Meeting Josiah Chater

What does it mean to travel through time? Can one really do that, step into another time and someone elses shoes..?

It’s a cold winters morning, one of my first trial shifts as a volunteer at the Museum of Cambridge, when I walk up the narrow staircase, up to the light and cozy upstairs. I put my coat down on the sofa, feeling nervous but excited.

“Can I get you a hot drink, tea, coffee?” The managers friendly face poked around the corner. “Just a glass of water, please”. I’ve been distracted by the bookcase. “You can take one to read if you want!”. The book I want is called Victorian Cambridge by Enid Porter. Josiah Chaters diaries. It has a picture on the front of the old Petty Cury, before modernity knocked it down for the Grand Arcade. Irresistibly nostalgic.

Back downstairs I sit down at the desk and open the book. A creaking noise..“We got up at 7 o’clock this morning. Stephen and I dressed our selves and at 8 o’clock a large bell was rung and into breakfast we went in good earnest.” Tuesday 10th of November 1844. I hear his voice before I see him. A young, confident looking boy he walks across the room. He’s come to Cambridge from Saffron Walden to be an apprentice at Mr Eaden Lilley’s drapers shop on market street. “Home is such a burden. I’d rather be here where there’s things to do”. He adjusts the bakers cap on his head and pulls his brown coat tighter around him. A knitted scarf pokes up around his stick-up collars and striped cravat. “It’s a new thing, all the lads have them” He looks as if he’s waiting. “ Well come on then!”

I take his arm and we rush out the door. The whole world has changed, Bridge street is filled with street sellers, women in bonnets and horse drawn carriages. We start walking towards the market. “There you are!” shouts a boy holding a bucket of water as we turn up on market street. Stephen, I presume. Josiah grabbed another bucket of water and I followed them running to the market place. It was nothing like I remembered it. Less than half the size, a few rows of stalls in front of a much smaller guild hall and a fountain where the odd cat and mouse statue used to be. The rest was two rows of buildings, all on fire. I stood in wonder watching people rushing and shouting, pouring buckets of water onto the flames, some people still trying to climb out the windows. Like an inferno. The chemists shop exploding like fireworks and the smell…! Josiah stops for a moment beside me, wiping soot from his face.

“The fire raged until about 6 o’clock… surely it was dreadful, buildings that could have been seen only a few hours before now lying nearly flat on the ground, all black and smoking. I must confess though, that while it was burning it was a glorious sight.” 16th of September 1849.

I close the book. Looking around, I’m back at the desk… everything is calm again. But I will never forget my first encounter with one of the many invisible inhabitants of this place. The brave and glorious teenager, Josiah Chater.

Imagine my surprise when, a few days later I found a postcard in the Fitzwilliam museum shop. A picture of the old market place, just as I had seen it before the flames ate it up.. How curious.

Meeting Josiah Chater