The single sheet of paper found in an 18th century edition of Cook’s Voyages. The important document sold along with the book for Aus$240,000 (£107,240) at Bonhams and Goodmans’ sale in Sydney on August 6.

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The holy grail in these terms is anything related to the First Fleet - the 11 ships that set sail for Australia from Portsmouth under Captain Arthur Phillip in 1787 with a cargo of 750 convicts to establish the first European colony in a country discovered 16 years earlier by Captain Cook.

First Fleet documentary material is rare, so any new addition to the archives attracts keen attention.

When an elderly vendor sent Bonhams Oxford's book specialist John Walwyn-Jones an 18th century edition of George William Anderson's account of Cook's three voyages, he found it contained a distinctive handwritten document.

The single sheet of paper, shown here titled A list of Naval Marine Military and Civil Establishment at Botany Bay, lists over two sides the ships that were to carry the new colonists to Botany Bay, the number of convicts to be carried and the naval, military and civilian establishment of the new colony.

It has the appearance of an official document and is effectively a blueprint for the foundation of Australia.

When Walwyn-Jones first read it he must have suspected he had struck Australian gold, although his observation to his colleagues that "I have found something that looks quite interesting" was a much more British understatement.

A trip to the London Library was made to compare the details of the document with that reproduced at the beginning of The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, of 1789, the first account of the colonisation of Australia.

This revealed through minor differences, such as changes of tense, that the newly discovered document predated the published one. Indeed, it is very likely that this could even be the manuscript source from which it was taken and from which subsequent published details of the First Fleet's operational details derive.

Working from inscriptions in the book to members of the Lapthorne family, Bonhams have also traced a mid-19th century link to the Royal Naval Haslar Hospital at Portsmouth which is where the First Fleet was assembled.

Given the nature of the find, it was decided to sell the manuscript and the book in Australia. They were dispatched to the auctioneers' Australian operation Bonhams and Goodmans and offered in a sale of furniture and decorative arts in Sydney on the evening of August 6.

Australian museums, dealers and collectors all competed on the day to a price of Aus$240,000 (£107,240) plus 20% buyer's premium. The successful bid came from Anne McCormick of Sydney-based antiquarian book dealer's Hordern House, who was acting for a private client.

One might wonder at how so potentially important a document could slip under the radar and resurface. Had someone not decided to tip this into an early volume of Cook's Voyages, this key document on Australia's foundation might not have survived.

Which only goes to show, as Bonhams' head of manuscripts David Parks observed to ATG : "It's a good idea to stick things in books."

By Anne Crane

£1= Aus$2.24