A Mysterious Document Discovered Inside A Used Copy of 'Alice In Wonderland'

In January 2014, a visitor handed over a copy of the Alice in Wonderland book and a mysterious document to Lorraine Smith, the second-hand bookshop owner in Warrnambool, Australia. Down the bottom was a date – 1583. The top of the document had been cut into a zig-zag, and below that were tight lines of handwriting, in a language didn’t look quite like English. And the document, didn’t feel like paper, but rougher, like some sort of parchment. She couldn’t read most of the writing, but at the bottom were recognizable numbers—1583. Her daughter, Karyn, had an idea. Enlisting a professor of early modern history at the University of Queensland, she confirmed that the document came from the 16th century, more than 200 years before the British arrived in Australia. Smith grew determined to discover what this manuscript was and where it had come from. What was that obscure writing? Who was the document’s original owner? And how did it end up in Australia?

It was one of many books Lorraine had picked up from The Salvation Army in November 2013 and brought back to the shelves of her bookshop on Raglan Parade – and there it sat for two months until someone opened the cover and discovered the mysterious document. The zig-zag top indicates that it was a legal document. In 16th-century Britain, a contract would have been drafted twice on the same piece of parchment and cut into a zig-zag; in the future, each party could authenticate the other’s copy by matching up the unique cut pattern.

The writing, though difficult to decipher, is an early form of modern English, written in a cursive hand, and it describes a land transfer between two families, the Popeleys and the Appleyards, who lived in a tiny place called Gildersome, in West Yorkshire, England.

And it turns out Jack Bullen – whose wife Betty had owned the Alice in Wonderland book – lives just up the road from Lorraine. Unfortunately, Betty had passed away in Warrnambool in 2003.

Smith's daughter transcribed the first 10 lines for her and that gave her a couple of names and she was then able to research these names and eventually she was able to track it to Warrnambool. Lorraine said it took her and her daughter a long time to transcribe the rest of the document, which was written before standardised English was established in the 1700s.

“It names Elizabeth the first. It doesn’t say ‘the first’ but it was Elizabeth Queen of England, Ireland and France and she was reigning in 1583,” she said.

Lorraine discovered that the document spent most of last century clipped inside a book called The Story of Morley – which features a photo of the document – and was brought to Australia in 1924.

Coincidentally, that was the year the Alice in Wonderland book was published and the same year that Betty Bullen – the owner of the Alice in Wonderland book – was born. “Both books turned up on my bookshelf, in different parts of the shop,” Lorraine said.

There are still parts of the mystery that are unsolved. The fate of the Appleyard half is unknown. For now, the deed itself will stay in Australia. The country’s laws restrict the export of historical documents, and, Smith points out, a document of such age is much more rare in Australia than it would be in England.




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