Unknown heroes are coming alive at the Treasures Gallery at the National Library of Australia in Canberra. Alongside astonishing items from our last two and a half centuries, are famous faces you may never have seen. Mostly unknown today but extraordinary celebrities of their time.
I can gaze forever at James Cook’s Endeavour Journal written as he discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770. I learnt at school about his adventures, and now I see his actual handwritten record. He really wrote that. Then there’s Bligh’s diary from the mutiny of the Bounty in 1789. Burke and Wills’ notebooks from their fateful expedition in 1861. The original manuscript of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda from 1895. All magnificent icons of Australian history, and together in one room.
At the moment there’s also the exhibition “Portraits of the Famous and Infamous”. Fifty portraits, each not as well known but with a fascinating story to tell.
One is a boy Johnny Day whose name might come up with the Melbourne Cup just around the corner. Born 159 years ago, he was an undefeated world-champion juvenile walker. Yes, walker. Pedestrianism, the forerunner to today’s Olympic Walking, attracted huge crowds in the 1860s and 70s. Johnny was one of Australia’s first truly international sporting heroes. And when he was just 14, the “Walking Wonder” turned his talents to horse racing. He was the winning jockey on rank outsider Nimblefoot in the 1870 Cup. Johnny later testified that he won the Cup against the trainer’s instructions. There’s also a story about that Nimblefoot’s owner dreamt he won the Cup, but that he would not live to see the race. He promptly died and his wife collected on a huge wager. Sadly that tale was dreamed up by a publicity hungry bookie.
But still I stare at Cook’s writing. Pushing my face as close as possible to the atmosphere controlled glass case. It’s amazing to think that I’m reading Cook’s own handwriting from 245 years ago. The greatest explorer in the world. Seeing the Cup next week would be pretty good. But this is the best trip to a library ever.