“Then Murray hove into view as a guardian angel,” says Combe of Wilcox. “We all stepped back and left them to it for two years.”
Wilcox had been in the archives researching his own project on the Breckenridge House when he saw Babcock and his Sherlock Holmes gear. “I thought I could give back and help,” says the retired teacher. “I imagined doing that for two or three months. Three years later….”
Incorporating more modern technology, Wilcox photographed each page at a high resolution, so Babcock could view them on his computer screen, enlarging words and phrases as needed.
Babcock continued to write out his transcriptions by hand, and Peacock to convert these to Word files. “Susan — a copyright lawyer — was always a huge support, only too eager to be helpful,” says Combe with gratitude.
Wilcox took it upon himself to create page layouts, ultimately deciding on a perfect re-creation of the book, page for page, including words that had been crossed out, and any other unique marking or insignia.
“It was very laborious for Murray,” says Babcock with respect.
“It wasn’t that laborious,” says Wilcox modestly, “because it was actually very entertaining. The time-consuming part was me trying to satisfy Peter,” he continues with a chuckle. “If it wasn’t a good time I wouldn’t have stuck with it.”
“It’s really a wonderful story of an act of love for what they were doing,” sums up Combe.
The book itself tells many tales, even though it never fully divulges its author. The pages are covered, every inch, in handwriting. “Paper was more valuable then, so there were more words to the page than now,” explains Combe. “They wrote all the way to the edges of the page.”
Babcock discovered the first four sermons were written traditionally, starting on the first page and turning pages from right to left. Interestingly, the next four were written by rotating and flipping the notebook, and repeating the same process, now starting with what had been the back page. For the last two sermons the book was flipped once more to return to its original flow. While there are guesses as to why the author might have done it, there are no confirmations.
The first sermon appears to have been written in January of 1785. Two later sermons are dated in July and August 1784, written at sea, followed by one in Halifax, in August of 1785. Addison’s whereabouts in this era are unknown, but it is plausible this was his journey.
“The year before this his son died,” says Combe. “Then his wife died. He was depressed, and perhaps went to sea to escape his tragedies.”
“The sermons are dour and full of doom and gloom,” says Babcock. “The dating of the sermons might be interesting because the American War was ending in 1784 and Loyalist troops went to Halifax — there was lots of turmoil in that year. Halifax had been a major port in the war.”
Babcock continues with his sleuthing: “There is a sermon written in Halifax with this bit from Milton which is related to the Israelites in Egypt finding the Promised Land — perhaps a parallel with liberating the Loyalists from the colonies.”
The transcription provided many unexpected challenges and surprises.
“The letter Y is an adaptation of a Runic letter that represents “TH,” explains Wilcox. “That was an adventure: You thought you had it, then on another page it doesn’t work.”
“It took us a couple of years to figure out some of these,” says Babcock.
“This is what I do instead of playing golf,” adds Wilcox.
Combe was very passionate about publishing. “I decided if we were going through with this we were doing it right,” says the retired Niagara College teacher. Combe established a publication schedule of 40 leather-bound, hardcover copies for which supporters paid $200. “We also made and sold 50 paperbacks for $20 each,” he says.
“Donald sought out the patrons, and they have been incredible in that they were convinced this was a worthwhile project. The support was incredible,” says Babcock.
Various established learning institutions, such as the University of Toronto, and Trinity College, are very interested in this book, says Combe.
Wilcox and Babcock have begun work on a new book, a pure replication of a unique book of a student’s chronology of sermons, “a wonderful glimpse into a period of time,” says Wilcox.
Some copies of the paperback version of “Ten Sermons from Robert Addison’s Library” are available for purchase. The full Addison Library catalogue is online on the St. Mark’s website. The public is welcome to visit the library, by appointment.