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Who would have thought that a tiny book - no bigger than a 50 cent piece – could tell us so much about its owner?
This miniature daily devotional represents a time in the mid-nineteenth century when there was an upsurge in Christian publications due to an evangelical revival. Its London publisher – The Religious Tract Society – was one of the largest publishers of Christian literature of this period. The book was printed at 56 Paternoster Row, London which is where The Religious Tract society was located between 1851 to 1860. Despite its miniature size, there is a scripture verse for every day of the year (including February 29) selected from the King James Version of the Old and New Testaments. It was used by missionaries, servicemen and its widest readership – children. This type of book was created to be a source of meditation, encouragement and daily instruction. Its leather exterior has not degraded and the wallet-type clasp is in good worker order. All the pages are present and their gilt edges still shine. Even though this type of miniature book was very popular, there are few in such good condition in existence now. This provides insight into its value and how it was cared for by its owner.
Its owner was a well-known Australian adventurer, physician and journalist – Dr George Ernest Morrison (1862-1920). Sometimes known as ‘Peking Morrison’ or ‘Chinese Morrison’, this is one of the few items in the Library’s collection which are associated with his early life. By the age of 22, George had already walked from Melbourne to Adelaide, paddled solo down the Murray River in a canoe and walked in Burke and Wills footsteps and survived. On 4 October 1883, he was speared in his abdomen and face during an ill-fated mission to cross Papua New Guinea from the south to the north, which was considered at that time, to be the last explored place on earth. He returned to Melbourne as quickly as possible, but surgeons did not want to touch his wounds. They recommended that he travel to Scotland so that the Professor of Surgery at The University of Edinburgh – John Chiene – could separate and remove all the spear fragments still in his body.
Sometime before he left for Scotland on 27 March 1884, George was given this miniature daily devotion book by his six year old sister – Hilda (Evelyn Hilda Gaunt nee Morrison 1877-1967). The written inscription on the flyleaf states: ‘Ernest with Hilda’s love. Geelong College March 1884’. Whether the book was a farewell gift and/or a means for comfort is unclear, but what we do know is that Hilda continued to express her care for her brother. During The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), she wrote to George on 19 August 1900 of her worry for him because news had reached Australia of a recent massacre in China where George was currently residing. She wrote that she had received his telegram and “I then breathed freely for a time”. Given that George Morrison kept this book throughout all his travels to Scotland, Spain, Jamaica and China, it adds evidence to the argument that he treasured this little book. Further, whilst he gave away other books when he lived in China, he kept this book, and kept it in such good condition that he must have cherished it.
This little devotional book not only contains a large amount of content on its tiny pages, but is also representative of a period of evangelical Christian revival in the mid-nineteenth century. More importantly, it is a physical symbol of the love of one sibling for another and will continued to be treasured in its new home at the State Library.
Written by Lisa Chavez, Intern, Research and Discovery Branch, December 2016
Information on history of Religious Tract Society history at Paternoster Street provided by Emma Thompson, Curatorial Intern (Books and Manuscripts), Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle, Berkshire on 9 November 2016.
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