Priceless document comes home after 211 years

Priceless document comes home after 211 years
11 September 2007

The earliest surviving document printed in Australia, recently found in the collection of Library and Archives Canada, has come home as a gift to the nation from the Canadian Government.

The item, a theatre playbill dated 30 July 1796, was presented today by the Prime Minister of Canada, The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, to the Prime Minister of Australia, the Honourable John Howard MP, at a ceremony held at Parliament House.

National Library Director-General Jan Fullerton accepted the playbill into the collection, noting the generosity of Library and Archives Canada and the ongoing spirit of goodwill that exists between the two institutions.

“This is an extraordinarily generous and highly significant gift to the people of Australia. The survival of the playbill, and its discovery and return, is a demonstration of the commitment of our two institutions to preserving and providing access to documentary heritage.

“It will have a richly deserved place alongside other key documents such as Cook’s Endeavour journal, William Bligh’s notebook and Eddie Mabo’s papers in our new Treasures Gallery due to open in 2009,” she said.

The document advertises a theatrical performance held at the Theatre, Sydney, on Saturday, 30 July 1796. It was printed in Sydney by George Hughes, operator of Australia’s first printing press, which came out on the First Fleet.

It was probable that Philip Gidley King took the playbill with him when he visited England in October 1796.  King was a First Fleet Marine Officer and, later, 3rd Governor of the colony of NSW from 1800–1806. King’s handwriting and signature are on the back of the sheet.

The playbill was found by a Library and Archives Canada rare books bibliographer in a scrapbook containing several items of mostly Canadian printed ephemera, and other playbills and advertisements for performances in 19th century England.

The scrapbook was transferred to Library and Archives Canada from the Canadian Parliamentary Library in 1973. The scrapbook had been compiled by British banker, botanist and antiquary Dawson Turner (1775–1858).

The significance of this playbill was realised when the scrapbook was being dismantled and the individual pieces catalogued separately for inclusion in the Library and Archives Canada collection.

Media contacts: Yvonne Kennedy, Tel: 02 6262 1353; 0411 753 891; ykennedy@nla.gov.au
Ellen Peterson, Tel: 02 6262 1571; epeterson@nla.gov.au