Fragment of bank note

“Uncle William’s” Secret — a century-old book reveals a hidden treasure of East Coast banknote history

One of the most delightful aspects of our particular hobby and business are the engaging stories of treasures found. Whether a Roman coin hoard unearthed in a farmer’s field, a tobacco tin of frontier gold coin found under the homestead floorboards, or a cargo of Spanish bullion emerging from the depths of a long-lost galleon, these imagination-stirring discoveries not only captivate us with tales of instant riches – they also serve as direct links to our numismatic past, sometimes adding to the historical narrative in the process.

Sometimes, however, a treasure can remain cloaked not six feet nor 1,000 fathoms under, but virtually in plain site as among the pages of a long-neglected book of fiction, migrating for generations from one shelf to another before finally revealing its hidden secret. This is a brief telling of one such recent instance, and the complete happenstance that lead to the remarkable discovery of a unique piece of eastern Canadian banknote history.

It was actually in the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown that a friend and fellow collector told me of an interesting and unexpected find. Although fond of coins and paper currency, his primary passion is in the collecting of antique books. In the course of fueling this hobby, Uncle William had found its way into his collection during the summer, I believe as part of a bulk lot. Authored by Jennette Lee and published in 1906, the protagonist of the small and innocuous hard-cover book has been described as “a genial character who has a talent for confounding land sharks and ending up owning most of the property in sight”.

A hand-written inscription on the inside cover gives important context to its early owner, and reads “Mrs. Israel Lovitt Porter, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia”. We will return to this momentarily, but first – the discovery.

The fragment shows Queen VictoriaSkimming through the pages of the book, my friend came across a peculiar 9x5cm “fragment” of a document, deliberately trimmed to frame a classic contemplative portrait of Queen Victoria at center, with lion and unicorn at left and right respectively. Any mystery as to the origin of the host document was only momentary, as the back of the piece revealed at its center [the] “Bank of Yarmouth N.S.”. With his experience in the hobby he immediately recognized the origin document to be a banknote, and with the name of the institution at hand, he was able to narrow down the issue as being a Ten Dollar note of 1870, printed by the British American Bank Note Company.

Chartered in 1859, The Bank of Yarmouth conducted business in Nova Scotia until failing in 1905, due to the fraudulent paying of dividends without the necessary capital to sustain such payments. Although near identical Ten Dollar notes were issued by the Bank in both 1870 and 1891, this note fragment was just large enough to reveal – through the absence of the word “Canada” above the lion’s head – that it was from the earlier of the two issues.

Bank of Yarmouth 10 Dollars 1870 Proof courtesy Bank of Canada Museum

Bank of Yarmouth 10 Dollars 1870 Proof, courtesy Bank of Canada Museum

Further examination of the fragment revealed a subtle but highly-important discovery – the top part of two signatures appear at the bottom left and right, undoubtedly those of the Bank’s Cashier and President. The significance of this rests in the fact that although all surviving notes of the Bank of Yarmouth are very rare, The Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Bank Notes lists the 1870 Ten Dollar issue as existing only in “Institutional Collections”. Further research into the collection of the Bank of Canada Museum, however, indicates that only a single unissued Proof of this note exists in the collection. Thus, this small trimmed vignette of Victoria, having rested against all odds among the pages of “Uncle William” for more than a century, has now revealed itself to most likely be the only surviving example of the issue – an irreplaceable link to the history of this Eastern Canadian chartered bank.

And what of the link, if any, to the owner of the book? Preliminary research reveals only that Israel Lovitt Porter was born in Yarmouth in 1883. He was listed on local property rolls as a Merchant, and must have been reasonably successful as he and his wife – Catherine Gardner [Cann] Porter – held title to at least three homes on Forest Street, two of them for a remarkable 64 years until Catherine’s death in 1983.

Did Porter, in the course of running his business, come across the note and trim it down to Victoria’s portrait for posterity, as its redemption value would have been null and void after 1905? Or rather, is it entirely unrelated in its origin to the owner of the book, and simply encountered and retained in its current state for the lowly but practical purpose of serving as a bookmark?

To these questions we will likely never have adequate answers, but the very fact that this unique fragment has survived a century and half, two World Wars, and endless opportunities to become lost in the dustbin of history is both remarkable and delightful to collectors and students of Canadian chartered banknote history alike. Proof positive as well that sometimes numismatic/currency treasures can indeed be found without the use of either a shovel, metal-detector, or scuba-tank!

Sean Isaacs