Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel

Leading the Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel

by Alan Sillitoe

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A journey into nineteenth-century travel guides to the UK, Europe, and Soviet Union as researched and written by one of England’s most distinguished authors.
In this quirky and illuminating social history, bestselling British author Alan Sillitoe culls fascinating details from Victorian-era guidebooks and travelogues in order to recount the pleasures, dangers, traps, and delights of travel in the century leading up to World War I. For instance, in Switzerland, an English officer once fell into a bears’ den and was “torn in pieces.” In Paris, the outdoor seating at cafés was in “unpleasant proximity to the gutters.” In Germany and the Rhine, the denominations marked on coins did not necessarily indicate their value. And in Northern Italy, a traveler could look forward to a paradise of citron and myrtle, palms and cyclamen.
For the armchair traveler journeying into a bygone era, Sillitoe begins with the essential practicalities relevant to any tourist: the price of passports and visas, how best to clear customs, and how many bags to pack. He includes timeless advice, such as: Board a boat on an empty stomach if you are prone to seasickness, and always break in your boots before embarking on a trip. Anachronistic recommendations abound as well: It is best to leave your servant at home, carry your milk with you when traveling to small Italian villages, and not pay children and “donkey women” for flowers.
From convalescent hotels in the South of France to malaria-ridden marshes between Rome and Naples, and from the chaos of Sicily and southern Italy to the dazzling bullfights and rampant thieves of sunny Spain, Sillitoe guides readers through the minutiae of the Mediterranean with wit and historical insight. Then he takes an anecdote-filled road east into Greece, Egypt, the Holy Lands, Turkey, and Russia. Of course, the Grand Tour would not be complete without a thorough account of his home turf of England, with her idiosyncratic hamlets, smoke-filled skies, and working-class townsfolk in high-buckled shoes.
At once a fascinating history of travel books from 1815 to 1914 and an entertaining ode to wanderlust, Leading the Blind brings to life the absurd and profound wonders of Victorian globetrotting. With simple but captivating prose, Sillitoe also shows how the way we view foreign lands can reveal a lot about what is happening at home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504035002
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/12/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 275
Sales rank: 570,856
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Alan Sillitoe (1928–2010) was a British novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, known for his honest, humorous, and acerbic accounts of working-class life. Sillitoe served four years in the Royal Air Force and lived for six years in France and Spain, before returning to England. His first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was published in 1958 and was followed by a collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. With over fifty volumes to his name, Sillitoe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997.

Read an Excerpt

Leading the Blind

A Century of Guide Book Travel

By Alan Sillitoe


Copyright © 1995 Alan Sillitoe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3500-2



In 1861, Baedeker's guidebook to Switzerland informs us that an English officer fell into the bears' den at Berne and was 'torn in pieces after a desperate struggle'. Like the eternal conundrums that have puzzled poets, such as who cleft the Devil's foot, what song the Sirens sang, and what secret was concealed by the Gordian knot, I was curious to solve this one, at least as far as knowing the man's name, but a letter to the mayor's officer at Berne querying his identity brought no response.

Murray's handbook for 1874 gave more details of the officer's fate, saying that he was 'destroyed by the large male bear, having fallen in an attempt to pass along the wall separating the two dens. The struggle was long, and took place in the presence of many witnesses, and, it is said, of an armed sentry, who did not interfere.'

Later editions of the same book tell us that the victim was Swedish, a Captain Lorck, who was killed 'owing to the stupidity of his companion, who might easily have caused him to be rescued, but lost his head'. One wonders which of the bears dined off that, and whether it was at all palatable.

Being torn apart by bears was only one pitfall of travel in the Victorian Age, and others, albeit less terminal, will be mentioned later. Macmillan's guide to Switzerland, 1904, informs us that carrots and cakes to feed the bears were sold at the various stalls. Visiting the bear pit a few years ago I noticed that the safety rails were such as to make it impossible for anyone to suffer the same fate as Captain Lorck.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815 had promised peace on the mainland of Europe for a long time to come, people from Great Britain went 'abroad' in ever-increasing numbers. The Industrial Revolution had enriched many, and enabled far more to travel than had been the case before the Napoleonic Wars. The following paragraph from the Observer of 18 November 1822 nicely sums up the futility of that series of conflicts:

It is estimated that more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones were imported last year from the continent of Europe into the port of Hull. The neighbourhood of Leipsig, Austerlitz, Waterloo and of all the places where, during the late bloody war, the principal battles were fought, have been swept alike of the bones of the hero and the horse which he rode. Thus collected from every quarter, they have been shipped to the port of Hull and thence forwarded to the Yorkshire bone grinders who have erected steam-engines and powerful machinery for the purpose of reducing them to a granulary state. In this condition they are sold to the farmers to manure their lands.

By the 1840s railways and steamships were linking places of importance, though travellers still went by coach (often their own) or as well-to-do pedestrians in regions of scenic beauty. The bicycle had become popular by the end of the century, and the motor omnibus made its appearance a little later, before the Great War in 1914 ended an era of travel which was certainly more arduous – and therefore more interesting – than it is today when people are transported in an hour over what in those times would have taken days, if not weeks.

Before the French Revolution only the rich could make their way, at least in any style, to foreign places. William Beckford – 'England's wealthiest son', as Byron called him – moved around in a glamorous equipage, followed by retainers and his own cook; while Arthur Young, the gentleman-farmer from Suffolk, went through France to investigate the state of agriculture, and thereby left a pre-Revolutionary picture of that country so unique that his book was often required reading in French schools through much of the nineteenth century.

Shelley and his entourage, in 1814 and 1816, travelled on foot and by donkey, from Paris to the Alps, at the cost of sixty pounds. On leaving Switzerland they just managed to get home on the twenty-eight pounds remaining.

Later travellers might have a more viable budget, but their educational levels varied, from the accomplished Classical scholar to the newly rich manufacturer whose wife and growing children persuaded him that it was 'the thing' to go abroad. The galleries, castles and Gothic cathedrals of Europe – but especially the cities of Florence, Venice and Rome – were soon overflowing with English tourists.

No writer was more biting against what he considered the tide of vulgarity crowding through Europe than Thackeray: 'Times are altered at Ostend now; of the Britons who go thither, very few look like lords, or act like members of our hereditary aristocracy. They seem for the most part shabby in attire, dingy of linen, lovers of billiards and brandy, and cigars and greasy ordinaries.'

The educated and snobbish considered themselves 'travellers' rather than 'tourists', reluctant to associate with the uncultured mob who were thought to give their country a bad name. The German author of a guide to Nuremburg, writing about the castle, observed that 'in the summer time the cheerful voices of German philistines or inquisitive Britons soon drove me from this haunt'.

Practical ways of ameliorating the unlettered condition of tourists were undertaken by two guidebook publishers, John Murray of London, who produced a Hand-book for Holland, Belgium, and North Germany in 1836, and Karl Baedeker of Coblenz, whose guide to the same countries came out in 1839. Their works were of most use to the educated, who must have been their main readers. In Murray's Southern Italy, 1853, all quotations from Classical authors are given in the original, as if it would be an insult to translate them for readers. French was certainly necessary to receive full benefit from Augustus J. C. Hare's illustrated cultural guides for Italy and France which appeared later in the century.

Such books instructed potential travellers as to how they should behave on leaving home ground, and described in economical prose the countries whose names they bore, so that even today one learns a great deal of the conditions at that time. Topographical exactitude and honest assessment were the criteria, but there were also lists of hotels, with comments and prices, and precise catalogues of each great picture gallery. Notable buildings were pointed out and described, the gems of European civilization marked with an asterisk in case anyone should walk by them unawares.

Baedeker was to comment that his firm was the first to use asterisks, 'single or double, as marks of commendation for hotels and restaurants, for views and sites of outstanding natural beauty, and for works of architecture and art', the object being to 'familiarise his readers with the merits, in general esteem, of the things they encountered on their travels; "starred in Baedeker" became a synonym for high quality'.

Guidebooks, then, were the educated dogs which led the blind, giving the latest information on travelling conditions, but also instructing those who needed to have the blanks in their knowledge filled in, much of which, it might be said, is still of interest for the traveller today. The English editions of Baedeker's guidebooks were in a sense more democratic, in catering for the tourist of modest means. Quotations were kept as few and as short as possible, and his meticulousness may have appealed more to the engineer than the pedant.

The early Murray handbooks were written for the rich and cultured traveller who could afford a private carriage and to employ a courier. His readers were assumed to be on a higher social level, though the law is sometimes laid down heavily on how travellers should behave, indicating that the so-called upper classes may not have been above a bit of rough stuff when dealing with recalcitrant foreigners.

In France, 1848, we are told that Englishmen 'have a reputation for pugnacity in France: let them therefore be especially cautious not to make use of their fists, however grave the provocation, otherwise they will rue it. No French magistrate or judge will listen to any plea of provocation; fine and imprisonment are the offender's inevitable portion.'

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in her Journal of a Six Weeks Tour, gives this stricture some point when she relates an event at the beginning of her journey with Shelley down the Rhine in 1816:

Our companions in this voyage were of the meanest class, smoked prodigiously, and were exceedingly disgusting. After having landed for refreshment in the middle of the day, we found that our former seats were occupied; we took others, when the original possessors angrily, and almost with violence, insisted upon our leaving them. Their brutal rudeness to us, who did not understand their language, provoked Shelley to knock one of the foremost down: he did not return the blow, but continued his vociferations until the boatmen interfered, and provided us with other seats.

The handbooks of John Murray and Karl Baedeker became the two chief rivals out of many guidebook series, but Baedeker produced the cheaper item which sold therefore in greater numbers. Less durable, and printed on thinner paper, the maps and plans were mostly coloured and easy to read, while the black and white maps in the early Murray's books, sometimes without scale, were more difficult to follow.

The Baedeker series is still going, though the quality has deteriorated since the introduction of glossy photographs; the only remaining Murray is a handbook to India. In France Adolphe Joanne began his series of travel guides in 1841, which in 1916 were renamed Les Guides Bleus, published in English only after the Great War. Although the Blue Guides of today, with the Guides Bleus in France, are perhaps the best both for detail and cartography, the prize for the best maps and plans of all time must be shared between Murray's last edition of Switzerland, and Baedeker's United States, 1909.

In the nineteenth century such books guided travellers to all parts of Europe, and sometimes to places beyond. With a Baedeker one could travel as far as Peking, or across Canada and the United States, while Murray even published handbooks to Japan and New Zealand.

Trawling through the various titles and editions enables one to confect a fair picture of what it was like to travel in the century up to the Great War of 1914, of the pleasures, dangers, traps and rare experiences which the tourist was warned against but no doubt often encountered.

The flood of tourists had a civilizing influence on some parts of the Mainland, in that the money spent was an economic blessing. The disadvantages have often been pointed out, but English gold helped to finance modern infrastructures, giving employment on all levels, and sustaining those inn owners who were to become a solid part of the middle class. As Murray writes in France, 1848: 'By official returns it appears that there are at present in France 66,000 English residents. Supposing the average expenditure of each to be 5 francs a day, the sum total will amount to about 4,820,000 pounds per annum.'

From Switzerland, 1892, we learn that: 'The great annual influx of strangers is of the same importance as some additional branch of industry or commerce would be. It has been estimated that in 1880 there were over a thousand inns in Switzerland especially built for the use of travellers, the capital value of the buildings and their contents and sites being put at nearly 13 million pounds sterling.'

The death of an officer in the bear pit at Berne was not the only accident which befell a tourist during that century up to 1914, when the days were good if you had the money to travel. Before going on to chronicle others I will refer to The Tourist's India by Eustace Reynolds Ball (1907 edition). This tells of an incident which had a happier outcome than the one at Berne.

The great sight of Karachi is the sacred Crocodile Preserve at Magar Pir, some seven miles off. There are hot springs here which feed a shallow tank containing nearly a hundred crocodiles ...

The story, usually thought to be fictitious, of the Englishman who for a bet crossed the tank by jumping successively from the backs of these crocodiles is, it seems, based on fact. The hero of this foolhardy feat was a certain Lieutenant Beresford, a friend of R. F. Burton. When Burton and his companion were visiting the crocodiles' tank they noticed that these reptiles and certain islets of reeds happened to make an almost continuous bridge across the tank. This prompted the daring subaltern to hazard the feat of crossing by hopping from one crocodile to another. To the amazement of the spectators he succeeded in this apparently mad attempt. Sir Richard Burton had already successfully performed an equally daring feat. He managed to muzzle a crocodile by means of a lasso, and then jumped on the reptile's back and enjoyed a somewhat zigzag ride.

Reading these guidebooks has for many years been a pleasurable pastime for me, and I shall lead the reader through their combined maze, picking out whatever illuminates the larger picture of travel in a bygone age.



Before going abroad in the first half of the nineteenth century, a passport was needed, the price for which was four shillings and sixpence. By 1913 it had gone down to two shillings. Regarding the indignity of having to carry such a document John Murray wrote, in 1848: 'Of all the penalties at the expense of which the pleasure of travelling abroad is purchased, the most disagreeable and most repugnant to English feelings is that of submitting to the strict regulations of the continental police, and especially to the annoyance of bearing a passport. As this, however, is a matter of necessity, from which there is no exemption, it is better to submit with a good grace.'

A visa was also called for, at the cost of five francs, a process which had to be gone through before every journey. 'Beyond this the new regulations present no impediment to well-intending and respectable travellers.'

What people should take with them, and how they were to dress when they got to wherever they were going, was the subject of much advice from Murray. 'The warning cannot be too often repeated, or too emphatically enforced upon the traveller, that, if he value money, temper, comfort, and time, he will take with him as little luggage as possible. In cases, however, where the travelling party is large it is a great mistake to distribute it in many small packages. Three large portmanteaus are infinitely better than six small ones: they are more easily found on arrival, more quickly opened at the custom-house, cost the same when you are charged by weight, and of course half when you are charged by package.'

Walking was more in vogue than it is today, and you were advised to: 'Provide yourself with a pair of shooting-boots with cloth or leather tops in England, where alone they can be procured good, with a pair of thin boots for dress. This arrangement will prevent the necessity of loading yourself with a large stock of boots, boot-trees, and boot-cases.' He goes on to say that for the walker the buttoned boots should be double-soled and provided with hobnails: 'The experienced pedestrian never commences a journey with new shoes, but with a pair that have already been conformed to the shape of the feet.'

With regard to wearing-apparel, the best rule was 'to choose that which is not conspicuous or unusual – a light loose morning coat for travelling, which will keep off dust and rain: even the English shooting-jacket has of late become familiar to foreigners.' While a better and cheaper knapsack could be acquired abroad: 'Portmanteaus are better in England than anywhere else.'

The ablutions of Englishmen were of prime importance: 'Soap is indispensable, being a rare article in Continental inns.' Another necessity was: 'A portable india-rubber bath, with a bellows to distend it, packing into the compass of about a foot square, an immense comfort in summer in a hot and dusty climate.'

A flask for brandy or kirschwasser would be useful on mountain excursions, but 'it should be remembered that spirits ought to be resorted to less as a restorative than as a protection against cold and wet, and to mix with water, which ought never to be drunk cold or unmixed during a walk. The best restorative is tea ...'

Carey, an optician with a shop on the Strand, was said to make excellent pocket telescopes, 'about four inches long, combining, with a small size, considerable power and an extensive range ... Spectacles are almost indispensable in railway travelling, for those who ride in 3rd class carriages, to protect the eyes from dust and cinders. Those ladies who take an interest in mountain scenery, or excursions from the high road, will find great advantage in a saddle constructed by Mr. Whippy, in North Audley Street. The crutch is separable, for the convenience of packing.'

The first obstacle in the path of the British traveller was of course the sea, whether it was twenty miles wide as at the Channel, several hundred across the North Sea (German Ocean, in those days) or a week's voyage to Spain and Portugal. Paddle-wheeled steamers were soon crossing to all major ports of the Continent, their fore-decks packed with carriages. Boats left from St Katharine's Wharf on the Thames, but there were two rapid- return crossings every day from Folkestone. English steamboats from Dover took about two hours to Calais, the fare for a pedestrian being ten shillings, and the cost of transporting a carriage two guineas. On this route Murray says that the French steamers were 'very bad', though without giving the reason.


Excerpted from Leading the Blind by Alan Sillitoe. Copyright © 1995 Alan Sillitoe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


One · Officer Eaten by a Bear,
Two · Hurdles,
Three · Getting There,
Four · Paris,
Five · Switzerland,
Six · Germany and the Rhine,
Seven · Northern Italy,
Eight · Rome and Naples,
Nine · Southern Italy and Sicily,
Ten · The South of France,
Eleven · Sunny Spain,
Twelve · The Road to the East,
Thirteen · Greece and Egypt,
Fourteen · The Holy Land,
Fifteen · Turkey,
Sixteen · Russia,
Seventeen · England, Home and Beauty,
A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight,

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