In the early 1970s, I lived for a year in Surry Hills. My then wife Annie and I were undergraduate students. I worked in the Wynyard Travelodge on weekends as a carpark attendant (see short story here at page 20) and Annie did secretarial work. We were so broke that we would go to Paddy’s market in the Haymarket just before closing time where you could buy the dregs of unsold fruit and vegetables for next to nothing.

Annie loved searching opportunity shops for cheap crockery and bric-à-brac. There was one in Albion Street near where we lived that she would frequent.

One day she arrived home with an ancient little book that someone many years ago had pasted over with now long-faded white paper. She’d bought it for 20 cents. To our amazement, it was an 1842 book by Caroline Chisholm, Australia’s first advocate for humanitarian rights for immigrants, especially young women, titled Female Immigration, Considered in a Brief Account of the Sydney Immigrants’ Home. 

A friend, the late Gary Simes, was an English scholar and bibliophile. He suggested we take the book to a man who was said to know more about rare books than anyone else in Sydney. I’m pretty sure he worked out of an office crowded with books in an old building in Foveaux St near central railway. I’d value his name from anyone who may recall him.

I took it down without an appointment and passed it to him across his large crowded desk. He immediately knew what it was I’d handed him and became quite excited. He looked it up in a giant catalogue of rare books and listed off libraries in Australian and overseas which had a copy. I think he said there were something like five known copies.

“What do you plan to do with this” he asked. “You know it would be worth a lot of money to a collector”. He mentioned several well-endowed US libraries that might pay something like $5000. In the early 1970s this was an unthinkably large amount of money.

He said repeatedly that he hoped we would do our best to keep it in Australia. I had no hesitation in agreeing.

After discussing it with Annie, we took it to the University of Sydney’s Fisher Library and asked what they might be able to pay us. They offered $300 which we accepted in a blink. I think we might have had a slap-up Greek dinner at the fabled Diethnes in Pitt Street that night with a bottle of white demestica, an under-rated retsina sadly no longer available.

A few years ago I was walking past the rare books section in the Fisher building and on a whim went to the desk and asked if I might see the book. It was brought out to a reading desk in full view of the staff. I had to put on thin white gloves to browse the book. I took a few photos, including those above and this one showing the price of a pound of tobacco in 1842: three times the cost of a pound of sugar!

You can read the digitised book here