Looking Beyond the Book: Bookplates and History

Recently, while cleaning and preparing to store the British nominate reports, we stumbled upon something quite unique. The set of reports, entitled Term Reports in the Court of King’s Bench by Charles Durnford & Edward Hyde East, are quite old and cover cases from the period 1785-1800, but that is not what is unique about them. Upon opening the front cover of the book, you are greeted with a few different marks of ownership, the most prominent being a bookplate. This bookplate is adorned with a crest and the name “Sir James Stuart Bart. Chief Justice of Lower Canada”. This is actually then crossed out in pen and a name is scribbled above the bookplate. There is also another ownership mark in pen that appears on the title page of the book, which is just comprised of the last name Stuart and the date 1802.

At this point you might be thinking, so what? Provenance, or the history of the ownership of a book, can not only provide authenticity or quality to a book, but can also provide important historical information. Discovering what texts were used by prominent figures in law during the early history of Canada can help us understand how the law developed and grew.

Who exactly was this James Stuart and how can he help us understand early Canadian law? According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, James Stuart was born March 2nd, 1780, in Fort Hunter, New York, to the Reverend John Stuart and Jane Okill. He obtained schooling at King’s College, Windsor, Nova Scotia, and at the tender age of 14 began his apprenticeship in the law in Lower Canada. He was called to the bar in 1801, which gives us a good idea about the first ownership mark in pen with the last name Stuart and the date 1802. This seems to suggest that he obtained the Term Reports early on in his legal career and obviously kept the books for a long period of time.

After his call to the bar, Stuart had a varied and tumultuous career. It started when he became secretary to Sir Robert Shore Milnes, the lieutenant governor at the time. In 1805, Stuart was made solicitor general, but had aspirations to become attorney general. Unfortunately, the new governor named another man, Edward Bowen, to the post in 1808. Resentment on the part of Stuart led him to be dismissed from his post as solicitor general in May of 1809.

This was only the start of Stuart’s varied career. Notably, he was a prominent speaker on behalf of the union of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada in 1822, even travelling to London in 1823 as an agent of the pro-unionists. This led to another promotion for Stuart, to that of attorney general of Lower Canada in 1825 after impressing the colonial secretary in London. This was not to last, however. Due to Stuart’s role in the British Party and his arrogance, he was a target of a series of accusations by the assembly, which led to a demand for his dismissal as attorney general. Stuart was suspended in 1831 and eventually dismissed in November of 1832, after a failed attempt to challenge the governor to a duel.

Despite all of this bad fortune, Stuart’s luck eventually turned around when he was named chief justice of Lower Canada in 1838. He was also created baronet of Oxford in May of 1841, a title which was held in family until his youngest son’s death in 1915. From these dates, we can gather that the bookplate was an addition to the Term Reports set sometime after 1841, when he received the title of baronet.

In the later years of his life, from the 1840s to early 1850s, Stuart was no longer the centre of controversy. He died in 1853 at the age of 73. His whole library collection seems to have been sold off soon after his death, including the Term Reports. Unfortunately, the last ownership mark, likely placed there after Stuart’s bookplate, is unreadable. Whoever it was must have decided at some point that the Term Reports would be better housed in the Great Library and either donated or sold them to us.

So, the next time you stumble upon a bookplate in a book, just think of how much history could be behind such a small mark of ownership!

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