Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves by Lucy Lethbridge

I am at my most xenophobic, snobbish and judgmental at self-service breakfasts in foreign hotels. The rude woman who elbows in to seize the last sausages — well, not only must she be German, but also an avatar of all that is ghastly about the German people. And that awful man with the Inger-land tattoo on his leg — well, look at the way he loads up his plate! How greedy, how common. I’m embarrassed to be the same nationality.

It’s a relief to know after reading Lucy Lethbridge’s history of tourism that holidays have always been an opportunity to vent our prejudices and snobberies. As she writes: “There is nothing so undesirable for the high-minded traveller as the sight of his or her own countrymen and women following their guidebooks along the same path.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge was furious that after the ravages of the Napoleonic wars “peace had set John Bull a-gadding”. In 1818 he bemoaned all these “excursionists”, vulgar people traveling “with leaky purse and open mouth”. Shudder.

In 1825 the Marquis of Normanby deplored the “Jenkinsons and Tomkinsons tumbling down the Alps in living avalanches”. Remember, you are a sophisticated traveler keen to discover the authentic heart of a place, while those dimwits over there are tourists spoiling the views.

Travel for pleasure was once the preserve of young aristocrats taking the Grand Tour. Lethbridge describes what happened as travel became more democratic. She starts with the early 19th-century craze for public speakers talking about their adventures and the founding of the first travel agencies, such as Thomas Cook & Son, businesses made possible by the age of steam and the growing wealth of ordinary people. After detours through such things as the British enthusiasm for spas, the discovery of sunbathing and why the first caravanners were intellectuals, we end in the Seventies, the age of sun, sea and sand package holidays as celebrated in Carry on Abroad (1972), set on the Mediterranean island of Elsbels.

Trains of Thought

The book is like a bric-a-brac sale, piled high with a jumble of anecdotes and facts, not all of them strictly relevant, but usually fascinating. For instance, it is good to know that French resorts had “guides baigneurs”. These men, who wore a uniform of canvas trousers, striped jerseys and hats, patrolled the beaches seeking out nervous bathers. A British observer in 1878 recorded that “they take your hand, hold you up and assist you in making the necessary jump so that the wave does not go over your head”.

A few more snippets. The Bank of England closed for 47 days in 1761. By 1834, it closed for only four days. Thank goodness for trade unions fighting for days of idleness. Sunglasses in Victorian times were known as blue spectacles; they were thought necessary to prevent “solar apoplexy”. There were so many Brits taking the waters at Baden-Baden in the 1830s that an English-language Morning Paper for Sophisticated Classes kept track of their goings-on. And if you slap on Ambre Solaire you’re supporting a heritage brand; its sun cream has been on sale since 1935.

The founders of the early travel agencies — the great democratizers of holiday — were a high-minded-bunch. Thomas Cook, who, in the words of Lethbridge “almost singlehandedly enshrined the group jolly abroad in British culture”, was an unlikely leisure tycoon. He was a teetotaler and itinerant preacher, married to a Sunday school teacher. The first railway excursion he organized was in 1841, taking 500 passengers from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting. On arrival, Cook roused the crowd with an address that called for “one cheer more for Teetotalism and Railwayism!”

A belief in “Railwayism” was important for this new generation of holidaymakers. Steam had its critics. Wouldn’t it just encourage flibbertigibbeting among the uneducated and unrefined? The old hostler in Thomas Hardy’s 1876 novel The Hand of Ethelberta grumbles that “honest travelling has been so rascally abused. Tribes of nobodies tearing from one end of the country to t’other, to see the sun go down in salt water, or the moon play jack-lantern behind some rotten tower or other.”

The narrator of George Eliot’s Adam Bede worried that steam engines and more leisure time would only create a “vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now — eager for amusement; prone to excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature and exciting novels”. John Ruskin, unsurprisingly, was dismissive of “steam-puffed tourists”.

It’s true that “steam-puffed tourists” could display poor bad taste. Holidaymakers in railway carriages followed the fighting during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The Observer thundered that “it seems to us that nothing can be worse than for tourists to follow the track of armies, gratifying a mere lust for excitement which is not free from cruelty”.

Remember, you are a sophisticated traveler keen to discover the authentic heart of a place, while those dimwits over there are tourists spoiling the views.

Our ancestors had a different sense of what sightseeing should entail. In 1816, a British visitor to Paris went along to watch the guillotine in action, noting approvingly its efficiency in dispatching a convict with “none of that horrible struggling that takes place in the operation of hanging”.

An 1853 handbook suggested visitors to Naples should visit a pauper’s burial — who doesn’t want to see a pile of bodies being tipped into the ground and covered with quicklime before heading off to see pasta being made? Street entertainment was different too. Neapolitan beggars would make a few lire from tourists by swallowing as much of a long string of spaghetti as possible without gagging.

An 1840 tour book recommended seeing a walled-up monk — “perfectly dry and when touched, like leather” — in Arezzo. It was also quite natural to visit schools and orphanages while on holiday. A Mary Bowen went on a tour of a girls’ school in provincial France; the pupils “jumped over the stools, spirted ink at one another, tossed about books, and danced upon the tables”.

Our hand-luggage-only approach to travel would look very strange to the 19th-century tourist. Mrs Starke’s 1818 guidebook advised that a tourist ought to pack alongside sheets (leather and calico) and mosquito nets, pistols, pocketknives, pure opium and liquid laudanum. Mrs Starke is positively restrained compared with another 1818 guide, which advised that “the most economical plan for a person who intends to remain any time in Switzerland is to bring his own cattle with him as their keep is very moderate.”

Our hand-luggage-only approach to travel would look very strange to the 19th-century tourist.

Traveling was a military operation. When in 1845 Charles Dickens and his party visited Mount Vesuvius, they were accompanied by 22 guides, six packhorses and an armed guard. Dickens’s wife and sister were conveyed up the volcano by sedan chair, along with “a fat Englishman … who was hoisted into a third, borne by eight men”. And Dickens’s view at the top? “I never saw anything so awful and terrible.”

What of the tourists’ views of the locals? Mrs Starke wrote of the peasants of Carinthia in Austria that they “have fine complexions, with a great appearance of health and strength, but their countenances seldom express good humour or quickness of apprehension … The women are said to be depraved in their morals.” One oversight in the book is too little emphasis on sex, surely one of the important reasons why people travel abroad.

Richard Ford, in his A Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845), described the locals in the south as “impressionable as children, heedless, heedless of results, passive victims to violent impulse”. The Valencians were “perfidious, vindictive, sullen and mistrustful”. One suspects Ford was just a bad tipper. The spa promoter Dr Granville was relatively kind about the oddballs — spinsters, Methodists and teetotalers — that Cheltenham attracted; they were “modish fribblers, male and female coquettes”.

But not all spa visitors were fribblers. In 1851 “A Moist Man” — a curious pseudonym to give yourself — in his account “Three Weeks in Wet Sheets” described his stay in Malvern. Mr Moist Man worried that he had succumbed to moral weakness while on holiday, “backsliding as concerns excesses of the table”. Fear not, an hour lying under soaking wet sheets put him back on the moral straight and narrow. This anecdote, like so much else in Tourists, is a reminder that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. It’s also a diverting place to visit.

Robbie Millen is the literary editor of The Times of London