Carbon paper letter books

Today we are highlighting a couple of interesting items from our New Zealand Manuscripts collection: carbon paper manifold copying books. These two copying books show two of the most common uses for the technology.  The first of these is a letter book of a practising lawyer and contains business records as well as personal correspondence, while the second is a letter book as well as a diary.

Ref: James Pirie's diary, Front endpaper detail, 1870s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZMS 427.

The first (NZMS 1221) is a carbon paper letter book from the years 1893 -1897 when Mr Montague Harrison Wynyard (1870-1959) was working as a lawyer in Auckland. Mr Montague Wynyard, author of the history of One Tree Hill, was a grandson of Lieutenant Colonel R.H. Wynyard. Monty was also known as ‘Main Highways’ Wynyard a play on his first initials due to his involvement with Automobile Association and because he was one of the chief instigators of the main highways project. He also authored a publication titled, Genesis of Auckland Harbour Works and he was a member of the Auckland Harbour Board for around 20 years. For more biographical information on Monty Wynyard, there is also a short biography in the publication Makers of Auckland (1871-1971).

The letters in the book cover a range of subjects, indicating a busy law firm. These range from correspondence from coal companies on West Coast regarding briquette manufacture and patents, various financial matters relating to monies owed, the purchase of the Manukau Gazette, and multiple letters about Jack Clark, William Buddle’s son and another boy absconding to Sydney. According to the letters the boys were sent back on the next boat! This letter book has had an index created which is available to read in our reading room. The image below is the letter from page 94, detailing payment for a survey for Mr. Sheppard at Block B, Opuatia. It visible below how thin the sheets of paper were in these letter books.

Ref: Excerpt from Montague Wynyard's letter book, page 94, 1890s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, NZMS 1221.

The second carbonic letter book (NZMS 427) is the diary of Major James Pirie and details his family’s emigration to New Zealand from England. This dates from 1878 and 1879 and covers the journey from Gravesend to Auckland. The journal is broken into two parts, the first detailing the journey from England to Melbourne in the S.S. Somersetshire and the second describes the trip around New Zealand in the steamer S.S. Tararua and Major Pirie’s initial impressions of New Zealand as well as his subsequent quest for employment upon arrival here.

Ref: James Pirie's diary, Front endpapers, 1870s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZMS 427.

It is a letter book produced by S. Mordan and Co and contains a stylus, carbon sheets and a black metallic writing plate which would be inserted under the top page. S. Mordan and Co. was founded by Sampson Mordan who was the co-inventor of the first patented mechanical pencil. This letter book comes with a typed transcript, a copy of which was donated to the Turnbull Library in 1966 so is available for those of you in Wellington to read there.

Ref: James Pirie's diary, Back endpapers, 1870s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZMS 427.

Below are some excerpts from the first part of the journey, from England to Australia:

On board Somersetshire, Gravesend London, 16 Dec 1878

Arrived on board at 2pm, weather bright but fresh breeze and hard frost. Poor Mrs Coombs gave up charge of her pet Cecil and was the last link we had of our dear old Island and friends, the separation is now complete and away we go to new destinies among new people. The start took place about 3pm and the first mishap was the inability to fire the cannon which missed fire 3 times and in fact was given up as a bad job.

The journey does not start too promisingly for Major Pirie as this entry on Boxing Day 1878 shows:

I do not think there are any first rate people in our end of the ship We I think are the only emigrants, almost all the others are returning to their homes some fast young men are on their way round the world “for a spree, some are commercial travellers but none seem to have influential or useful interest for my wants but we all get along agreeably.

The trip across the Atlantic took around ten days as Major Pirie describes the excitement as the boat anchors outside St. Vincent.

9pm 27th Dec

The Somersetshire is at anchor outside the port and all are in a state of excitement waiting for the light of day to guide us in to St Vincent where our thirsty lips are eagerly expecting to be satisfied with Limes, Lemons & Oranges.

Fruit was not the only purchase at the stop in the Caribbean:

As wine is necessary on board, water being undrinkable, I went in for 3 doz Malvoisie for 36/- bottles included as I pay here on board 4/- for a bottle of wine and Ale is 1/- I made a satisfactory purchase

Here is Major Pirie describing how time was spent on the voyage across the Pacific:

Rope Quoits, Chess, Book reading & smoking form the daily amusement of the gentlemen and I am sorry that gambling has been largely introduced in as noisy & repulsive manner as at a race course… The ladies? Well they flirt & read, work & flirt as they do everywhere

Ref: James Pirie's diary, Front endpaper detail, 1870s, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZMS 427.

5am 12 Feb 1879

Land ho! & Australian land….

The entry after sighting Australia is reflective, similar perhaps to how one feels after landing in Wellington on particularly windy day.

From the moment of starting to the present, nothing but fine weather has prevented a calamity ALL the “braces” have broken one after another The Screw has been out of order twice There are only 5 or 6 in the Ship who understand properly the names and uses of the ropes and sheets…and last night a number of the 3rd class passengers at midnight were making a disturbance & the Captain ordered out the Fire hose to put them out.

Major Pirie then describes how the hose was attached to the steam pump, but to no effect as it was broken and no water could be got that way and how lucky they were not to have had a fire.

Thus end part 1.

Major Pirie and his family then spend a week in Melbourne, described as “a grand modern town, the Shops are as attractive as cleanliness and colour can make them, the streets magnificently wide”. This was not without incident though, “All our goods were run up to Melbourne in railway trucks and mixed up with baggage & goods at the Station it took me 3 days to find all my packages there is no order or system there.”

Part two describes the trip on the steamer S.S. Tararua from Melbourne, via Bluff, Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Napier, to Auckland. It then goes on to document the family’s subsequent move to Auckland and contains detailed descriptions of Auckland, and specifically Ponsonby, of this time. Below is an image of All Saints Church in Ponsonby as Major Pirie would have seen it in 1879.

The image below is of page 64 in the diary where Major Pirie is describing his initial impressions of the Auckland (Waitematā) and Manukau harbours, “I am most impressed with that of Auckland and Manukau where I as a pilgrim hoped on landing that I might call this my rest as long as life lasts.” 

Ref: Excerpt from James Pirie's diary, page 64, 1879, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, NZMS 427. 

This seems a perfect use for this kind of technology as it enabled Major Pirie to send letters home with updates on their journey as well as leaving a diary for he and his family’s records. Indeed the final entry in diary reads: "Mr and Mrs Carey Pirie are on a voyage from Sydney to Hong Kong and have been reading the diary kept by Father."

If you would like more information on the Pirie family Auckland Libraries holds a photograph album (Photograph Album Collection no. 17) containing 158 images that appears to have belonged to them. In these images James Pirie is described as Lieutenant-Colonel, a higher rank than Major, thus he must have been promoted during his time in New Zealand. You can read his obituary in the New Zealand Herald from 20 March 1915.

The index and transcripts for these letter books are valuable aids for readers as the original documents are rather frail by nature and are even more so over a century later. For more information on copying methods and machines, the Office Museum website has a history of antique copying methods and machines.

If you would like to look at these examples of carbon copy books, please contact Sir George Grey Special Collections and you will be able to examine them in the special collections reading room.

Author: Andrew Henry


  1. Interesting post! A valuable insight into these manuscripts as physical objects as well as their personal content.


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