A brief history of London tourism since 1800

Each year, millions of tourists flock to the capital to visit
the likes of Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and St Paul’s
Cathedral. But where might the 19th-century London tourist have headed?
Here, Dr Michelle Johansen, a social historian of 19th- and 20th-century
London, investigates…

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Period: 1830–40

In the 1830s, a London tourist might have visited the fashionable
Queen’s Bazaar in Oxford Street and paid one shilling to view the Royal
Clarence Vase. Made to order for King George IV in the 1820s, the gold,
glass and enamel object took 15 workmen more than three years to
manufacture, and weighed eight tonnes. Viewed by gaslight, the vase was
described in Kidd’s New Guide to the Lions of London (1832) as “dazzling and gorgeous in the extreme”.
As well as descriptions of sites still popular with tourists today,
including St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of
London, Kidd’s Guide featured information on short-lived
attractions such as the pavilion of the gigantic whale on St Martin’s
Lane. The sole exhibit here was a 95-ft long whale skeleton – the whale
had been found dead by fishermen off the coast of Belgium in 1827. The
charge to enter the pavilion was one shilling. For an extra shilling,
visitors were able to sit inside the belly of the whale.
Kidd’s Guide also reminds us that in the 1830s the Regent’s
Park Zoo had a rival attraction south of the river at Walworth. Here
were the Surrey Zoological Gardens, covering 15 acres of land and opened
to the public in 1831. For one shilling, visitors could view tropical
plants and a variety of exotic birds and animals including zebras,
pelicans and monkeys.

Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park, London (engraving), 1835. © Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Images

Period: 1870–80

In the 1870s, a new craze for skating was reflected in the
publications produced for visitors to London. Alongside detailed
descriptions of all of London’s parks (at this time Primrose Hill was
also known by the name Albert Park), The Saturday Half-Holiday Guide
of 1877 included information about where the best skating might be had.
Ice-skating could be enjoyed at numerous sites in severe winters, from
the south-western suburbs of Surbiton and Kingston to the Lea River and
Hackney Marshes in the east.

Ladies keen to skate were advised to take up the “new and
fashionable” amusement of skating on rollers – “one of the few athletic
exercises in which ladies can join”. Other popular leisure pursuits at
this time were rifle shooting, archery and croquet, which was played at
Finsbury Park, Battersea and elsewhere. Also at Finsbury Park, the
enthusiastic gymnast could take advantage of parallel bars and other
equipment fixed to the trees near the lake and refreshment pavilion.

A group of skaters at an ice-rink in Chelsea, London, 1876. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Period: 1880–1910

By the end of the 19th century, ‘exhibition fever’ had taken over
tourist London. Ambitious events aimed at large-scale audiences curious
to find out more about ‘exotic’ cultures were held in the capital in
vast public arenas such as Earls Court and Olympia in west London and
the Crystal Palace in south London.
The Italian Exhibition (1888), Empire of India Exhibition (1895),
Franco-British Exhibition (1908), Japan-British Exhibition (1910) and so
on reflected and consolidated London’s growing reputation as a global
city. A merger of commercial and national interests was evident in
guidebooks that had often been sponsored or produced by railway
companies, banks, shops or other businesses keen to promote their brand.

Refreshments company Bertram and Co produced The ‘Only’ Guide to London and the Exhibitions of 1888.
This volume tells us that visitors to late-Victorian London might have
enjoyed an evening of al fresco ballet at Crystal Palace under the
brilliant illuminations of 50,000 coloured lamps, or a magnificent
buffet dinner at the new and elaborately furnished Prince’s Gate Hotel
in Knightsbridge.

The Women’s Exhibition, May 1909. The stalls displayed items
such as postcards, art, needlework, flowers and farm produce. The event
was held at the Princes’ skating rink, Knightsbridge, London. (Photo by
Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Period: 1920–40

Spectacle and performance remained a feature of tourist guidebooks in the interwar period, with WDH McCullough’s guide, London
(1938), describing and illustrating the pageants and ceremonies
visitors might include in their itinerary. These included the changing
of the guard, which happened daily at Buckingham Palace when the king
was in residence, to trooping the colour annually on the king’s
birthday, and swan-upping – a census of the swan population on the
Thames – that took place near Southwark Bridge in July.
McCullough also directed tourists towards a barristers’ wig shop in
the Temple; the dog cemetery in Hyde Park, and to the sheep kept in
Green Park – a reminder of the countryside in the modern city.

Changing the guard outside Buckingham Palace, 2 April 1928.
The guards are dressed in long coats and bearskin hats. (Photo by London
Express/Getty Images)

Period: 1950–70

From the late 1950s, tourist guidebooks branched out beyond the
wealthy or privileged visitor: there emerged free, student and
alternative guides to London, as well as guides for women, which focused
on social life and cheap eats. The Student’s Guide to London
(1956) reveals that young visitors to the city enjoyed Club Tahiti on
Shaftesbury Avenue; the Campari near Soho Square (with its modern,
mirrored décor) and the Club de la Cote d’Azur on Frith Street, where
there was always a crowd and “no need to bring a partner” if you wanted
to dance to the mainly Mambo music.
Meanwhile, Jane Reed’s Girl About Town (1965) warned the
single girl that “most places won’t allow ‘unescorted’ females inside.
Even some Wimpy bars refuse to serve unescorted girls after midnight… So
that dispenses with any ideas of whooping it up by wine and candlelight
without a man calling the tune!”

A group of young women ‘hanging out’ on the streets of Soho, London, September 1956. (Photo by Werner Rings/Getty Images)
Going out with boys meant more choice of venues, and Reed listed the
Ad Lib, the Cool Elephant and Annie’s Room as the “in places” in 1960s
London. For late-night pies and coffee, the Alternative Guide to London
(1970) directed the London visitor to the Chelsea Bridge Pie Stall near
the entrance to Battersea Park; the Cosy Café in Ladbroke Grove, and
‘Mick’s’ on Fleet Street.

Dr Michelle Johansen is a social historian of 19th and
20th-century London based at the Bishopsgate Institute. On Saturday 14
November she is hosting a one-day course exploring London’s changing
character and identity as a tourist destination.

To find out more, click here.