BRITISH PRIME MINISTER
red leather on pine, brass handles mounted on lid and side, the lid embossed in gold lettering "FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY", royal crown and monogram (VR") embossed on inset black lozenges, two on the lid and two on the front, maker's stamp ("Wickwar & Co. | 6 Poland Street" | Manufacturers | to H.M. Stat.y Office"), 120 x 395 x 270mm, probably 1840s-50s
AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE VICTORIAN PRIME MINISTER'S DESPATCH BOX. Despatch boxes, in their traditional red, are used for the secure transport of confidential government information (today's "Secret" or higher classification). Victorian despatch boxes are rare and collectible, but this is an exceptional piece as it was commissioned for the use of the Prime Minister. As would be expected, the user is given his formal title of First Lord of the Treasury ("Prime Minister", originally an informal term for the head of government, was first used in a royal warrant as recently as 1905). The box has a top handle for ease of opening, but also a side handle to carry it between Parliament and Downing Street. The side lock could hold paper slips, and the high-quality lock is on the base so the box cannot be carried unlocked.
The box can be dated with some certainty to the first third of the Victorian period, under the premierships of Peel, Lord John Russell, the Earl of Derby or the Earl of Aberdeen. Given the high quality of the workmanship the box is likely to have stayed in use for several decades, although it will not have had the longevity of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's despatch box (also manufactured by Wickwar of Poland Street), which was commissioned for Gladstone and remained in use for some 150 years. The presence of distinctive inset black lozenges with the royal cipher date the box to between 1841 and 1854. The disappearance of these lozenges after that year is almost certainly a result of the death of a master craftsman: Wickwar brothers relied on highly skilled craftsmen based in workshops along Poland Street, which was at the epicentre of the notorious 1854 Soho cholera epidemic.
Sotheby’s is grateful to Barrow, Hepburn & Gale for their advice in the cataloguing of this lot.
This box was presumably retired due to age and wear, and was kept by the manufacturer Barrow, Hepburn & Gale, who still make despatch boxes for the British Government. It was presented to Donald Anderson in 1980 for 30 years' service. Anderson was a master craftsman who worked extensively on red boxes, including repairing the famous Treasury Box used for the Budget.
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Condition is described in the main body of the catalogue, where appropriate.
The lot is sold in the condition it is in at the time of sale. The condition report is provided to assist you with assessing the condition of the lot and is for guidance only. Any reference to condition in the condition report for the lot does not amount to a full description of condition. The images of the lot form part of the condition report for the lot provided by Sotheby's. Certain images of the lot provided online may not accurately reflect the actual condition of the lot. In particular, the online images may represent colours and shades which are different to the lot's actual colour and shades. The condition report for the lot may make reference to particular imperfections of the lot but you should note that the lot may have other faults not expressly referred to in the condition report for the lot or shown in the online images of the lot. The condition report may not refer to all faults, restoration, alteration or adaptation because Sotheby's is not a professional conservator or restorer but rather the condition report is a statement of opinion genuinely held by Sotheby's. For that reason, Sotheby's condition report is not an alternative to taking your own professional advice regarding the condition of the lot.