Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 7 - My Excursion Agent

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(*The Excursion Agent here described is Mr. Thomas Cook, of Great Russell Street, London, and Granby Street, Leicester. After this article appeared in All the Year Round, I had many letters of inquiry from unknown correspondents. I referred them all to Mr. Cook, and I have reason to believe that none of them regretted the recommendation.)

VAST numbers of people are, for a comparatively trilling sum, conveyed from one large town to another, or from the heart of a populous neighbourhood to sylvan scenery or picturesque surroundings, and then, after a few days' revel in the unwonted peace and air and freedom, are taken back to their work-a-day life. Wanting to know something of the statistics and general management of the enormous excursion - trains which, during the summer months, convey them, I sought for the longest-established manager of such expeditions, and found him at home nestling in a large newly-fronted house, under the shadow of the British Museum. The front door of this house, on which was a large brass plate duly inscribed with the excursion agent's honoured name, stood open, and by the side of a glass door within, where the visitors' bell is usually to be found, I read the word "Office," and entering, found my agent awaiting my anticipated arrival. The house is, as I afterwards learned, a private hotel; but the neighbourhood being severely [-64-] respectable, and the neighbours objecting to anything so low as a public announcement on a board, my agent defers to their prejudices, describes his house as a boarding-house, or receptacle for his customers while in town ; and, being a Temperance man himself conducts his establishment on strict Temperance principles. And at the very outset of our conversation my agent let me know that he was not a contractor for excursion trains or trips, that he had no responsibility, and that the work was entirely performed by the railway companies over which the trips were taken ; that be made suggestions as to the routes, etc. ; that his profit accrued from head-money or percentage on those whom he induced to travel ; in fact that he was a traveller on commission for various railway companies, in which capacity he paid all his own advertising, generally a heavy amount.
    For more than twenty-three years my agent has been at this work, arranging excursions between England and Scotland, during which time more than a million passengers have been under his charge. He has arrangements with every railway company that can be made available for Scotch trips, and sometimes begins to gather the nucleus of his company far away in the extreme west of England, then sweeping, up the west Cornwall, the Cornwall and South Devon, the Bristol and Exeter the Midland, the North-Eastern, and the North British railways, he reaches Edinburgh, into which city he will pour more than a couple of thousand people by special trains within a period of twenty-four hours.
    My agent does not profess to make hotel arrangements for his flock, but he takes care to advise hotel-keepers of a coming influx; and he thinks that hotel-keepers in the Highlands and elsewhere are kept in order by a list of their prices being published in his programme. At some places far away, such as Bannavie, in the West Highlands, by Fort William, and Braemar, at the period of the Highland [-65-] gathering and games, there has been a pressure, but something has always been arranged; for the hotel-keepers, who at first were disposed to snub my agent as importing the wrong kind of article for them, now eagerly looked for his countenance and recommendation. At Oban he had established a set of lodgings, which he found operated as a wholesome check on the hotels. To carry people, not to feed them, is my agent's business; and, as a rule, he declines to enter into any agreement for boarding and lodging his troop, but, if they wish it, he will settle all their hotel bills on the road, and present them for discharge at the end of the trip ; and it speaks highly for the honesty of excursionists, when he declares that during his whole experience he has never made a bad debt amongst them, or lost a farthing by them. Had he ever been asked to lend any of them money? Frequently; and had never refused. He had lent as much as twenty pounds to one of his excursionists, an entire stranger to him, and had always been repaid. Had he taken any security? Not he. Sometimes a gentleman would offer his watch; but what did he want with a gentleman's watch? He told him to put it in his pocket again.
    At Edinburgh the thousands disperse, and start off on different routes, according to the length of their holiday and the depth of their purses. Those who know the country, young men, and spirited people start off alone. Ladies and inexperienced persons remain in the flock, and go the tour, supervised by my agent, in a party, numbering sometimes as many as two hundred and fifty, half of whom are ladies. The ordinary tickets are useful only as far as Edinburgh, but there are offices in all the large towns in Scotland at which fresh tickets for further extended trips can be obtained. And here my agent, chuckling audibly, informs me that his tickets for coaches always have precedence, where, as is frequently the case, the vehicular supply is not equal to the [-66-] tourist demand; and the coach-proprietors being, in most cases, also hotel-proprietors, it is not to be wondered at that there is loud and frequent grumbling from the outside public at the best places in inns and on the coaches being given to the excursionists. Of these extended trips, the most favourite is that including Glasgow and Inverness, Staffa, and Iona; the reason, perhaps, being that it is one of the cheapest as well as the loveliest, and with it there is connected a circumstance of great interest. For, with a certain amount of proper pride, my agent tells me that a series of improvements which, during the last few years, has been made in the condition of the poor fishing population of Staffa and Iona, is principally due to his excursionists. When they are inspecting the old cathedral at Iona, my agent takes the opportunity of introducing the subject of the natives poverty and their hard lives, and appeals to the generosity of his flock; the excursionists, holiday-making and happy, are in proper cue for the reception of such an appeal, and respond liberally; so liberally, that by their subscriptions twenty-four fishing-boats have been built for the poor fishermen of the place. Many poor boys from these desolate regions have also been provided with comfortable situations in large towns. My agent also informs me that, during his whole experience, he has never had an accident with any of his people, that no one has ever been taken ill-nothing beyond a little over fatigue, no serious illness - and that he has had constant cases of love-matches made up on the trip, and has taken the happy couple their honeymoon excursion in the following year.
    Asked as to the character of the company usually availing itself of his tickets, my agent responded shortly, "first-rate;" but, on its being explained to him that the social status rather than the moral character of his excursionists is what is inquired after, he became more communicative. The destination of the excursion, he explained, [-67-] greatly determined its numbers and the social classes from which it was made up. The trips to Edinburgh, and the shorter excursions in England, attract tradesmen and their wives; merchants' clerks away for a week's holiday, roughing it with a knapsack, and getting over an immense number of miles before they return ; swart mechanics, who seem never to be able entirely to free themselves from traces of their life-long labour, but who, my agent tells me, are by no means the worst informed, and are generally the most interested about the places they visit. In the return trips from Scotland to England come many students of the schools and universities ; raw-boned, hard-worked youths, who, in defiance of the popular belief, actually do return to their native country for a time, probably to make a future raid into and settlement in the land whose nakedness they had spied into in early youth. As to Swiss excursions, the company is of a very different order; the Whitsuntide trip has a good deal of the cockney element in it, and is mostly composed of very high-spirited people, whose greatest delight in life is "having a fling," and who do Paris, and rush through France, and through Switzerland to Chamounix, compare every place they are taken to with the views which formed part of the exhibition at the Egyptian hail, carry London everywhere about with them in dress, habits, and conversation, and rush back, convinced that they are great travellers. From these roisterers the July and September excursionists differ greatly: ushers and governesses, practical people from the provinces, and representatives of the better style of the London mercantile community who form their component parts; all travel as if impressed with the notion that they are engaged in fulfilling the wishes of a lifetime, in a pleasant duty never to be repeated. They stop at all the principal towns, visiting all the curiosities to be seen in them, and are full of discussion among themselves, proving that they are nearly all thoroughly well up in the subject. Many of [-68-] them carry books of reference with them, and nearly all take notes.
    I inquired whether my agent always accompanied his flock, or whether he occasionally permitted them to wander alone. He told me that on the Swiss trips he made a point of being with them from the starting-place to the destination, and that he never considered himself free from responsibility - though of course there could be no kind of claim on him - until they were all landed in England. He should pursue this course on the Italian and all Continental excursions; but in England he frequently did not meet his tourists until their arrival at the first large provincial town on their route, when he "turned up promiscuously as it were." I asked him what was gained by remaining with the large body, and not rambling away by oneself. When, in reply, my agent hinted that his society and guidance were the advantages in question, he looked at me so sternly that I determined to press him with no further questions of that nature.
    In the Exhibition years of '51 and '62, my agent, for the first time since 1846, had no Scotch tourist trips, being engaged by the Midland Railway Company as manager of their Exhibition excursion trains, in which capacity he supervised the conveyance to London of above a hundred and fifty thousand persons; and in those years my agent commenced business in another line. The excursionists, once landed in London, wanted somewhere to live in, and, with the usual caution of country people, distrusted the touters and advertisements greeting them on every side. Remarking this feature in the first batch which he brought up, my agent immediately engaged six private family houses furnished for the season, as boarding-houses for the richer members of his flock, who, for six shillings and six-pence a day each, were provided with bed, breakfast, and a meat-tea. For the working people he took a block of new [-69-] houses, two hundred model cottages of two or three rooms each, in the neighbourhood of Fulham, furnished them at a cost of about a thousand pounds, and charged their occupants half-a-crown a day each for bed, breakfast, and tea; dinners were not provided. About twelve thousand persons were lodged here during the season ; among them three delegations of skilled workmen from Paris, fifty in number, one delegation of fifty from Turin, and two of forty each from Germany. Mr. Foster, the member for Bradford, also brought up five hundred and forty of his workpeople for a three days' treat, and lodged them with my agent. Several of the railway companies recommended my agent's lodgings on their excursion-bills - a concession never before made.
    Although my agent is perfectly amiable on all other subjects, I find one topic on which he is absolutely ferocious, and that is the supposed danger of excursion trains. Obviously he has expected me to touch upon this point, for I no sooner utter the words, " How about the danger?" than he stops me by holding up one hand, while with the other he produces a written paper, which he delivers to me and begs me to "cast an eye over." Casting two eyes over it, I find it to be a tabular statement, showing that in the thirteen years between 1851 and 1863 both inclusive, the Midland Railway Company conveyed two millions six hundred and seventy-six thousand six hundred and eighty-eight passengers by excursion trains, being an average of two hundred and five thousand nine hundred a year. My agent further informed me that the only serious accident which ever happened to an excursion train on the Midland Railway was in 1862 at Market Harborough, when one life was lost and several passengers seriously injured. This accident cost the company eighteen thousand pounds in compensations, law expenses, loss of property, etc. To insure the safety of these excursion trains special arrangements are made, the best guards are appointed to conduct them, and [-70-] in every case an experienced inspecting guard accompanies the train to see that all the others do their duty. A programme of excursion trains, all over the line is published weekly, a copy being supplied to every station-master, guard, or other responsible officer ; besides which, special notices are supplied to all pointsmen and other stationary servants, in anticipation of the coming of the trains. In defence of his system, my agent also urged that all great public demonstrations were encouraged and aided by excursion trains and that societies for the promotion of religious, social, and philanthropic objects were often indebted to the railway companies for the crowds brought together to attend them, and in many cases for pecuniary aid, in the shape of percentage on the earnings; that excursion and tourist arrangements constituted the chief support of many watering- places ; whilst the benefits derived by the humbler classes is entirely dependent on such arrangements ; and that the visits paid by large numbers of excursionists to Chatsworth, and other great houses thrown open to them by their rich owners, did an immense amount of social good, and gave rise to the growth of pleasant feeling between the benefited and the benefactors.
    It was in 1855 that my agent, longing like Alexander for fresh worlds to conquer, bethought him that the Paris Exhibition, then being held, would probably prove attractive to excursionists ; and thither he organised a trip, which provided for a visit to Paris, thence proceeded through France to Strasburg, and returned home down the Rhine. So successful was this experiment, that ever since he has repeated it annually; but, as he expressed himself, he "was never able to feel his way" to Switzerland till 1863, when, in person, he conducted three parties (one of them three hundred strong) from England to Geneva. My agent's tickets for an excursion from London to Geneva cost, first-class six guineas, second-class four pounds twelve shillings and six-[-71-]pence; they are available for twenty-eight days, and allow of the journey being broken at Rouen, Paris, Fontainebleau, Dijon, Macon, and all the principal towns in Switzerland. Supplemental tickets are issued in Switzerland at twenty per cent. under the usual prices, and nearly all the excursionists visit Chamounix. There are three regular Swiss trips in the course of the year one at Whitsuntide ("Not a good time," said my agent, in reply to my elevated eyebrows, " but it is merely an extension of my annual excursion to Paris") one in the first week of July - the largest and best, principally on account of its being vacation-time in the schools, and my agent's excursion being much favoured by ushers and governesses and one in September. On all these occasions my agent takes charge of and acts as guide, philosopher, and friend to the party. I suggested that his knowledge of foreign languages must be severely taxed. Then he smiled, and told me that was provided for by his knowing nothing but English; but that mattered little, as there was always one of his party at his elbow to explain what he suggested. His hotel arrangements are all made beforehand; in every principal town in Switzerland he has one regular hotel, with fixed prices, eight to nine francs a day for everything, attendance included. "And the best hotels too, mind you," said he emphatically, "the best hotels  - such as the Royal at Chamounix."
    Emboldened by his success, my agent confided to me his idea of during the following summer, enabling English excursionists to see for themselves what it is that the Romans really do, and which we are all expected to emulate while we are temporary denizens of the Eternal City. In plain words, he purposes taking two special parties to Italy, one in July and one in September, over one of the Alpine passes, Mont Cenis, St. Gothard, or the Splugen, through the Lake district, to Como and Milan, with the option of running on to Turin, Florence, Venice, and Rome itself! He is led to [-72-] expect a very large concession from the Italian railways, and has his plans pretty nearly matured.* (* This excursion was made with very great success. A friend of mine, well known in journalism, was one of the party, and has in an amusing article chronicled his thorough approval of Mr. Cook's arrangements.)
    Now surely this kind of thing is a good kind of thing, and ought to be encouraged. It is right that a hard-working man, labouring in one spot for fifty weeks in the year, should, in his fortnight's holiday, betake himself to some place as far away from and as different from his ordinary abode as lies within the reach of his purse; and this he is only able to do by the aid of such providers as my excursion agent. And each year should, if possible, be spent in a different locality. Ramsgate and Margate are good, fresh, and wholesome; and Southend, though it would be improved if its pier were a little shorter, and its water a little salter, is good too; but as even perpetual partridge palled upon the epicure, so does a constant recurrence to one sea-side place pall upon the holiday-seeker. In the excursion-train he can fly to fresh fields and new pastures; he can see the glorious English cathedrals, the gray Highlands, the quaint Belgian cities, the castled Rhine crags, the glaciers, mountains, and waterfalls of Switzerland, and perhaps the blue plains of Italy, for comparatively a very trifling sum; and these seen, he will return with a fresh zest for his home and for his work, and a fresh appreciation for all that is beautiful in nature or great in history.
    If these then be, as I fancy they are, some of the results of the work of my excursion agent - work in itself requiring clearness of intellect, and honesty and stability of purpose - I think I have a right to claim for him a position, modest but useful, in that great army of civilisation which is marching through the world.