Letters, diaries and manuscripts are considered a primary source in the academic study of history because of the valuable information they can unlock.
And Hansons Auctioneers is proud to shine a light into the past thanks to the historical discoveries it regularly makes. Offered for sale in the firm’s quarterly Library Auctions, these finds range from 13th-century manuscripts to First World War journals.
Jim Spencer, Head of Books & Works on Paper at Hansons Auctioneers, is the man behind the specialist sales, and is brimming with passion when it comes to rummaging through boxes of material. He famously discovered a “300-year-old sex manual”, which made news around the world, and, in a recent sale, offered an archive of correspondence and ephemera relating to a tour of the Craven Heifer - England’s fattest ever cow - in 1812.
Jim Spencer with a 300-year-old 'sex manual'.
This week, Jim discovered a letter from 1852 describing the Australian Gold Rush. Written in Lyndoch Valley on 4 March 1852, and sent to a family member in Warminster, Wiltshire, it describes the excitement and adventure of the gold fields.
‘I expect that in two more months nearly all the men and a few women will have left this colony for the Melbourne Gold Fields...Thousands of persons goes overland & thousands go by water. All classes are off to the diggers...60 persons last week returned from the Diggings bringing twenty five thousand pounds worth of that trash called gold.’
The author says a shoemaker, returning to Adelaide after 13 weeks, has been averaging £20 per week at the diggings.
The Australian Gold Rush, which began during the previous year in 1851, had a profound impact on the country’s wealth and character. Population and prosperity grew rapidly as people joined the diggings from around the world. The immigrants brought new skills and contributed to the burgeoning economy, with the capital being dubbed “Marvellous Melbourne”. The mateship that evolved between the “diggers”, and their unified resistance to colonial British authority, redefined Australia’s national identity.
The Gold Rush letter.
Jim Spencer made the discovery in a deed box full of old indentures while working through a house clearance in Derbyshire.
He said: “Correspondence like this really tells a story. Letters seem to speak directly to us, connecting us with the past. Look at the ink, think of the hand composing these lines in Adelaide on 4th March, 1852 - they’re talking to us. Did they know that people would be reading their words in 2021? What would they make of the record gold prices in 2020 caused by coronavirus and geopolitical tensions?
“Most of us send emails and make video-calls these days, more so than ever during the pandemic. Will future historians be able to study our words, thoughts, emotions, as we lived through this challenging period?
“This is what I love about manuscripts and ephemera, it really brings history vividly to life. Sometimes, it can bring eye-watering sums of money at auction, as we’ve seen with autograph letters by the likes of Lord Nelson, but sometimes the value is less monetary and more about bringing the past to life - it’s equally of interest to me.”
The letter will be sold as part of a collection of indentures and postal history, guided at £200-300, in the Derbyshire Fine Art sale at Hansons Auctioneers on 24 February 2021.
Free Library Auction valuations
If you have a book, letter, manuscript or map you wish to have valued, please email Jim Spencer: [email protected]