Canada to return Australia's oldest printed English document

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It's the oldest object of its kind in Australia's history, but up until this past summer it was buried in the bowels of the Canada's national archives collection.On Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will bring it home, handing it to his Australian counterpart over lunch in the country's capital as he wraps up a week-long trip.

The mysterious item is an old theatre program, 211 years old, and now recognized as the oldest printed document in Australia's history. But it only surfaced a few months ago, after it was discovered by Elaine Hoag, a rare book specialist at Library and Archives Canada.

Printed on July 30, 1796, the playbill is a few months older than what was previously believed to be the oldest printed document in the country - a list of instructions for constables of the country districts.

Hoag found the playbill in the scrapbook of a British banker who lived from 1775 to 1858. While archivists were able to match it up with Australia's first printing press that arrived in Sydney with the first British fleet in 1788, they have no idea how the scrapbook wound up in Canada's national archives. All they know is that the small wooden screw printing press was left unattended for eight years until George Hughes arrived in the colony to establish Australia's first printery behind its Government House.

While it might not have a huge financial value, Canadian government officials say it will be priceless piece of history that speaks to Australia's beginnings as a colony -- the first printed documents and cultural institutions such as its theatre.

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