Celebrated Reader,

It’s been a while since I had a series of posts going on in this blog – the last was my pre-written history of London’s gates – so I thought I’d try something I’ve wanted to write for a good while; a history of some books. In case the Happy Reader is unaware, I’ve got a lot of them. I’m in the middle of cataloguing them (something I’ve claimed to have been doing for about three years now), but I’d guess I have at least three hundred volumes stretching from the 20th century back to the 15th.

Here’s the history of a few (we’ll just have to wait and see exactly how many) of them, with this first post being on a fascinating old book I bought a few years ago.

The full title of this first volume is lengthy – Dialing: Plain, Concave, Convex, Projective, Reflective, Refractive, shewing, How to make all such Dials, and adorn them with all useful Furniture, Relating to the Course of the Sun – and the book itself is as grand as the title; folio sized, and full of large engravings of sundials and mathematical scales.

It’s a first edition, printed in 1682, and still in the majority of the original binding – it’s on my list of books to get professionally restored and one that I would never attempt to work on myself. It was written by William Leybourn, a seventeenth century surveyor and mathematician, and printed for and sold by an extreme Whig and Williamite who was involved in treasonous activities during Monmouth’s Rebellion – one Awnsham Churchill.


My copy is a splendid survival. It was originally bought in 1682 by Joseph Moxon, a famous mathematician and surveyor in his own time; he had grown up as a Royalist exile in the Netherlands, and when he bought my book was the advising hydrographer to King Charles II as he rebuilt London’s watercourses destroyed in the great fire. Moxon, by a note in the front cover, seems to have lent the book out and found it necessary to add the inscription Joseph Moxon lend mee. Moxon must have had a particular interest in sundials – in 1697 he published his own work on designing and creating them.

The opening page of the book was quite filled up with names

The opening page of the book was quite filled up with names

He sold the book on 8th June 1689 to one Joseph Howes, who I’ve been unable to track down. There is the slimmest chance he could have been a bookseller in Nottingham. Howes paid 12 shillings and sixpence for it, but doesn’t seem to have kept it for too long:

This is where the most active owner of this book comes in, Isaac Kirk. Kirk was given the book as a child in 1690. His childish handwriting repeats his name countless times over the front and back endpapers of the book, along with a faded Sunday school rhyme and a few other phrases that sound like the sort of thing a theologically minded parent or schoolmaster might have taught a child – things like put away from you all Evill and I ask not for Evill but Shun yt.

Isaac took a great interest in this wonderful book, and as he grew up he clearly became a skilled surveyor and mathematician – and a keen ‘Dialer’. Unlike almost any other annotator in any of my books he named and dated every note he made, many of which are long calculations and solutions to problems poorly outlined in the text – some of which he claims as his own invention or idea. There are also grand tables for calculating different angles for the dial depending on latitudes. Amazingly, he also hand-rubricated the entire book with his own pen.

There are plenty of grand engravings, some have been enlarged upon by Kirk.

There are plenty of grand engravings, some have been enlarged upon by Kirk.

He lost interest in the volume in about 1705 when his notes trail off (although it is quite amazing that for some 15 years he regularly made new notes in the margins of the book, all on the art of creating sundials), he returned briefly to the pages in 1715, when a few small notes indicate that he had re-checked several sums and found them to be correct.


Kirk himself is a very interesting character, and it took me a long time to track him down – it was one small note towards the end of the book that gave him away; a line of latitude that relates to a sundial he built in Pilsley, Derbyshire. I had misread Pilsley as Tilsley, so hadn’t managed to find him before, and only once I traced the route of the line did I recognise the name and connect the man to the places he knew. Isaac lived down the road from Pilsley, and turns up in Derbyshire records as Isaac Kirk of Shirland Lodge, a freemason and surveyor. He was important enough to take charge of repairing the bridge at Swarkestone, and may have worked on Pilsley Hall – since he references his work on a sundial at Pilsley in relation to a ‘Great Chamber’; the main room of an old hall house.

Kirk last appears in my book in 1715, and last appears in records in 1717; no one put their pen to the pages of my book again for almost a hundred years, when the book turns up only just down the road from where Isaac lived. This owner was Elijah Hall, a well of mill owner who lived at South Wingfield Park, who came to own the book in 1812.

Hall himself would become involved in an interesting moment of British history a few years later, when his mill workers refused to work in the face of the industrial revolution and the introduction of machinery. This turned into an armed uprising called the Pentrich Rising, which shortly afterwards was crushed by the government. One of the men who challenged Hall over the new machinery in Hall’s mills would be among the three last people executed by beheading in the British Isles.


He was the last man to write his name in the book, and no other notes appear recording its history since then. The next step in its history will be a trip to the restorers before it deteriorates any more – the spine is already missing and several pages are loose, with the front board detached and leather pealing away. Fortunately though, once I have the funds together to get it properly restored, the unique history of this book and the wonderful musings of its owners can be preserved for as many centuries to come as the aged pages have struggled through until today.

Until next time, Merry Reader