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The Prioleau Papers

Ed Note – We received this note from Richard Ford which details the discovery and sale of the Prioleau papers. I asked Jerry Williams to comment.

From Richard Ford

I recently paid my first ever visit to Liverpool. While there I checked out on the internet what had happened to the papers of C.K. Prioleau, banker to the Confederate States. I sold these to the Merseyside archives in 1981 (or possibly 1982 just before I left the Company) on behalf of the bookseller I was working for.

My company at the time, Peter Eaton (Booksellers) of Holland Park, West London, had a rich catchment area that included Kensington. We received a call from someone in Kensington (possibly from the old Prioleau house in Queensgate Gardens, but I have no record) asking if we’d like to make an offer on some books. Peter Eaton gave me the callout, not thinking it significant enough for his own attendance. I was welcomed into a run-down property which people had just moved into, and shown the books. They were no great shakes so I offered £25, which was accepted.

In conversation my host mentioned that when they moved in they’d found a large trunk containing papers in a locked room. He showed me to the trunk and opened it. It was jam-packed with letters and other material which I couldn’t hope to assess in a few minutes, so I asked him what he wanted. He suggested £25 as for the books. I’d noticed some interesting printed ephemera so I didn’t hesitate, ferrying the trunk back to the shop.

Peter Eaton was just about to go to an American bookfair, and seized the printed ephemera before I’d had a chance to look at it properly. I believe it was a batch of handbills for the “Southern Prisoners’ Relief Fund”. Peter sold them for $20 apiece at the Bookfair, one dealer buying multiple copies.

I see that what might well be a copy of this handbill is for sale on the internet for $7500!

One other curious find in the trunk was a Navy Colt with ammunition. Peter handed these in at the local police station.

I then did the cataloguing, involving considerable reading concerning recondite aspects of the Civil War (blockade-running, building gunboats, etc), finishing up with a 40 page typescript. We weren’t confident that we’d access the right market, so we decided to consign it to Sotheby’s for sale by private treaty. We decided to ask £10,000 – a very substantial sum then.

Unfortunately, Sotheby’s didn’t find a customer, but somehow Gordon Reid of Merseyside Record Office saw a copy of the description and hot-footed it to London to have a look. I remember his eagerness and enthusiasm. I took away the impression that Merseyside had made large sums available at that time to develop their Archives. The Record Office bought it.

From Jerry Williams

The story of Charles Prioleau and Fraser Trenholm Company is a long one. The importance of the two came to the fore when I made a visit to Charleston in the 1970’s and met the legendary Dr Charlie Peery. Further investigations brought in Mike Barratt who discovered the Prioleau grave in Kensal Green Cemetery around the same time. Prioleau, Fraser Trenholm and Liverpool is a massive story. Prioleau being in charge of all operations of this large cotton company, and when the Civil War started they became in effect European Bankers for the Confederacy. James Bulloch and numerous other agents operated from their offices at 10 Rumford Place. Prioleau's house at 19 Abercromby Square is another spectacular place full of South Carolina devices. Prioleau moved to London after the war and lived in Kensington.

Moving forward to the 70’s and 80’s I made contact with National Museums on Merseyside and their Archives Department to try and obtain their interest in American Civil War issues. I must admit over the years I was always unhappy by a lack of interest in the subject matter from the organisation when in my opinion they showed more interest in what I regarded minor historical stories. Gordon Reid the Archivist, much later approached me, about historical papers being found relating to Fraser Trenholm and Company in London. He asked my advice, and I expressed, in no uncertain terms, the importance of the papers. Although I believe the sellers contacted America and said no interest in the papers had been shown there, they obviously contacted the wrong people. Charlie Peery would have gone to the end of the earth to buy them, alone! After giving National Museums Archives extensive assistance in order to purchase, I was somewhat not amused when they charged me £80 to have the archives copied! I think I was out of work at the time.

Later a lady student from the local University borrowed the papers and never returned them! I had given National Museums a book and others papers to assist their information as they went to auction. They later purchased the papers. The historical importance of the archives is profound and they have been accessed by Civil War Historians from across the world.

My favourite item from the archive is the letter sent to Charles Prioleau in Liverpool from an acquaintance Jacob Williman who says they are short of items there due to the Union blockade of the Port. He asked for cloth, Goutphine pills and a copy of Mother Gooses Melodies. I believe the first syndicated nursery rhymes.

The Prioleau papers are available for research at the Liverpool Maritime Archives and Library.


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