A housewifely urge to turn out an old cardboard box revealed a treasure beyond imagining in Palmerston North, New Zealand – a genuine 1616 edition of the King James Bible. St Peter's Anglican Church staff told local reporter Lee Matthews they plan to have it restored, and displayed.
Quite how a 1616 edition of the King James Bible ever got put into a cupboard in Palmerston North's St Peter's Church is a mystery that may never be solved.
Even its discovery was an accident. Vicar Anne Chrisp said the church was looking for older bibles to help the City Library with a display to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first printing of King James Bible last year.
Somebody recollected a lot of old bibles in a box in a cupboard and found something extra. At the bottom was a big brown paper parcel that nobody knew anything about.
Unwrapped, it proved to be a folio-sized bible, covered with battered black leather, sagging somewhat through the spine. Opened, the frontispiece proclaimed it to be: "Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings. most excellent maiesty. 1616".
Great excitement, but the first task was to prove whether the book was genuine. Parish records were scoured to see where it might have come from, and parishioner the late Keith Hopper started researching old bibles.
The only clue to possible previous ownership was a signature on one of the pages; J Pattison. Mr Hopper researched the family and discovered Pattisons, also spelt Pattinson, had arrived in Ashhurst early in settlement of Manawatu. It was possible the Bible might have been given to the church by the family, but the parish records didn't yield any information about its gifting.
"There's no family descent written in the front of it. Sometimes families did that," Rev Chrisp says.
Mr Hopper took careful photographs of the book, and sent them to Anthony Tedeschi, Dunedin Library's rare books expert. Mr Tedeschi moved to New Zealand from the United States in 2007, and his research expertise includes the history of the English Bible and provenance research.
Mr Tedeschi said he was initially skeptical about St Peter's Bible. Old bibles are often faked.
"My first thought was that it would be the standard 19th-century edition, bound in black morocco. Then I thought it might be a facsimile of something older."
One test of a book's provenance is to check the errors it contains. Letters mistakenly skipped from certain words, incorrect punctuation, the printing fonts used can be compared with provenanced books.
"So I did that, cross-checked these things against the other known editions, and they matched up. It's authentic," Mr Tedeshi said. "I was pretty excited!"
Only 30 copies of bibles from this 1616 first edition print run are known to exist, mostly held in collections in Britain and the United States. St Peters' copy makes 31, and the only one that Mr Tedeshi knows about in Australasia.
There are two earlier editions of the King James Bible, printed in 1611 and 1613 respectively. They were big books, weighing about 10kg, designed to be read while standing at a pulpit. The 1616 edition was a smaller version – 313mm by 225mm, and 94mm deep. They were produced for smaller, poorer churches whose congregations couldn't afford the big bibles, but still big books by today's paperback standards.
"Not terribly comfortable to curl up with to read," Mr Tedeshi says. "They'd have been read with the book resting on a flat surface."
Mr Tedeschi says nobody knows the number of books in the 1616 first edition print run.
Robert Barker was the royal printer for King James, and the bibles were produced using individually cast lead letters, out of which compositors made words, lines, paragraphs and columns that were screwed into a forme.
1616 Bible not opened in decades
St Peter's 1616 King James Bible had an exciting secret hidden under its battered old leather covers – a large fragment of the original 1616 calfskin binding.
Rare material conservator Steve Williams, of Triptych Conservation, said the book was recovered with leather early in the 20th century, and whoever had done the work had gone straight over the top of the remains of the original cover.
"Rather unusual. Today we'd conserve that original, and make it part of the new binding. That's what I'll do."
It was a difference in style. Late 19th- and early 20th-century book restoration was done with an eye to keeping the book used and useful. Today, conservation was the key, using – wherever possible – the same types of leathers, glues, and materials as would have been originally put into the book.
Mr Williams said the Bible looked as though it hadn't been used for decades. Page wear and damage had been sustained decades and centuries ago. The text block was in quite good condition, but some of the front pages and sections had come loose from its new binding.
He stripped the book back to its underwear, discarding the more modern add ons, and restitched the sections and pages together. Then he built a new cover, using the page-sized original browny-black calfskin, and modern leather made under the same 17th century processes.
"You do have to be careful with pastes and glues. They used natural animal products, cow hooves and things, like a form of gelatine. You can reverse those glues fairly easily, you apply a type of poultice to glued area, and over time it loosens and you can carefully scrape it all away."
Modern PVA and petrochemical glues were a nightmare when found on old books, because they couldn't be reversed. The book was stuck with them forever, and they ruined the antiquity value.Mr Williams has restored books and conserved other rare objects for 38 years. He trained in Britain, starting in a county archives office.
He came to New Zealand 10 years ago, and does contract work for people who needed proper archival conservation of any items – conserving and preserving originals in ways that does not compromise their future quality.
"There are a lot of skills involved."