Here Come The Rosbifs

Book Review: The Smell of the Continent: The British Discover Europe by Richard Mullen and James Munson

‘TRAVELLING is a very troublesome business,’ advised Charles Dickens’s Household Words magazine in 1852. According to the accounts drawn from letters, diaries and public sources in this compendium of facts, figures and travellers’ tales from the 19th century, he was right. What with the lack of cutlery, clean sheets, hot water for tea and baths, the constant threat of arrest, assault or robbery, the menacing presence of mustachioed foreigners and the state of the lavatories, it is surprising that the British ever embarked on foreign travel at all.

However, they did, and on a scale that astonished their hosts. In the 100 years between the fall of Napoleon and the outbreak of the first world war travel became one of the great boom industries of the age. Using records carefully amassed by the French police and port authorities, Richard Mullen and James Munson estimate that fewer than 10,000 people travelled from Britain to the continent in 1814. By the 1860s the figure had grown to a quarter of a million each year. In 1911 The Times reported that 1m Britons were visiting the continent annually.

Mass travel was an expression of the industrial wealth and imperial confidence of the 19th-century British. Advances in technology made it possible. At the beginning of the century the journey from London to Paris took three or four gruelling days and nights; by mid-century mechanisation had reduced this to less than 11 hours, making a day out to the French capital feasible. In place of the months-long tours of the Rhineland and Switzerland undertaken by early 19th-century travellers, tourism became all about speed and brevity. Well before 1914 a Londoner could leave home in the early morning, lunch in Paris, cram in some shopping, and still be home in time for dinner.

This day-tripping was rather different to the logistical challenges faced by earlier travellers, even if those were self-inflicted. When one Colonel Thornton embarked for France in 1814 he and his six guests took three carriages and coachmen, a variety of servants, including chief butler and falconer, three hawks, ten horses, 30 guns and as many as 120 hounds.

Remarkable as the spectacle of Colonel Thornton’s party must have been, he was hardly alone in his extravagant oddity. The English tourist of the early part of the century frequently went to considerable pains and expense to ship to the continent horses and coaches, the latter often luxuriously appointed. Lord Byron’s, for example, incorporated beds, dining facilities and a library. Such carriages were designed not only to free the traveller from the discomfort of public transport but also to display wealth, status, technological superiority and, as John Ruskin put it, to achieve ‘the abashing of plebeian beholders’. Travel was not just about seeing, but about being seen.

The accounts of travellers everywhere tend to reveal as much about the visitors as about the places they visit. Despite the increase in the speed and decrease in the cost of travel during the 19th century certain patterns remain constant: the tourist of 1814 expended much energy on complaining about other tourists; many travellers remarked that continental hotels offered a service that was twice as good at half the price of the British equivalent; continental railways were better run than those at home.

You could hear the same today. The greatest difference was in attitudes to food. The Victorian Briton regarded empire-building English food as superb and that of France or Italy as dangerous, disgusting or both. Today that situation has largely reversed.

This book is a jolly, jam-packed, rapid-fire tour of its subject. Just what holiday reading should be all about.

First published here.