In the bicentenary year of the birth of Ludwig Leichhardt (23 October 1813) it is timely to draw attention to a significant donation to the John Oxley Library; a letter written by Leichhardt in 1839 when he was a student in Paris.
The letter was found in a letterbook from the Brisbane Johnsonian Club which was donated to the library a few months ago. Imagine our surprise as we looked through the pages to find an original letter by Ludwig Leichhardt written in German with an English translation attached. The letter includes the annotation ‘Translation of Ludwig Leichhardt’s letter to his friend Mr J. Nicholson, Tubingen, Wurtemberg, dated Paris 25th January 1839, the original German letter being the property of the Johnsonian Club Brisbane. Ernst Marwedel, Toowoomba June 11th 1887’.
The Brisbane Johnsonian Club was founded in 1878, based on the literary club established in London in 1764. It began as an exclusively male literary and social club, with its members comprising mainly journalists and a smaller number of Brisbane literary figures. By the end of the 19th century, however, it had evolved into a more genteel establishment with membership drawn mainly from the legal and other professions. During the first decades of the twentieth century the club lost its literary connections and became a social club, remaining in existence until 1991.
Leichhardt met the recipient of the letter, John Nicholson, in 1833 at the University of Gottingen, in Hanover, where they were both students. Nicholson was a twenty-six year old Englishman possessing both wealth and education, having studied medicine at Oxford University for three years. He aroused Leichhardt’s interest in the natural sciences and also provided the impoverished student with nourishing meals as well as guidance and support. After four months, however, Nicholson returned to England. Leichhardt was devastated and they parted on bad terms.
In 1835 Leichhardt moved to Berlin to study at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University. It was there that he met John Nicholson’s younger brother, William, who became Leichhardt’s saviour. He provided the poverty stricken student with food, shelter and money. In return the older Leichhardt was something of mentor to the younger boy. Both were fascinated with the natural world and both were reserved and had difficulty making friends. They shared rooms, went on holidays together, and Leichhardt visited Nicholson’s family in England. This is the William whom Leichhardt refers to in the letter.
The death of William’s father in early 1839 left him with a substantial inheritance and the two moved to Paris for further studies. William made Leichhardt the sole beneficiary in his will. It was here that Leichhardt formulated a plan to set out on a journey of discovery in New Holland (Australia) with William by his side. It was not to be. Their relationship deteriorated and William eventually returned to England to set up practice as a doctor. He did however pay for Leichhardt’s passage to Australia in 1841, bought him a kit of travelling clothes and lent him 200 pounds with no time fixed for repayment. Nicholson, in effect, made Leichhardt’s journeys of exploration possible.
The letter is now with our conservation department and will eventually be digitized and available through our catalogue. Here is a sneak preview.
The letterbook (Accession 29171) also contains other fascinating items including a signed and dated photograph of Thomas A. Edison (1902), a letter by the poet Adam Lindsay Gordon including an illustrated copy of his poem “Ye Ballad of Ye Wearie Wayfarer (1870), a letter by William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as several bank notes from the Confederate States of America.
Stay tuned for further information regarding the digitization of the Leichhardt letter and the availability of the Johnsonian Club Letterbook.
Lynn Meyers – Original Materials Librarian, State Library of Queensland