Vade Mecum: 19th-century tourism

Before Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor, travellers in the 19th century would use a handbook or guide titled Vade Mecum (translation from Latin = go with me). For example, The New Zealand tourists’ vade mecum: being a handbook to the services of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Limited (4th edition, 1891) is full of practical information about travelling in New Zealand — and useful for historical novelists too.

1891 Vade Mecum
NZ Tourists’ Vade Mecum, 1891. State Library of New South Wales

The improved steamship and railway services, combined with the end of the New Zealand Land Wars resulted in a tourist boom during the last three decades of the 19th century. Famous writers such as Anthony Trollope, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain all wrote about visiting New Zealand. (Kipling claimed to have been “given for dinner a roast bird with skin like pork crackling, but it had no wings or trace of any. It was a kiwi – an apteryx.”) The anthology edited by Lydia Wevers, Travelling to New Zealand, contains many excerpts where travellers complain about the mechanics of travel and exclaim over the scenery. In particular, the Victorians had a marked passion for ferns.

Disaster Tourism

The big drawcards were the Pink and White Terraces (even after they were destroyed in the Tarawera eruption of 1886) and the thermal activity of the Hot Lakes District. This required an arduous coach journey from Tauranga or the Waikato (as the railway didn’t reach Rotorua until December 1894).

Men bathing in a thermal pool at the White Terraces, Rotomahana.
Men bathing in a thermal pool at the White Terraces, Rotomahana. West Indies and New Zealand album. Ref: PA1-q-265-35-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22299692

The area was promoted as Dante’s vision of hell:

A sulphurous cloud hangs over the surface, but blows aside now and then, allowing the swirling water to be seen rising towards the centre of the crater in a boiling cone, which rushes this way and that, lashing the sides with appalling fury. The ground around this and other mud boilers is of an extremely treacherous character. A thin crust of pumice, mixed with sulphur, and occasionally overlain with black mud, is all that separates the upper air from untold horrors below.

Invalid Tourism

Doctors often recommended a sea voyage for consumptive patients and ‘taking the waters’ for health reasons was another 19th-century marketing strategy. Spas developed at Waiwera, Te Aroha, Taupo, and Rotorua. The proprietor of the Waiwera Sanatorium advised guests to “take a bath before breakfast, a second in the afternoon, and a third before going to rest at night, drinking a cupful of the mineral water before and after each bath” — one hopes the drinking water wasn’t sourced from the bathing pool.

Waiwera, circa 1880, Dunedin, by Burton Brothers studio. Te Papa (O.034298)
Waiwera, circa 1880, by Burton Brothers studio, Dunedin. Te Papa (O.034298)

Private letters, diaries, and unpublished memoirs

These also contain a cornucopia of travel details about food, accommodation, roads, prices, weather, and on occasion give voice to some racist cultural observations. James Ledger was pleasantly surprised on his arrival in Christchurch in 1878:

I had imagined a few wooden huts, bullock drays, sandy roads, and a great deal of difficulty obtaining accommodation. Instead of which I found cabs, hansoms, omnibuses, etc waiting at the Station. Large broad streets well made, good shops, large hotels, all brilliantly lighted with gas. The streets full of well-respectably dressed women & men, boys calling out the evening papers, with the latest telegrams from Europe and other parts of the world.

Three or four of us put up at a hotel in the centre of town, and just arrived in time for table d’hôte. What a contrast with one rough deal table, tin plates and pannikins! The room was all ablaze with gas, table covered with crystal, silver, flowers etc and napkins! We, who for four months had been obliged to wipe our mouths with the tails of our coats to save washing! “Lamb and green peas, sir?” “Well waiter, I’ve had nothing else for sixteen weeks but never mind I will have some all the same.”

I love Ledger’s anecdote about the (two) Christchurch theatres:

They were built of brick & wood, the accommodation very primitive, but the “troupes” sometimes very good. The best fun was to go in the pits, with all the fellows from up country who invariably had their dogs with them. Of course these had growling, at each other, terminating with a regular dog fight all round. The moments chosen were generally those, when in the play, the loving lovers, about to be separated by an unnatural father, were taking leave of each other, to slow music. It used to be said that the theatregoers of Christchurch were never satisfied unless they had a five act Tragedy, a three act Drama, a couple of dog fights, and a saveloy, for a shilling.

This blog post from the National Library has more detailed information about Ledger’s memoir. The memoir also includes lively sketches of Māori women, a Chinese man, a colonial larrikin, an Irish mounted trooper, and a swagman: Ledger, James John, 1847-1907. Ledger, James J, 1847-1907: In search of a home at the antipodes. Ref: MSX-9415. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/36098671

Another diarist, Henry Wynn Williams, was a less enthusiastic traveller on his departure in 1881:

Unfortunately we have as fellow passengers the world renowned (that is the Yankee world) combination troupe known as “Coles Circus and Menagerie”.  In itself it is certainly a very wonderful affair.  This undertaking, it is no exaggeration to say, is a gigantic one. Imagine for one moment the fact that with one of the largest, if not the very largest tent ever constructed, one man undertakes to bring for exhibition in the Australasian colonies one of the most perfect circuses, with all the usual horse riders, gymnasts and the necessary paraphernalia. Added to this is a splendid collection of wild beasts, elephants, camels, lions, tigers, leopards, with a rhinoceros and two sea lions. This enormous troupe was bought in a steamer from San Francisco to Auckland at an expense I believe of £4000 for a return ticket. Besides this there is the enormous expense of transporting the whole from place to place in the colonies…We  have them all as fellow passengers, lions, tigers, elephant, camel, acrobats, clowns and last but not least, although least, the two celebrated dwarfs, and the living skeleton!! The last poor creature is simply a paralysed cripple, the son of, as he told me a phee-sician, in New York City.

Cole's Circus Advertisement 1880
The Evening Post, 23 Nov 1880. National Library of New Zealand

In addition to the above we have one Roman Catholic Bishop, one Church of England clergyman, a Wesleyan minister and a Presbyterian [ditto], so natural history and the church are well represented. We were warned very strongly against going in the boat on account of the wild beasts. The beasts of that description have given no annoyance whatever, but I am sorry to say the other beasts have. In fact they are a horrible nuisance. There is no getting out of their way, and they spit all over the decks, and in fact everywhere. I must do some of them the justice to say that they are very well-behaved indeed, in fact they are “elegant” as the Yankees say of everything. I hope however I shall never take a voyage again in a ship with a circus combination troupe.

Wynn-Williams, Robert B, active 2013. Wynn-Williams, Henry, 1828-1913: Typescript of journal by Henry Wynn Williams / Transcribed by Robert B Wynn-Williams. Ref: MSDL-1508. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/32241321

That same year, Robert Louis Stevenson (who also visited Auckland in 1890) published his quixotic phrase — to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive — but Henry Wynn-Williams may not have agreed with him.

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