The journal entries are squeezed between the book’s original descriptions of medical procedures. Written by hand, the script old-fashioned and made with a fountain pen, they detail both the gruesome and the mundane in the world of a village doctor over a hundred years ago. Turn the pages, smell the musty parchment, and it’s as if a little piece of Newcastle’s history has come alive.
Sometimes one small object can transport us back in time, and enrich our understanding of the past. The century-old medical journal of Dr. John Farncomb of Newcastle is one such object and, thanks to the efforts of the Newcastle Village & District Historical Society (NV&DHS), it will eventually be accessible to anyone who would like to read it.
“Our purpose is to try and preserve the information about the community’s history,” says NV&DHS president Allan Kirby. “We are different from a museum in that we don’t hold onto a lot of large artefacts. But we do get papers.”
Donated by Balfour LeGresley, a descendent of the Farncomb family, the doctor’s journal is one of a number of significant donations received by the society. The book itself is a medical manual from 1840 which, according to Kirby, was later passed along to Farncomb from another village doctor, Dr. Rose.
“Farncomb was a doctor and a pharmacist,” says Kirby. “He had a farm down by the lake. He was quite a central person in the community.” Farncomb’s notes do more than provide a glimpse into the medical practices of the time. They also give us a portrait of the town’s inhabitants, and what life was like in that era. In the journal, one can find the names of families from the communities of Newcastle and Orono, names that are still familiar today.
“As he visited patients, he made notes,” explains Kirby. “There are names of a lot of people he went to see, names from the community, such as Tamblyn. And there are notes on the different procedures he did as a doctor. I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to be a doctor at that time. Some of the procedures in the journal are pretty gross; you have to have a strong stomach to read it.”
Mostly it is NV&DHS members who volunteer to do the reading. The Historical Society has a number of volunteers working to create a database, digitizing the information on paper in order to put it online, says Kirby. “It takes a lot of work for volunteers to enter it into the database,” he says. “We’re still constructing it. My long-term goal is to make that information available to people in the community and around the world.”
Kirby says the NV&DHS’s annual meeting, held last Monday, is an important time to recognize the volunteer spirit on which the Historical Society relies. “People identify with the community and seek out ways to participate. We are certainly inviting people to come out, and be a part of it. It’s not very taxing work, it’s not physically demanding, but it’s very interesting. You’d be surprised at the things you learn, like how the doctor was paid with a pig or a rooster, rarely with cash. You get to see how this community operated a hundred years ago.”
The Historical Society also has an active interest in preserving the historical look of the downtown, including recent representations it made to Clarington Council.
“Downtown Newcastle has a turn of the century look,” explains Kirby. “It has the look and feel of the 1890s. There was a big fire in 1896 that burned everything down, so the whole area was rebuilt then. Some people say this is why they moved out here, because of the Disneyland, 1890s architecture. People spend thousands of dollars to go and see that romantic look at Disneyland, and that’s what we’ve got right here. It’s our biggest asset.
“People tell me they moved to this community because they like the look of the downtown core. They’re very concerned about the possible demolition of old buildings and the construction of new buildings that look out of place. So we make representations to Council, to try to preserve that 1890s look.
“We are progressively minded, and want to encourage people to come and build in this area, but we would like them to be in keeping with our design theme. We believe that is the future of the downtown core, keeping that image and creating a niche for businesses. Rather than trying to compete with WalMart, we can capitalize on our image,” says Kirby.
The NV&DHS was founded in 1981. According to vice president Ron Locke, it was Pat Macdonnell who was the main founder of the society. “She passed away last year. She was a life member,” says Locke, himself a member since 1982. Life memberships are bestowed on members of long standing, who have served on the society’s directorship. “Two people were made life members just recently: Dorothy Brown from Newcastle, and Mabel Goode from Orono,” he says.
Annual membership can be purchased, at $10 for an individual and $15 for a family. An additional $5 entitles members to a copy of the society newsletter sent by Canada Post; otherwise, the newsletter is emailed to members. Paid members are also entitled to vote at the annual meeting, to select the board of directors.
Open to the public, the Historical Society’s annual meeting includes a popular Show and Tell feature. In past years, members have brought in items that also reveal a little of what life was like in the area a century ago, such as a 1908 telephone rental agreement with the Clarke/Hope Phone Line in the amount of $12 a year. “The most interesting part is always the Show and Tell,” says Locke. “We never know what we’re going to get. Basically, people bring in something historical: little artefacts or something to do with the general area. It’s usually quite interesting, and people have some pretty good stories to tell.”
The Historical Society is located in the Historical Room of the Newcastle Community Hall. Staffed by volunteers, the room is open Tuesday and Saturday mornings, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.