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Victorian Popular Forms and Practices of Reading and Writing

‘Overcrowded with tourists’: Guest Books, Postcards, and Other Popular Forms as ‘Micro-Texts’ of Travel Writing

« Envahi de Touristes » : Livres d’or, cartes postales, et autres formes populaires de « micro-textes » de la littérature de voyage
Alan McNee


La fin du xixe siècle et le début du xxe se signalent par le développement et la démocratisation du tourisme. Pourtant, on entend rarement la voix de ces « nouveaux touristes » de la classe ouvrière et de la petite bourgeoisie, car les récits des élites occupent toujours une place prépondérante dans les archives du genre. Cet article se penche sur quelques exceptions et étudie les « micro-textes » que constituent les entrées des livres d’or afin de ressaisir les expériences et les impressions de touristes ordinaires.

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1Holidaying at the popular Sligachan Hotel on the Isle of Skye in 1872, a guest named E. Wylie from Cheshire wrote in the visitors’ book:

I have been very comfortable in this house although it has been overcrowded with tourists during the week I have been here. (Sligachan, 22 August 1872)

2It evidently did not occur to Wylie that he or she was also a tourist. As Evelyn Waugh would point out some sixty years later, ‘The tourist is the other fellow’ (Waugh 170).

3This type of remark features regularly in accounts of late nineteenth and early twentieth century tourism in Britain. Typically, the writer bemoans the presence of other people spoiling their own experience of the sublime view or historic building. More often than not those other people are from a lower social class than the writer, and are depicted as behaving in a way that is vulgar and inappropriate. The novelist Henry James encapsulated this attitude when he wrote in the early twentieth century of the ‘constant cockneyfication’ of ‘the most romantic sites in England’, observing that ‘there are always people on the field before you, and there is generally something being drunk on the premises’ (James 114).

4This article is about those ‘other people’—or more precisely, about the absence of their voices from the historical record. It aims to show why they are largely missing from published texts of travel and tourism, and to suggest some strategies by which we might recover at least some of their voices. Plenty of texts survive in which educated, cultivated Victorians and Edwardians recount their travels, but the experiences of working-class and even lower middle-class holidaymakers have been obscured by the dearth of first-hand accounts. The accounts that do survive, however, suggest a lively and sometimes contentious interclass rivalry, with ‘lower’ class visitors often poking fun at their social superiors.

5In this article I will examine not only published accounts of travel in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, but also unpublished sources including visitors’ books, postcards, and personal diaries. I will begin by taking a broad look at the development of mass tourism in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, noting how it was perhaps the most visible and widely discussed manifestation of the new world of popular leisure made possible by a range of social and economic changes. I will argue that this represented a challenge to the exclusivity enjoyed by the middle-class travellers who were the successors to the Grand Tourists of the previous century; that the tourist experience remained stratified by class, with these prosperous tourists adopting a variety of physical and textual strategies to retain their cultural capital; but that nonetheless holiday resorts and other tourist areas were frequently the site for an unusual degree of social mixing and class confusion. I will also suggest that it is impossible to draw a strict demarcation between supposedly respectable, sober middle-class tourists and their more boisterous, irreverent working-class counterparts. The lived reality of the tourist experience was much more diverse and complex than this. Given the relative paucity of surviving texts, my methodological approach is necessarily qualitative and to some degree speculative rather than quantitative, but I will propose that it is still possible to use the limited resources available to create a picture of the experiences of ordinary people on holiday.

The Rise of the Tripper

  • 1 Brockedon should probably not have been surprised. Buzard notes that the first cross-Channel passen (...)

6Complaints of ‘cockneyfication’—in other words, of vulgarization and rowdiness by lower-class visitors—were nothing new by the time Wylie wrote his comment in the Sligachan book. As early as 1833, the painter William Brockedon resented having to rub shoulders in Boulogne with what he called ‘the waste and worst of English society’ and described a steamer from London arriving in the French city with ‘a Cockney cargo of 357 bold adventurers’ (Brockedon 192).1

7The last two to three decades of the century, however, saw a dramatic expansion in the popularity and geographical spread of tourism. Destinations within Britain, and to a lesser extent in Continental Europe, became increasingly accessible to ordinary people as the result of an enormously expanded rail network, increased leisure time, and rising income for many sections of the population. Real incomes rose by between one third and a half in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, according to economic historian F. M. L. Thompson, while the railway network extended to virtually every area of mainland Britain, allowing relatively cheap and rapid travel for an increasingly urban population (Thompson 1988, 291). The introduction of paid bank holidays, a rise in literacy and access to popular newspapers and magazines, and the construction of new tourist infrastructure all fuelled a dramatic expansion of leisure activities, including travel. Although Thomas Cook’s promotion of railway excursions is often cited as a key factor in the development of modern mass tourism, such outings had in fact begun much earlier than Cook’s early temperance outings of the 1840s. The first special train with reduced fares dates back to 1836 when a party of eight hundred people were transported from Wadebridge to Wenford Bridge in Cornwall (Brendon 8).

8This new access to the world of mass leisure in general, and tourism in particular, did not necessarily extend to the poorest sections of the urban proletariat or agricultural workers, but it did mean that many members of the lower middle classes or upper working classes became the first generation of their family to take paid holidays within Britain—and in some cases even abroad. By one estimate, between seventy and eighty per cent of working-class families towards the end of the century would at least have been able to afford an occasional trip to the seaside (Thompson 1998, 291). Even honeymoon travel, formerly the preserve of the upper and upper middle classes, became more common among the upper working classes by the last quarter of the century (Mitchie 26).

  • 2 For an examination of how this played out in one particular subculture, that of mountaineering, see (...)

9This expansion of the ability to travel represented a challenge to the cultural capital and exclusivity of what had formerly been a relatively elite activity. As James Buzard puts it, ‘the tourist is an unwelcome reminder, to self-styled “travellers”, of the modern realities that dog their fleeing footsteps’, and the reaction from many travellers was correspondingly hostile (Buzard 8). James Duncan and Derek Gregory suggest that as the ‘petty bourgeoisie and fractions of the working class’ began to infringe upon what had formerly been an elite preserve, ‘the old elites sharpened their pens against the infringements and evasions of their own hitherto exclusive spaces of travel by common tourists’ (Duncan and Gregory 7). Hence the increasingly frequent references to the ‘cockneyfication’ of popular tourist destinations and to the perceived depredations of so-called ‘trippers’ and ‘excursionists’ both individually and en masse.2

10Not all areas of the country experienced these changes at the same rate. Unsurprisingly, the most dramatic growth in mass tourism during the nineteenth century took place in seaside towns, as resorts that had started life as upscale watering places found themselves inundated by the lower middle classes and working classes. The historian of the British seaside John K. Walton has pointed out that by 1901, seventeen coastal resorts had a population of over 20,000 (Walton and McGloin 153), while Allan Brodie notes that the phenomenal growth of seaside towns between 1851 and 1901 was comparable to that of major industrial towns in the same period: while the population of Britain grew by 51 per cent in this period, Blackpool grew by some 1,400 per cent and Southport by 588 per cent. ‘The new industry of leisure’, Brodie notes, ‘[was] as economically potent in some places as cotton spinning or steel making’ (Brodie 82).

11This process was uneven, with some resort towns—such as Bournemouth—remaining relatively exclusive, others (notably Cleethorpes and Skegness) growing specifically to cater for the mass market, and others practicing both official and unofficial ‘zoning’ policies to keep the classes separated. Margate, for example, was considered ‘irredeemably vulgar’ according to one contemporary source (Christopher and McCutcheon 7). Like Southend in Essex and its northern equivalents Scarborough and Blackpool, it had a predominantly working-class clientele, although even plebeian Blackpool tried to implement a zoning policy for both visitors and residents in order to maintain a certain distance between classes (Walton 77). In relatively remote Devon, most resorts on the south coast remained exclusive, but Ilfracombe on the north Devon coast was accessible to the working classes by steamboat from Bristol and Portishead and from the iron and steel town of Port Talbot in south Wales (Travis 150–52). Great Yarmouth on the Suffolk coast and Whitley Bay in the north east also experienced a surge of working-class visitors into what had formerly been middle-class resorts.

  • 3 The phrase ‘doon the watter’ (down the water) was a Scottish colloquialism referring to an excursio (...)

12In Scotland, too, not only railways but coastal steamers were important in permitting the rise of mass tourism to the seaside resorts. A rail link from Dundee to Broughty Ferry in 1870 led to this suburb on the Tay Estuary on Scotland’s east coast becoming ‘inundated by visitors’, while the annual Glasgow Fair holidays drew thousands of Glaswegians ‘doon the watter’ to Clyde resorts such as Dunoon, Rothesay, and Millport (Simpson 43).3

  • 4 Durie quotes an 1868 letter to the Glasgow Herald from a writer in Largs on the Clyde coast, who ‘v (...)

13This ‘great influx of plebeian excursionists transformed the social and physical map of the late Victorian coastline’, adding to the population and size of resorts including Blackpool, Southend, and Weston-super-Mare, according to Thompson (Thompson 1998, 292). From a relatively genteel and exclusive site for health cures and social visits, the British seaside had in many areas become what Peter Stallybrass and Allon White call ‘a carnivalesque site of pleasure’, where normal rules of conduct and decorum could be suspended, at least for the duration of a day trip or bank holiday weekend (Stallybrass and White 178). Inevitably this influx of ‘trippers’ who ignored or even disdained middle-class proprieties led to conflicts, for instance over the issue of mixed sea bathing. Jane Darcy notes that controversies over sea bathing were often class-based, with complaints about the presence of ‘trippers’, and points out that this was a very specifically British issue—even contemporary commentators noted how much more relaxed France was about mixed bathing, and that Britain was unusual in imposing sexual segregation and distancing (although large groups of men bathing naked in public were also much more common in Britain than elsewhere) (Darcy 5).4

14The seaside may have witnessed the most dramatic change in the class profile of its visitors, but virtually every part of the country saw a rise in working-class and lower middle-class tourism in the latter part of the century. As Wylie’s guest book comment indicates, even the remote and still relatively inaccessible island of Skye was undergoing a tourism boom, and Scotland in general experienced a considerable increase. Scotland had long been a place of literary pilgrimage, stimulated by the popularity of the Ossian myth and later by the even greater popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s work, while its sporting estates attracted aristocratic and upper middle-class visitors for shooting and fishing. However the second half of the nineteenth century saw an expansion both in the outright numbers of tourists and in the social classes from which they were drawn. To give just one example, a coach and steamer excursion from Oban to the valley of Glencoe was introduced in 1880. Passengers were taken by steamer from the west coast port of Oban to the head of Loch Etive, then transported by carriage to Glencoe and on to Ballachulish. By 1883, some 2,500 people were using this summer only service—a small number in outright terms but a huge increase in tourism to this hitherto remote region (Doogan 83). The historian of Scottish tourism Alastair Durie notes that by the end of the nineteenth century Oban had ‘allegedly more hotels in proportion to its size than Edinburgh. By 1894, 15 hotels were open, plus numerous temperance hotels and lodging houses’ (Durie 2003, 132).

  • 5 Durie (2017) notes how criticism of tourism in Scotland was generally class-based rather than natio (...)

15As in England, the explosion of mass tourism in Scotland gave rise to a corresponding increase in disapproving commentary. Alcohol and its abuse was a common theme in many accounts of Scottish tourism. In his reminiscences of Glasgow middle-class life in the late nineteenth century, published in the early 1930s, the journalist John Joy Bell recalled the various steamers that took tourists along the Clyde coast, wryly noting that the only ‘dry’ ship—the Ivanhoe, which sailed from Helensburgh to the island of Arran—was a commercial failure: ‘The temperance experiment deserved to succeed, for in those days the pleasure of a sail was too often marred by persons who had overdone their inspection of the engines; but I understand that the shareholders lost their money’ (Bell 61). However it was not only the spectacle of drunken day-trippers that drew the ire of middle-class travellers. The very presence of ‘trippers’ in Scotland was enough to provoke both disapproval and amusement. An account in Glasgow University Library of a holiday taken in Scotland in 1868 by a middle-class lawyer named Underhill from Wolverhampton recounts various encounters with ‘cockneys’ and ‘low Glasgow snobs’. At one point Underhill recalls how his party wander into the grounds of Dunollie House, home of the chief of the MacDougall clan, ignoring a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, and are remonstrated with by a gentleman who turns out to be Captain MacDougall, the proprietor. They placate him, and he apologises, explaining that ‘Glasgow fair had been lately held and so many excursionists invaded the place committing all manner of damage’. The writer claims that ‘this is another of many thousand illustrations that “a soft answer turneth away wrath”’ (Dougan 109 n.p.). It could, however, equally be seen as an example of the very different reception given to a visiting lawyer from England and working-class tourists from Glasgow.5

  • 6 One notable exception was the Toynbee Travellers’ Club, which from 1888 took groups of working clas (...)
  • 7 Tidmarsh’s account, in the Thomas Cook Archive, makes it clear that although he and his companion j (...)

16Overseas tourism remained less accessible to ordinary people. While Thomas Cook’s excursions had helped boost domestic tourism by train, Cook’s overseas trips were sufficiently expensive to remain largely a middle-class preserve.6 Nonetheless some working-class and lower-middle-class visitors did manage to find their way abroad. A hand-written and unpublished account of an 1882 tour of the Rhine and Paris by one of Thomas Cook’s clients, Thomas William Tidmarsh, gives some idea of how these travellers were viewed by their contemporaries from the middle classes. During a guided tour of Versailles, Tidmarsh notes the presence of a fellow tourist who ‘would persist in interrupting the guide with his St. Giles’ wit. We surnamed him the irrepressible ’Arry but this seemed to have no effect upon him’ (Tidmarsh 60).7 ’Arry was a character featured in Punch, whose name became ‘the epithet for low breeding and irrepressible vulgarity’ and was often used as shorthand for a particular type of lower class tourist (Marks 67). As we shall see, however, working-class tourists sometimes reappropriated ’Arry—along with his near-contemporary comic book character Ally Sloper—to their own ends.

17All these remarks suggest just how febrile the atmosphere of late nineteenth century tourist sites could be. The unavoidable mixing of classes that took place in holiday resorts threatened to disrupt the relatively stable class relations of the workplace and other areas of daily life. ‘The English understood the codes of behaviour which applied within groups, and between different social orders in the domestic or work place’, argues John Taylor. ‘These codes were less fixed when people were on holiday. Whole sections of newly mobile classes were likely to meet more often in unpredictable circumstances’ (Taylor 91). Hence the sometimes hostile reaction of middle-class writers to the presence of their working-class counterparts on holiday.

  • 8 Golby and Purdue note that widespread literacy actually pre-dated the Education Act of 1870 by deca (...)

18Despite plenty of evidence that ordinary people were travelling in large numbers by the latter decades of the century, the majority of written accounts have been by those middle-class visitors with the cultural capital to have their narratives published. Travel writing is one of the dominant published literary genres in nineteenth-century Britain, rivalled only by the realist novel in terms of output (Murray and Henes 2). Yet, despite the rise in literacy in the second half of the century it is still extremely unusual to read the words of these new participants in the world of mass leisure in general, and tourism in particular.8

19Writing about the role of broadsides in the notorious Titchborne controversy of the 1860s and 1870s, Rohan McWilliam notes that the large number of broadsides about the Titchborne case represented ‘a street culture that was at odds with the “official” world of the courtroom and high society’:

Too trivial to be termed a form of political resistance, they revelled in a counter-culture based on an exuberant vulgarity, a bloody-minded commonsense, a cheerful disrespect for authority and a dirty laugh . . . . Broadsides produced a form of cultural capital for working-class people. (McWilliam 215)

20It is this world view that seems to have been feared and resented by the middle-class writers who sneered at ‘trippers’ and ‘cockneys’. Yet it is also this perspective that is conspicuously absent from published first-hand accounts of tourism. Broadsides are among the few exceptions to the rule that the experiences, beliefs, and attitudes of working-class Victorians were rarely set down on paper. This lack of textual evidence has perhaps led to an over-reliance on a particularly middle-class view of Victorian tourism that emphasizes respectability and the point of view of the respectable. Rosalind Crone notes that ‘respectability has come to dominate our perceptions of the Victorians’. She goes on to argue:

I do not doubt its presence, or its power, as a social discourse; but I do wonder whether its great presence within the sources, or in that record largely created by the more affluent, has led us to overemphasise its hold over Victorian society and the actions and tastes of the people. (Crone 264)

21Crone is writing about the continued centrality of violence and violent entertainments in Victorian popular culture, but her point holds equally true for tourism and travel. The preponderance of middle-class accounts in the published sources arguably over-emphasizes the respectable and the official, making it almost impossible to understand or reproduce the experience of ordinary people, and especially of those working-class people who were enjoying access to leisure travel for perhaps the first time in history.

22How, then, are we to try to gain access to this vast untapped reservoir of experience? One route would be to revisit the few surviving unpublished accounts of tourism. Very few personal diaries survive—one exception, written by two Scottish millers will be examined below—but the existence of visitors’ books and guest books, and to a lesser extent of picture postcards, allows us to extrapolate from a cross-sample of inscriptions to draw some conclusions about the attitudes and experiences of ordinary working people on holiday.

The Voice of the Victorian Tourist

23A caveat is in order at this point. It is important to avoid a simplistic binary opposition between ‘respectable’ middle and upper class tourists and boisterous, disrespectful lower class trippers. The historian of leisure Peter Bailey notes the common use of the phrases ‘beano’, ‘spree’, and ‘blow-out’ in mid-Victorian parlance, suggesting a popular appetite for irreverent fun and fatalistic, devil-may-care joie de vivre (Bailey 1978, 89). But the use of these phrases was by no means confined to the working classes, and Bailey also points out that ‘working-class entry into modern enleisurement was variously disaggregate, staggered, unequal and episodic’, with many ordinary people ‘locked out of the new leisure world in a cultural apartheid imposed by poverty, unemployment, and, crucially, the discriminations of gender’ (Bailey 1999, 139). The reality of all tourists’ experiences was more complex and sometimes contradictory, with many working-class tourists keen on self-improvement and the ‘rational’ use of leisure time, and many middle-class trippers equally keen on a ‘spree’. Kevin James’s warning against an oversimplified view of mass tourism was made in the context of Victorian tourism in Ireland but is pertinent to the wider topic of nineteenth-century tourism. James points out that:

‘mass tourism’ served as a discursive foil for the refined traveller, who framed it as a spurious set of practices devoid of reflexivity, signaling a limited capacity for discernment and superficial, ill-judged engagement with the toured culture. This representation of mass tourism is too often reproduced uncritically, and hurriedly, in scholarship on tourism. The result is a concept tethered to a narrative of the ‘homogenization’ and ‘standardization’ of tourist practices, effected through the inexorable rise and pervasive influence of Thomas Cook and package holidays: resulting accounts elide the complexity, nuance, and diversity inherent in modern tourism. (James 182–83)

  • 9 The document is now held in Stirling University Archive. Bailey’s point about the ‘polyvalent’ natu (...)

24An account by two brothers from Motherwell, John and George Macgregor, of their 1892 bicycle tour through Scotland to John O’Groats is not only a rare exception to the dearth of working-class travel accounts but also a useful example of how James’s ‘complexity, nuance, and diversity’ manifest themselves in working-class experiences of tourism. Styling themselves ‘The Two Macs’, the brothers, who were millers by trade, have left an account that combines irreverence and conventional respectability, exemplifying Peter Bailey’s dictum that respectability among the working classes was ‘polyvalent’ rather than monolithic (Bailey 1979, 37).9

25Setting off from the Perthshire town of Dunblane on the second day of their tour, the Macgregor brothers write about the scenery in conventional tones which suggest the continued influence of Romantic literature on perceptions of the Scottish landscape:

In the distance, we could now see the rugged mountains baring their tops to the heavens, where long ago dwelt the hardy clansmen, and from whose glens issued many a foray of old, to the rich cattle meadows of the lowlands. They were brave lads that then wore the tartan(Macgregor 4)

26So far this could easily be any account by a middle-class tourist steeped in the works of Walter Scott. Staying the next night at the Salutation Hotel in Perth, however, the tone changes. They meet an English photographer who provokes both mockery and indignation with what they perceive as his high-handed attitude.

He complained bitterly to the waiter about the price of the salmon he was getting to tea, it was the tail half, but he termed it the ‘wrong end’. Well the ‘wrong end’, as we christened him, was like the generality of Englishmen very talkative, and gave us full particulars of his own importance, and all he had seen & done and could do. His instructions to us about our road on the morrow were very minute, seeing he had never been over the course, he received our thanks, and seeing we had left school his instructions got the attention they deserved, fancy—a London Cockney coaching the Highlanders on their native heath, the way to go, when parting we reminded him of Bannockburn(Macgregor 6)

27This passage stands out from the familiar middle-class travel narrative of this period. The slightly faulty grammar and diction, the sense of a nationalistic chip on their shoulders, and the invention of a nickname for their fellow guest all attest to a sensibility that is quite distinct from most published accounts of Scottish tourism. Even the use of the word ‘cockney’ is different from the norm. When middle-class tourists dismiss someone as a ‘cockney’ they are always suggesting an element of class, whereas the Macgregor brothers seem to be more concerned with what they perceive as his quasi-colonial English attitude.

28Moving on to explore the locale, the brothers go for ‘an enjoyable stroll along the banks of the Tay, which afford on either side a splendid walk for the loving young of Perth’ (Macgregor 6).

  • 10 ‘Daisy Bell’ was a popular song composed that same year, 1892, by Harry Dacre. M. C. C. presumably (...)

It was here we saw a young couple sweethearting on cycles, and we envied the lucky man who was probably the author of ‘Daisy Bell’. There is no such thing in Motherwell, but we may yet introduce the charming fashion, and wont [sic] the rowdies of that black country stare, when a couple of tandems head the march of the M. C. C. The machines are procurable for a trifle but where, oh where will we find the ‘Daisies’?? (Macgregor 6)10

29This, too, is quite different from the disapproval one might expect from a respectable middle-class tourist of unchaperoned public courtship. The same mild irreverence is on display when the brothers stop at Blair Atholl. ‘The deer and grouse of its hills and the salmon of its streams make it a happy hunting ground for sportsmen’, they write before moving to the punchline. ‘We found out its deerness when we were charged sixpence a bottle for stout’ (Macgregor 11).

30Yet in the same text there are moments where the writers seem to embrace respectability and to emphasise their own difference from what they regard as the more debased section of the proletariat. Staying overnight at Tomatin, they note the amount of railway expansion work going on in the area and are annoyed by drunk navvies, one of whom threatens them as they cycle past. Others are drinking in the miserable bar of their Tomatin hotel, and press the brothers to join them, ‘which we declined, not caring much for their kind of amusement’ (Macgregor 16). Leaving the district the next morning, a Sunday, they observe ‘the forms of navvies dotting the wayside, sleeping off Saturday’s debauch, and adding a charming variety to the landscape, verily the dregs of civilization are found in a railway cutting’ (Macgregor 17).

31This switch from tolerance to disapproval, irreverence to respectability, brings to mind Bailey’s suggestion that:

a working man at play could move through several different roles, all cohering into a single life-world, but each in turn likely to be interpreted by an outsider as the behaviour peculiar to a distinct, separate, and exclusive type within the working classes. (Bailey 1998, 37)

  • 11 A more straightforwardly ‘respectable’ narrative of a working-class holiday can be read in Durie 20 (...)

32As written accounts of leisure travel by undeniably working-class narrators, the Two Macs’ account is relatively unusual.11 Other written accounts are harder to interpret, since by definition an entry in a visitors’ book or the text on a postcard carries little or no information about the class of its writer. Set against this considerable problem of interpretation is the advantage that guest books and postcards were both uncensored texts, where spontaneous and unfiltered opinions could be expressed.

33Postcards were developed in Austria in the late 1860s, and first appeared in Britain in 1870, gaining popularity rapidly in the following decades. By 1895, over three hundred million were being sent annually, despite reservations among some Victorians that ‘the postcard was somehow vulgar, and comments in newspapers on “the absurdity of writing private information on an open piece of cardboard, that might be read by half a dozen persons before it reached its destination”’ (Nixon 173; Holt 25). This kind of mass medium, accessible to virtually any literate tourist, would seem to be the ideal source for the historian wishing to reproduce the experiences and attitudes of ordinary travellers. In practice, however, my own research has thrown up few if any useful examples of postcards with illuminating inscriptions. Most are simple exchanges of banalities about the weather and accommodation, with none of the irreverent banter that one might have hoped for.

34Virtually the only exception to this rule was almost certainly sent by a member of the middle classes. A postcard from Interlaken, sent in September 1897, bears the following message on the back:

Oh Interlaken’s not ½ bad
When it is warm and clear!
But when it’s cold and snows like this,
A stoppage here is what I’d miss.
I’d rather go to Aberdour,
And spend my rhino there.

  • 12 ‘Rhino’ was slang for cash or ready money, and Aberdour is a village on the Fife coast.

35At first glance, this seems like a promising example of the kind of irreverent, light-hearted message that a working-class tripper might write on holiday.12 However, the addressee is a Mrs Mackechnie of Hillhead, Glasgow. Hillhead was a prosperous suburb and Interlaken, a resort in the Bernese Oberland, was scarcely the type of destination that a ‘cockney’ tripper would have chosen for a holiday. It seems almost certain that this message, for all its irreverence, was written by a well-to-do middle-class visitor, underlining the dangers of a simple binary opposition between middle-class respectability and working-class boisterousness.

36A more fruitful line of research has been to examine the guest books of hotels and pubs where tourists congregated. While it is generally impossible to know the precise class profile of visitors who wrote in these books, guest books from the period feature entries that reflect a more rough-and-ready, irreverent approach than that normally associated with the Victorian middle classes. Rita Singer describes these entries as ‘micro-texts’ or ‘microforms’ of travel writing, which demonstrate their writers’ ‘self-fashioning of identity for future readers’ (Singer 392). Visitors’ books, Singer argues, allow inscribers the opportunity to ‘perform their identity (collectively as visitors and individually as inscribers) in the public domain while retaining control over the stage by way of offering or obscuring personal details that allow or prevent their identification’ (Singer 405). As her definition suggests, the difficulty of identifying the precise class background of an inscriber presents difficulties for the historian, but the performative element of these ‘micro-texts’ provides a valuable insight into some of the attitudes and preoccupations of Victorian tourists.

37Peter Bailey’s comments on the ubiquity of the ‘spree’ and the ‘blow-out’ in popular culture are certainly borne out by many of the entries in late-Victorian visitors’ books. Writing in the visitors’ book of the Rose and Crown pub in Hitchin, Hertfordshire in April 1896, a visitor named H. Cross recommended his fellow cyclists to, ‘Stop here when you’re tired and need a “blow out”!’ (Rose & Crown, April 6, 1896). Staying at the Ship Hotel in Crediton, Devon, in 1893, a visitor from Essex wrote, ‘The beer is good, the beef is prime/I’ll drop in here another time’ (Ship Hotel, 9 May 1893). Many entries in the guest books of the rudimentary accommodation on the summit of Snowdon refer to the pleasures of food and drink on top of Wales’ highest peak. ‘Ascended from Capel Curig in two and three quarter hours’, recorded three visitors from London in 1863. ‘Thick mist and fog all the way. The best thing we saw at the top was Ham & Eggs’ (Snowdon, July 1863). Staying at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe in 1891, a group from Liverpool wrote: ‘Tired and hot/We came to this spot/Capital pub/Excellent grub’ (Clachaig, 9 August 1891).

38This kind of comment was repeated numerous times in a range of books from all over the country, with writers celebrating the pleasures of food and drink, often in terms clearly intended to be humorous, as when Charles Stewart of Glasgow, staying in the Sligachan hotel around the same time as E. Wylie, wrote in the visitors’ book that he had ‘stayed in the top flat but would not take my usual quantity of Drink in case I could not find my way up stairs’ (Sligachan, 13 July 1872).

39These jovial references perhaps reached their peak at the Sligachan on Skye, where a 1900 entry by Jessie Bainbridge—‘Though only twenty minutes here/I much enjoyed the ginger beer’—appears to have triggered a whole series of drink-related rhymes by subsequent guests. A visitor from Kent wrote underneath, ‘Ginger beer’s a vulgar drink/Compared to lime juice, don’t you think’, whereupon Norah Bainbridge (from the same place on mainland Scotland as Jessie and presumably a relative) added, ‘Though Rhoda had a pagoda/I don’t sniff at milk and soda’. Another member of the Bainbridge family added, ‘I came here feeling weak and pale/So took a glass of ginger ale’. Another writer has appended to this, ‘The lines above are Tommy Rot/I only drink when I am hot’. Under this, another hand has added, ‘These lines on liquor all, I think/Indicate far stronger drink’ (Sligachan, 6 June 1900).

  • 13 The peak’s correct name is Sgùrr-nan-Gillean.

40Food and drink were not the only topics that Victorian visitors treated with irreverence. Any comments that could be interpreted as pretentious, ludicrous, or self-regarding were liable to come in for mockery or worse. When H. Hill wrote in 1865 that he had ascended Snowdon ‘alone, from the little inn near Pen-y-Gwryd, along the “Lliwed” ridge. Route very stiff, requiring great caution’, another visitor wrote underneath this entry, ‘Any ass could do this’ (Snowdon, 29 June 1865). Captain John J. Owen’s claim in the Sligachan book to have ‘Got to the summit of Scuir-na-Gillean [sic] in one hour and fifty minutes from Hotel (no guide). Day clear and view from peak wonderfully beautiful. Had to walk hard to do it in the time’, met with a different kind of scepticism. ‘Bosh’, wrote another guest. ‘The Captain’s watch must have stopped on the way’ (Sligachan, 28 August 1871).13

41Back on Snowdon, the lines, ‘When J. Hart & Son came up here/They found the weather far from clear’, prompted a subsequent guest to add sarcastically, ‘How very sad—oh dear, oh dear/When next they come, may it be clear’ (Snowdon, 2 July 1865). A somewhat flamboyant entry in the same book by a Professor Brockington also met with mockery. ‘Had on July 30 1883 a most glorious view. The Mieklong [sic] Mountains appeared sharply defined against an amber sky flecked with purple’, wrote Brockington. ‘The Isle of Man a ruby set in emeralds! We saw one side [sic] that triumph of mechanical art the two bridges—to the other thirty-three lakes’. This provoked the comments, ‘Rot’ and ‘The production of a would-be poet after extensive imbibing’ (Snowdon, 30 July 1883). The reaction to a simple signature by Elliot Kitchener of Christ’s College, Cambridge was even blunter. The words ‘BALLD ASS [sic]’ are scrawled in large letters over his name (Snowdon, August 1886).

42As well as mocking others, some visitors seemed to take pride in adopting the persona of the much-derided Cockney tourist. This was often done by signing with the names ‘Arry or ‘Ally Sloper’, or some variation on this theme. An 1880 visitor to the Wasdale Head Hotel in the Lake District signed their name as ‘Arry, and the following year another guest signed the book as ‘A. Dafty, Dolt’ (Wasdale, 18 August 1880; n.d., 1881). Ally Sloper’s name crops up in books from Surrey and Kent to the north of Scotland. Others adopted the style and diction of a typical ‘Cockney’ tripper—for example, H. D. Harris of West Ham, London, who recorded in the Ben Nevis hotel book, ‘I was a bloke in a straw hat, climbed mist and snow, and landed here with a cold big toe’ (Ben Nevis, 25 July 1907).

43This last comment illustrates one of the main challenges in interpreting entries in guest books. Was H. D. Harris really ‘a bloke in a straw hat’ from West Ham, or was he simply parodying the popular image of a ‘tripper’? It is impossible to know, and the frustrations for the researcher approaching these ‘micro-texts’ include the absence of supporting evidence for the social class of inscribers, and the suspicion that many entries have a performative element, with writers adopting a persona at odds with the reality of their own life. Nonetheless, entries of this kind are sufficiently common to suggest at least a widespread sensibility that was very different from the ‘official’ middle-class culture of respectability and politeness. Although we cannot know the social class of any individual inscriber, it seems likely that at least some of these disobliging comments came from working-class tourists who refused to conform to the expected pieties of Victorian Britain.


44It is almost sixty years since E. P. Thompson issued his call, in The Making of the English Working Class, for a sharpened awareness of what he called the ‘Brechtian values—the fatalism, the irony in the face of Establishment homilies’ of the labouring poor (Thompson 2013, 64). Thompson was referring to a quite different generation and set of circumstances, but by the latter part of the nineteenth century the descendants of his handloom weavers and other labouring artisans would become the first generation of their class to take paid holidays in the British Isles. The twentieth century would witness an even greater expansion of tourism, with all but the poorest in British society able to afford a holiday of some description. Popular tourist sites increasingly became the object of snobbery and disdain, and the people who flocked to Blackpool or Southend continued to meet with the disapproval of their middle-class counterparts, who would repeat countless variations of Wylie’s 1872 comment about places being ‘overcrowded with tourists’.

45At least some of these working-class tourists would maintain Thompson’s ‘Brechtian values’ when it came to describing their experiences of travel. Far from being the passive objects of criticism and condescension, they were quite capable of ‘writing back’ in the pages of guest books and other unofficial, unfiltered ‘micro-texts’. However it would be a mistake to simply present their attitudes and experiences in terms of unrestrained hedonism and anti-Establishment irreverence. Instead, we need to think not in terms of a single homogeneous tourist experience but rather a multiplicity of experiences and approaches. The degree of performativity in guest book entries suggests that ordinary tourists approached these texts with a sophisticated understanding that they were writing for an audience, rather than simply faithfully recording their impressions. This complicates the interpretation of these entries, but it also has the potential to add to the richness, heterogeneity and complexity of our understanding of working-class tourism.

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Manuscript materials

Ben Nevis Summit Hotel Visitors’ Book, 1898–1910, L/D/155/2/1, Lochaber Archive Centre, Fort William.

Clachaig Hotel, Glencoe logbook, 1889–1904, Acc. 11538/14, National Library of Scotland (NLS), Edinburgh.

Rose and Crown, Hitchin Visitors’ Book no. 34, 1897–1902, MSS 328/C/6/103, Warwick Modern Records Centre.

Ship Hotel, Crediton Visitors’ Book, 1886–1894, Z/19/21/11, Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter.

Sligachan Hotel Visitors’ Book, 1869–1873, SL/D315/5/1, Skye & Lochalsh Archive Centre, Portree.

Sligachan Hotel Visitors’ Books, 1885–1903, Acc. 11538/15, NLS, Edinburgh.

Snowdown Visitors’ Books, 1863–1889, NLW MS 16083C, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Wasdale Head Visitors’ Book, WDSO163 & WDSO164, Fell & Rock Climbing Club (FRCC), Cumbria County Archive, Kendal.

1882 Tour of the Rhine & Cook’s Tour of Paris by Thomas William Tidmarsh. Thomas Cook Archive, Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland.

Wheel Wanderings, July 1893 – The John O’Groats Grind by John and George Macgregor. Stirling University Archive MS 108 44124317.

Dougan 109 – Part of Dougan Albums and Loose Photographs – Diary of a Scotch Tour 1868 and A Continental Tour 1869, Accession no. 4317, Glasgow University Library.

Books and Articles

Bailey, Peter. ‘The Politics and Poetics of Modern British Leisure: A Late Twentieth-Century Review’. Rethinking History 3 (1999): 131–75.

Bailey, Peter. Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City. Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

Bailey, Peter. ‘“Will the Real Bill Banks Please Stand Up?” Towards a Role Analysis of Mid-Victorian Working-Class Respectability’. Journal of Social History (Spring 1979): 336–53.

Bailey, Peter. Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830–1885. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

Bell, J. J. I Remember. Edinburgh: The Porpoise Press, 1932.

Brendon, Piers. Thomas Cook: 150 Years of Popular Tourism. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.

Brockedon, William. Journals of Excursions in the Alps: The Pennine, Graian, Cottian, Rhetian, Lepontian, and Bernese. London: James Duncan, 1833.

Brodie, Allan. Tourism and the Changing Face of the British Isles. Swindon: Historic England, 2019.

Buzard, James. The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800–1918. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Christopher, John, and Campbell McCutcheon. Bradshaw at the Seaside: Britain’s Victorian Resorts. Stroud, Glos: Amberley Publishing, 2015.

Crone, Rosalind. Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London. Manchester & New York: Manchester UP, 2012.

Darcy, Jane. ‘Promiscuous Throng’, Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 2020, 4–5.

Doogan, Brian. The Guardian of Blackmount: A History of Kingshouse Inn, Glencoe. Scotland: Highland Highway, 2004.

Duncan, James, and Derek Gregory, eds. Writes of Passage: Reading Travel Writing. London & New York: Routledge, 1999.

Durie, Alastair. Scotland and Tourism: The Long View. London & New York: Routledge, 2017.

Durie, Alastair. Travels in Scotland, 1788–1881: A Selection from Contemporary Tourist Journals. Woodbridge: Scottish History Society/ Boydell Press, 2012.

Durie, Alastair. Scotland for the Holidays: Tourism in Scotland, c.1780–1939. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2003.

Golby, J. M., and A. W. Purdue. The Civilisation of the Crowd: Popular Culture in England, 1750–1900. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1999.

Henes, Mary, and Brian H. Murray, eds. Travel Writing, Visual Culture and Form, 1760–1900. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Holt, Tonie and Valmaie. Picture Postcards of the Golden Age. London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1971.

James, Henry. English Hours: A Portrait of a Country, 1905. London: Tauris Parke, 2011.

James, Kevin. ‘Meeting Kate Kearney at Killarney: Performances of the Touring Subject, 1850–1914’. Travel Writing and Tourism in Britain and Ireland. Ed. Benjamin Colbert. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 181–200.

Marks, Patricia. ‘Tipping Mr. Punch “the Haffable Wink”: E. J. Milliken’s Cockney Verse Letters’. The Victorian Comic Spirit: New Perspectives Ed. Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000, 67–89.

McGloin, P. R. and J. K. Walton. ‘The Tourist Trade in Victorian Lakeland’. Northern History: A Review of the History of the North of England XVII (1981): 153–82.

McNee, Alan. The New Mountaineer in Late Victorian Britain: Materiality, Modernity, and the Haptic Sublime. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

McWilliam, Rohan. The Titchborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

Mitchie, Helena. Victorian Honeymoons: Journeys to the Conjugal. Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Nixon, Laura. ‘Carmen Sylva, Postcards and the Commercialisation of Travel’. Crossing Borders in Victorian Travel: Spaces, Nations and Empires. Ed. Barbara Franchi and Elvan Mutlu. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2018, 172–93.

Simpson, Eric. Going on Holiday. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1997.

Singer, Rita. ‘Leisure, Refuge and Solidarity: Messages in Visitors’ Books as Microforms of Travel Writing’. Studies in Travel Writing 20.4 (2016): 392–408.

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1 Brockedon should probably not have been surprised. Buzard notes that the first cross-Channel passenger ferry service began in 1816 between Brighton and Le Havre, followed by a Dover to Calais service in 1821. By 1840 an estimated 100,000 passengers were crossing the Channel by various routes every year (Buzard 41).

2 For an examination of how this played out in one particular subculture, that of mountaineering, see McNee 201–14.

3 The phrase ‘doon the watter’ (down the water) was a Scottish colloquialism referring to an excursion on a Clyde ferry, usually from the Broomielaw pier in Glasgow. See Durie 2017, 31.

4 Durie quotes an 1868 letter to the Glasgow Herald from a writer in Largs on the Clyde coast, who ‘viewed excursionists as a curse to this and to every watering place on the coast’, complaining specifically about young men bathing naked at the resort (Durie 2017, 33).

5 Durie (2017) notes how criticism of tourism in Scotland was generally class-based rather than nationalistic, noting that ‘real conflict and social tension came not between the culture and attitudes of English visitors, on the one hand, and the locals on the other but between different social groups at the seaside over behaviour . . . . There were a number of flashpoints, over drink, over damage, over Sabbath-breaking, where there was a clear conflict between local custom and tourism. But the tourism objected to was generally that of the Scottish excursionist, not the foreign visitor’ (59).

6 One notable exception was the Toynbee Travellers’ Club, which from 1888 took groups of working class ‘pilgrims’ on education tours of Italy: see Sutcliffe.

7 Tidmarsh’s account, in the Thomas Cook Archive, makes it clear that although he and his companion joined a Cook’s Tour of Paris, they mostly used the agency to purchase what were known as ‘through tickets’. By this stage a good deal of Cook’s business came from semi-independent travellers using the firm’s network to simplify ticketing rather than participating in organised package tours.

8 Golby and Purdue note that widespread literacy actually pre-dated the Education Act of 1870 by decades, arguing that by mid-century ‘the majority of working people were literate’. They point out that ‘by the end of the century it would have been common to find some sort of newspaper or magazine being read in a working-class home’ (179).

9 The document is now held in Stirling University Archive. Bailey’s point about the ‘polyvalent’ nature of working-class respectability is that the notion of respectability was contingent and variable. Bailey argues that respectability ‘was practiced in a more limited and situational sense than that of a lived ideal or permanent code of values [and] was assumed as a role (or cluster of roles) as much as it was espoused as an ideology’ (Bailey 1979, 338).

10 ‘Daisy Bell’ was a popular song composed that same year, 1892, by Harry Dacre. M. C. C. presumably stands for Motherwell Cycling Club.

11 A more straightforwardly ‘respectable’ narrative of a working-class holiday can be read in Durie 2012 (206–33), namely Mary Allison’s account of her 1881 holiday in Scotland.

12 ‘Rhino’ was slang for cash or ready money, and Aberdour is a village on the Fife coast.

13 The peak’s correct name is Sgùrr-nan-Gillean.

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Référence électronique

Alan McNee, « ‘Overcrowded with tourists’: Guest Books, Postcards, and Other Popular Forms as ‘Micro-Texts’ of Travel Writing »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alan McNee

Alan McNee is a Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. His most recent book is The New Mountaineer in Late Victorian Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and he has also published a biography of the Victorian impresario Albert Smith. His current research is on British tourism in the late Victorian period, with a particular focus on visitors’ books.
Alan McNee est chercheur associé à l’Institut d’Études anglaises rattaché à l’École d’Études Supérieures de l’Université de Londres. Son ouvrage le plus récent est The New Mountaineer in Late Victorian Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) et il a également publié une biographie de l’imprésario victorien Albert Smith. Sa recherche porte actuellement sur le tourisme britannique de la fin de l’époque victorienne, et plus particulièrement sur les livres d’or.

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