Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2013/20 posted by hidden europe on

Cast back 150 years, and Bastille Day came and went without the average Parisian taking much notice. It was not till 1880 that 14 July acquired the status of a national holiday. Thus when Miss Jemima Morrell wandered the streets of Paris on 14 July 1863, it was a perfectly ordinary Tuesday. Jemima and her party of fellow travellers from England dutifully followed the Parisian itinerary that had been prepared for them by Mr Thomas Cook. Mr Cook had taken care of matters to ensure that his group would be admitted to the Tuileries Palace. Miss Morell noted there a surfeit of "gilt, glitter and glass." We know this because Jemima Morrell recorded every detail in her journal.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Cast back 150 years, and Bastille Day came and went without the average Parisian taking much notice. It was not till 1880 that 14 July acquired the status of a national holiday. Thus when Miss Jemima Morrell wandered the streets of Paris on 14 July 1863, it was a perfectly ordinary Tuesday. Jemima and her party of fellow travellers from England dutifully followed the Parisian itinerary that had been prepared for them by Mr Thomas Cook.

Mr Cook had taken care of matters to ensure that his group would be admitted to the Tuileries Palace. Napoléon III did not often grant such imperial permission to visitors, but Mr Cook had a way of securing access for his clients to places barred to other travellers. Miss Morell noted there a surfeit of "gilt, glitter and glass." We know this because Jemima Morrell recorded every detail in her journal.

Jemima's diary was only published one hundred years later in 1963 - and then under the title Miss Jemima's Swiss Journal. It covers a three week journey from London to the Swiss Alps, a continental itinerary that concluded with a brief stay in Paris. Although Thomas Cook had escorted many groups to Paris, the journey in summer 1863 to the Alps was his company's first ever tour to Switzerland.

Miss Jemima's diary records the entire three week journey - the text often laced with a fine dash of humour that slices through Victorian formality. It reveals the genuine camaraderie that developed between members of the group as they explored Alpine valleys and mountains. The itinerary was remarkably demanding, with pre-dawn starts on several days of the trip, stiff mountain climbs and expeditions onto glaciers. Only in Neuchâtel, the last place they stayed in Switzerland, were they permitted a little leisure. "A breakfast earlier than eight was not enforced," wrote Jemima with an evident sense of relief.

The tourist's canon

We are struck how this pioneering Cook's itinerary still has a familiar ring today: Lake Geneva, Martigny, Sion, Kandersteg, Interlaken, Lucerne and so on. By 1863, individual travellers like JMW Turner and John Ruskin had, through their art and writing, introduced the English to a Swiss canon. Mr Cook thus provided just what his clients demanded: a chance to walk in the footsteps of those who had helped shape the intellectual life of Victorian England.

The party climbed to the top of the Rigi, there to watch the sunrise, just as many independent travellers (including Turner and Ruskin) had done before them. And just as millions have done since, though nowadays the great majority make the ascent by train.

In Paris, they ticked off the sights with a strong sense of what 'must' be done. Many travellers still do just the same nowadays. So on that Bastille Day 150 years ago, Cook's band of adventurers dashed through the Louvre, visited a flower market and sauntered along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

Paris before the Eiffel Tower

Getting into the Palais des Tuileries was of course a rare treat - and just in time too. The palace was burnt to the ground during a spate of revolutionary fervour during the Paris Commune of 1871. The other big sight on that Bastille Day exploration of Paris was the Panthéon on Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. The chance to see the graves of a few French cultural giants no longer pulls crowds of English travellers in the way it did in Jemima's day (though Germans, interestingly, still seem fascinated by men of letters - all the more so if they are dead).

At the Panthéon, Miss Jemima dutifully paid homage at the tombs of Rousseau and Voltaire. "Both are men whom the French love to honour," she wrote in her journal. She was of course a little too early to catch Émile Zola and Victor Hugo. The French have always stuck to the sound principle of not pantheonising their literary lions until they are completely dead.

But the real appeal of the Panthéon to Jemima and her party had nothing to do with poets and philosophers. The dome afforded the best possible view of Paris. The group raced up the 480 steps, to be rewarded by a view of "the entire circuit of Paris, its churches, palaces and gardens, divided by the many-bridged Seine."

The Panthéon still warrants a visit but it no longer figures in the pantheon of obligatory sights. Those wanting a good view make for Mr Eiffel's extraordinary tower. Those wanting a good grave head to Père Lachaise.

Thomas Cook's group left Paris for London the following day, returning to England via Dieppe and Newhaven. Miss Jemima slipped into the decent obscurity of a comfortable middle-class life in Yorkshire. Her diary was never published in her lifetime.

How Miss Jemima's Swiss Journal came to be in a London warehouse is an utter mystery, but there it was discovered in 1947 in the bombed ruins of the building. Its publication in 1963 coincided with the centenary of Thomas Cook's first tour to Switzerland. The diary is a remarkable piece of travel writing. It deserves to be much better known.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.