Archivists who work in “collecting archives” sometimes have a bit of a love/hate relationship with rare book and manuscript auctions. On the one hand they can be a tremendous source of exciting and significant material. On other they may be a drain on scarce funds, and often collections of related material are split into separate lots or even into different auctions in order to make the best profit for the vendor. Frustratingly for the archivist this means you might get some of a collection of papers but not all. Only having part of a collection of course detracts from the usefulness of the collection as a resource for historical research.
What’s a “collecting archives”? – an archives institution that collects (by donation/bequest, deposit or purchase) archives from the community and organisations. The Hocken Library is one of the larger collecting archives in NZ as well as being a pre-eminent research library and gallery. The other main kind of archival institution is an “in-house archives” which mainly receives archives as transfers from a parent organisation; a local example would be the Dunedin City Council Archives which receives the archives it cares for directly from the Dunedin City Council.
Of course the lay person wanting to find a safe repository for their papers is not usually too concerned with the differences between archives and so it is that sometimes “in-house archives” end up with material that doesn’t really fit their collection scope. Instead of destroying unwanted material that clearly has some historical value, archivists ask around amongst their colleagues as to whether another institution might like to have it. And so it was that a small box of treasure found its way to the Hocken last week from the DCC Archives. What’s this got to do with Winston Churchill?
Well, amongst the items in the box was a minute book and copy of a letter relating to something called a Churchill Auction in 1942 in Dunedin. My curiosity was piqued and I started reading. There were four of these auctions held up and down the country in 1942 to raise funds for the Patriotic Councils.
The idea was started when Prime Minister Peter Fraser visited Winston Churchill in England. Churchill made a gift of a book written by an earlier Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1675, Lives of all the Kings of this Isle, to be auctioned in NZ to raise patriotic funds. Hearing of this gift the writer Pat Lawlor contacted the Department of Internal Affairs and suggested that they encourage local committees to organise local auctions of donated material to augment the funds raised by the sale of the book. People up and down the country were encouraged to donate their rare books, documents, manuscripts, paintings, prints and Maori and historical “curios” to the cause. Messrs J. H. Bethune and Co. Ltd of Wellington provided their entire mailing list so that the central organising committee could contact book, manuscript and picture collectors (no Privacy Act back then!). The Dunedin Committee discussed the idea of collecting letters of Katherine Mansfield and advertising the auction in North America to encourage a better price! I inwardly groaned, wondering what New Zealand archival treasure had been hocked off overseas! Luckily the impracticality of the suggestion precluded advertising overseas and I cannot find any mention of Katherine Mansfield letters being offered for sale.
|Minutes of the Dunedin Churchill Auction Committee 1942, a who’s who of arts and culture in Dunedin at the time (r. 5439)|
As it turns out the auctions raised some money but not as much as was expected as the market for such items in NZ was not great. In Dunedin over five hundred pounds were raised a newspaper report noted that demand and prices for NZ books in the auction was good but poor for overseas material such as first editions of Dickens. And to my relief it seems that no archives or manuscripts were sold overseas.
Thank you to the Dunedin City Council Archivists, Allison and Chris, for sending this material to the Hocken.
Watching TV’s ‘Briscoes Lady’ promoting another birthday sale, few would be aware that the birth of the Briscoes company dates to the eighteenth century.
It was probably William Briscoe who established the firm in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, sometime around 1750. One reference mentions a balance sheet dating from 1756 and another gives the establishment date as about 1768. In 1781 members of the Briscoe family signed a partnership agreement. Headquarters eventually moved to London, with branches established in the West Indies and South America. A Melbourne offshoot was established in about 1854, and New Zealand operations opened in Dunedin as Arthur Briscoe & Co. in 1863. In New Zealand the company operated primarily as wholesale ironmongers and hardware merchants, but with some retail trade.
Arthur Briscoe, one of the company partners in England, probably never visited New Zealand. The founding manager in Dunedin was Hugh MacNeil, who had begun his working life as an ironmonger in Glasgow before managing Briscoes in Melbourne. He became a partner in the firm in 1880 and gained managerial control of both the New Zealand and Australian operations.
|Arthur Briscoe & Co billhead, from MS-0989/058|
The lithographed billhead here, dated 14 July 1886, shows that different parts of the organisation were styled in different ways: Wm Briscoe & Son (Wolverhampton and London), Briscoe & Co. (Melbourne), Briscoe, Drysdale & Co. (Sydney), Briscoe Bros (Jamaica), and Arthur Briscoe & Co. (Dunedin). In the 1890s branches were established in Wellington and Auckland as Briscoe, MacNeil & Co.
The billhead features the company’s buildings on the corner of Princes and Jetty streets, which were designed by R.A. Lawson and opened in 1872. An Otago Daily Times report from that year describes a company importing directly from Europe and America, with an average of 100 tonnes of goods unloaded at Port Chalmers every week. Stock included such diverse items as kitchen stoves, umbrella stands, lamps, and lawn mowers (‘a wonderful little machine of recent invention’). Some goods, such as enamel kitchenware and cooking utensils, were similar to items sold in Briscoes stores today, but linen and soft furnishings have only become staples in recent decades. Much business was directed towards the building trade, and at a separate iron yard in Bond Street there was much in the way of iron bars, piping, and sheet iron, with a supply of up to 150 tonnes of nails in stock at any one time. The company also imported tea for many years.
Briscoes moved to new premises in Crawford Street in the 1900s and the old building was later occupied by T. & G. Life. They demolished it in the 1950s to put up the building now known as Upstart House. Briscoes’ head office moved from London to Melbourne in 1958, and then to New Zealand in 1970. The parent company was purchased by Merbank Corporation of Australia in 1973 and transformed from a wholesaler of imported goods to a general merchandise retailer. Briscoes Group Ltd was purchased by the R.A. Duke Trust (of New Zealand) in 1990 and became a public company in 2001. As of 2011 it has 54 Homeware stores and 32 Rebel Sport sporting goods stores throughout New Zealand.
Hocken holds some financial and other records of Briscoe & Co., 1865-1970, under the reference number MS-3300. The billhead is from the Preston family papers (MS-0989/058).
Blog post written by David Murray, Archivist (Arrangement and Description)