In Pictures: Old Tourist Guides Of London

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 18 months ago

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In Pictures: Old Tourist Guides Of London

London is visited by 17.4m foreigners alone every year. But the city's been a popular tourist destination for centuries, with people drawn in by its lavish, exotic — and often oddball — attractions and events. The pop-up phenomenon has been going a while too.

A 2016 course at Bishopsgate Institute explored touristy London since 1800, using guidebooks and other historic items from the library. We've selected a few highlights.

In the 1820s London tourists might have visited Mr Cooke’s public print rooms in Soho Square, the horse bazaar in Portman Square or the Egyptian Hall at Piccadilly where they were able to enjoy a lifelike panoramic view of Mexico City. Other exhibits included models of pyramids and temples and a 30-foot high carriage made of gold and silver and studded with thousands of precious gemstones.

The Egyptian Hall at Piccadilly. Both woodcuts from London Lions (1826)
The horse bazaar in Portman Square

The Stranger’s Guide to London (1828), a small guidebook that describes itself as ‘a portable cicerone, containing every species of desirable information with a map and many useful tables’.

19th century tourist guidebooks often recommended prison visits, and on page 31 of Strangers' Guide the author suggests a visit to:

The Naval Asylum in Greenwich Park, for the education of 2,000 orphan children of sailors merits a visit, and will highly gratify every benevolent person.

The author also lists some heart-wrenching spectacles, including this one:

In the first three days of May, the unfortunate and abused class of chimney-sweepers fill the streets in dancing groups, in various attractive finery, and obtain, as well as deserve, much jubilee bounty.[i.e. people throw coins at them]’.

Around 1900, London tourists were encouraged to walk along the Thames Embankment at nightfall, visit the Charing Cross Turkish Baths (with its chiropodist, hairdressing rooms and separate baths for ladies) or attend the electric exhibition at Crystal Palace featuring displays of cutting-edge technology, including the first telegraph instrument and a telephone:

By the 1920s, London tourists might have hired a charabanc for an excursion to Windsor or Hampton Court, taken a flying trip from the London Aerodromes at Hendon or visited the Zoological Gardens (now London Zoo) in Regent's Park — just as millions still do today.

From Cassell’s Guide to London, 1922
From Cassell’s Guide to London, 1922

Helped in no small measure by the Great Exhibition of 1851, London became obsessed with cultures across the world. Here are the covers of four exhibition guides from the early 1900s:


And here are three images from an 1830 visitors’ guide to London, featuring examples of exhibits on show at a range of ‘pop-up’ galleries (that's right, pop-ups are nothing new) which were popular in the West End at the time and usually featured a single ‘wow’ item. In this case, those items are a huge urn, a monkey cage, and a 95-foot long whale skeleton (pictured). Those willing to pay an extra charge could sit inside the whale's belly.


Finally, here's a selection of vintage guidebook covers, including a book written especially for Australians in London. Not pictured is London’s Good Girl Guide (1968) which tells people (men) where to find the prettiest girls in the capital and how to approach them. Cringe.


Tourist London Since 1800 runs at Bishopsgate Institute from 1 March-29 March, with classes taking place every Tuesday from 2pm-3.30pm. It costs £52-£69.

Last Updated 20 May 2021

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