The British Invention of Modern Tourism

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The British Invention of Modern Tourism


Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review


WHILE the remains of the Christmas turkey yet linger in British refrigerators, the television screens will suddenly be full of advertisements for package summer holidays to various sunny climes. In spite of credit cards past their limit, many Britons will finish the turkey and start to plan their next major expense: the continental holiday. Although '2009 was a challenging year', according to the market research group Euromonitor International '2010 will be much better' (BBC News, 10 November). The modern idea of a 'holiday' was the invention of the British. Some might wonder how this British passion for continental holidays began.

Most people use the phrase 'Grand Tour' for travel in the past but the 'Grand Tour' was not a short holiday: it was the culmination of young aristocrats' education in the eighteenth century where the milordi spent years in Italy contemplating classical ruins but more often swooning at the feet of aging countesses and getting riotously drunk in Rome's piazzas.

Our idea of travel as an essential annual holiday is an invention of nineteenth-century Britain. After Waterloo in 1815, the British could roam wherever they wanted about the continent. Britain was the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Within days of Napoleon's fall Britons were crossing the Channel on small and storm-tossed boats. Almost everyone was sea sick and when they arrived they were lowered into rowing boats or onto the backs of sturdy Frenchmen and strong women. The artist Benjamin Haydon, among the first tourists, commented: 'The French looked on us as if we had dropped out of the moon'. Some continentals still glare at their seemingly lunar invaders.

The Channel crossing was followed by something worse: passport inspection, which was as hated then as airport security is today. The idea of any official form of identity was totally alien, the first sign of continental tyranny and bureaucracy. Before 1914 Britain neither required passports to leave or to enter but the government did issue a one-page, lifelong passport without any physical description. It could also cover family members and servants. Britons so detested foreign officials that when a British horse bit a French customs man, the assembled tourists all cheered. No wonder the French officials sometimes bellowed out 'cochon anglais' (English pigs). The British complained so much that by the 1860s most continental countries abolished the need for passports for the ever increasing numbers of British visitors.

Numbers certainly did increase, from about 10,000 annually to over one million in the years before the First World War and for the first time in history families and women began travelling in growing numbers. Some women even ventured aboard on their own as 'unprotected females'. Tourists yearned to see historic places and to gaze at great works of art. Others went for health as doctors advised those suffering from tuberculosis to escape the damp climate and polluted air. Increasingly people went for what Fanny Trollope called 'the smell of the continent' because a new fashion for travel had been created by things such as illustrated books. One wine merchant's wife who saw her son studying such a book with pictures of Italy announced: 'Why should not we go'? Soon the Ruskins were wandering about the continent in their comfortable carriage and young John went on to become the foremost art critic of the era.

Ruskin spent much of his eloquence denouncing other travellers and he was not alone in this. Foreigners were amused to see how the British often avoided one another on holiday. This survives today as a regular answer in a newspaper series about a celebrity's holiday regularly produces the answer of what to avoid: 'other English holiday-makers'. As early as 1819 a guest at a Swiss inn listened as one man denounced British travellers in their own carriages who demanded better roads that ruined peaceful mountain scenery. …

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