Antique book tells Jane Austen and Royal secrets

Open this book and you’ll discover true stories of England’s King Henry VIII, Jane Austen, whaling ships from the age of sail, Antarctic expeditions, and the kings of Norway and Sweden. But they’ve got nothing to do with the young girl raised in the streets of London by her Irish grandmother that the novel is about.

‘Little Pearl’ was written by Mrs Stanley Leathes and published in London in 1881. Inside the front cover is a label that shows it was given as a prize to eight-year-old Elsie Gundersen at the King Street School in West Melbourne in December 1902.

Mrs Leathes and little Elsie Gundersen are the storytellers who transport us to unexpected adventures around the world. Click here to see a short film preview of this story and the prize label inside.

Mrs Stanley Leathes was born Matilda Butt in 1832 in Swansea, Wales, where her father was a church minister. Her grandfather was a poet and teacher The Reverend George Butt who was George III’s Chaplain-in-Ordinary. He was a descendant of Sir William Butts who was a member of King Henry the VIII’s court and served as the king’s personal physician. His other patients included Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Cardinal Wolsey.

Sir William Butts

When Matilda was twelve years-old her mother died and so with her father unable to cope with his seven young children, Matilda was raised by her aunts Mary and Lucy both of whom were novelists. The aunts had attended Reading Abbey Girls’ School which was depicted in a novel by another former pupil, Jane Austen. 

Aunt Mary Martha Sherwood was “one of the most significant authors of children’s literature of the nineteenth century”. Their fiction was popular both in Sunday schools where it was aimed and as childhood fiction in general. They each published over four hundred works.

Matilda married a church minister and her children included Sir Stanley Mordaunt Leathes who was a poet, economist, historian, and senior civil servant, and John Beresford Leathes who was a physiologist and biochemist who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Matilda wrote dozens of books including ‘Little Pearl’ (also known as ‘All Among the Daisies’) which was reprinted for decades.

My copy was an early edition that was presented in 1902 to little Elsie Erica Janet Gundersen whose ancestry reflected the grandest Viking traditions of the sea.

Her father was Hans Jorgen Gundersen, a career diplomat who was the Scandinavian consul in Melbourne from 1888 until 1906 on the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden, at which time he became vice-consul of Norway. Hans was born at sea in 1850 aboard his grandfather’s Norwegian barque ‘Minerva’ which was nearly a century old and commanded by his father.

Hans Jorgen Gundersen

Hans was a staunch supporter of Australia’s Antarctic Exploration Committee and took his calls for an expedition further by organising his own private commercial venture. For this he needed a ship.

In 1895 the brig ‘Phyllis’ was the last whaling ship to operate out of Sydney. Departing on a six-month voyage that year, the crew failed to land a single whale and two of the crew were drowned. In 1897 the ship embarked from Sydney on a voyage in which her sails were shredded in gales. The lives of the starving crew were saved thanks to the heroism of some of the crew of a passing royal mail ship – they volunteered to launch a boat and battled the hurricane swell for three and half hours to deliver provisions. The ‘Phyllis’ was then put up for sale in Melbourne by order of the Victorian chief justice under the jurisdiction of the Vice Admiralty. Hans Gundersen purchased her for £110.

This was the first step in Hans equipping his expedition to the Kerguelen Islands also known as the Desolation Islands in the Antarctic. They are among the most isolated places on earth. Hans refitted the ship and renamed her ‘Edward’ in honour of England’s King Edward VII whose daughter had just married Prince Carl of Norway.

The brig Edward previously Phyllis

Hans recruited respected Melbourne ornithologist Robert Hall as the expedition’s naturalist. The ship departed Melbourne in October 1897 and returned in March the following year with a cargo of 900 skins and 19,000 gallons of unrefined elephant and leopard seal oil. The expedition made a modest profit but returned with a large collection of geological and botanical specimens. A baby sea elephant was captured and sold to the Melbourne Aquarium where it became a popular attraction.

Hans was decorated by King Oscar II of Norway and Sweden as a Knight with the first-class Order of Saint Olav and the Order of Vasa. Hans sold the brig ‘Edward’. When she was wrecked off Point Nepean in 1912, ‘Edward’ was the last working brig – a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts – in the Commonwealth and quite possibly the world.

The permanent icecaps of the Kerguelen Islands

The children of Hans included Gunnar Gundersen who was a Melbourne mathematics professor and world-renowned chess champion, Dr Sara Gundersen who was a senior lecturer in bacteriology, and Elsie Gundersen who in 1902 was awarded the book ‘Little Pearl’ for second prize at the King Street Primary School in West Melbourne.

During the First World War, Elsie was a nurse and masseuse with the Australian Army Nursing Service. She volunteered for service overseas but was retained in Australia where her postings included Mont Park Hospital for the Insane. That’s where she met Gordon Campbell Beavis in 1918 when he was invalided home from France suffering from shell shock.

Gordon’s troopship the Ballarat had been torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel in 1917. The next year when attacking a German machine gun emplacement, Gordon was one of just four survivors when an artillery shell landed on top of his bombing party of ten.

Elsie and Gordon married in 1919 immediately after the war and went to live first in Heywood and Condah in Victoria’s western district and then Eltham in Melbourne.

Elsie gave her book ‘Little Pearl’ to Gordon’s cousin Ella who was thirteen years her junior. The book then passed to Ella’s daughter Shirley, and Shirley is my mum. Recently I chanced upon ‘Little Pearl’.

The story that this antique books tells is far more than the words inside. The author Mrs Stanley Leaves and the book’s original owner Elsie Gundersen led me to some remarkable tales. Never, ever, judge a book by its cover.


Photo credits:
Little Pearl – my own
Portrait of William Butts aged 59 by Hans Holbein the Younger c1543 – Wikipedia public domain
Mr Hans Gunderson – Adelaide Critic, 29 March 1902, page 17
Brig Edward – Australian National Maritime Museum Collection
Kergeulen eternal icecap by Frank Hurley c1930 – National Library of Australia

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