Journals 13.1 – Reminiscences of an Idler (Part 1)

Cornfield

One of John Constable’s idealised depictions of the English countryside, “The Cornfield” from 1826.

Henry Wikoff was a reporter for the New York Herald and a man of great independent wealth due to a large inheritance. He spent years travelling around the world and climbed the society ladder, gradually making social connections to work his way into the lives of many of the most imporant people in the world. He enjoyed a very close friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the President of the USA, and their relationship was the subject of much speculation, as Wikoff was known for being what we could charitably term a “ladies’ man”. He was suspected of abusing his position in her life to obtain political secrets, and spent some time in prison before Lincoln himself intervened to liberate him. Wikoff wrote about some of his globetrotting in Reminiscences of an Idler (1880), a retrospective journal written just a few years before his death in 1884. His journal is a fascinating insight into world society in the 1800s, but for the purposes of this article I am going to focus on his entries concerning several trips to England over the course of a few years.

Wikoff first arrived in England in May, 1835. In common with many travellers from USA to Britain, he experienced ‘lively emotion on setting foot on English soil’. Visitors from America often experienced emotions akin to a homecoming when visiting their ‘mother country’.

The errors of her misguided politicians led to the rupture of the colonial tie; but it is impossible to forget that our constitutional forms, our traits of character, and much of the civilisation we enjoy are invaluable legacies inherited from our aged and renowned parent. My heart warmed, as I heard for the first time in Europe the accents of my native tongue, and recognised in the manners and customs of the people the closeness of our relationship.

Wikoff was arriving fresh from an extensive tour of Europe, and was delighted to find the familiarity of some home comforts:

My joy was unutterable at finding myself once more in a land of carpets. The bare desolate floors of the Continent had been to me a prolonged agony. Not even the unobtrusive civility of the servants, nor the pleasant smile of the rosy-cheeked barmaid, with her blue eyes and auburn locks, were more welcome than the cheerful comfortable carpet that once again gladdened my sight.

Wikoff also derived great pleasure from travelling around the country by stagecoach. Writing many years after the event, he had the benefit of hindsight, as 1880 was a very different world of transport than 1835.

It was only forty-seven years previously, 1788, that the English coach was introduced for the conveyance of mails and passengers, and, alas, to think its days were already numbered. The first railway, that began its career, in 1832, by killing a Minister of State, must add to its holocausts the annihilation of the most perfect form of locomotion known to man. Forty miles the hour may be a gain to the world of business, but the lovers of luxury will for ever mourn the disappearance of the stage-coach of England.

The minister in question was William Huskisson, who attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and stepped onto the tracks to greet the Duke of Wellington, who had arrived in a train, shortly before the approach of Stephenson’s Rocket. Realising that he was in the path of the train, he grabbed hold of the door to Wellington’s carriage, which swung open and Huskisson fell onto the tracks and was hit by the train. He died of his injuries, becoming the first ever railway fatality.

Travelling by coach allowed Wikoff to really appreciate the beauty of the English countryside:

Exhilarated as I was, the beauty of the landscape nearly drove me wild. I had heard that all England was a garden, but I had wholly underrated the term. Such exquisite phases of sylvan scenery as burst upon me, as I sped through this earthly paradise, I had not anticipated. Nothing I had seen approached it. It were as easy to describe a rainbow as the vast stretches of gleaming sward, the shady dells, the leafy glens, the sombre woodlands, the placid rivulets and bubbling brooks, the wealth of foliage everywhere; the trim hedge-like walls of verdure; the noble parks, with broad avenues of umbrageous oaks, and, in the purple distance, superb mansions covered with ivy to the roof; nor less attractive the comely cattle, browsing on the rich pasturage or reclining in the shade. Had all the artists of the world been summoned to devise a landscape, they could have produced nothing like it…

And the spruce cleanly old villages we rattled through! What a contrast to the slovenly hamlets of France and Italy! They bore the stamp of centuries, yet they looked so smiling and bright, with their flower-pots in the windows, and the honeysuckle clambering over the doors or trellised on the walls. The passion for flowers seemed universal. Not the humblest ostler without his nosegay, and the top of our coach looked like a parterre.

Arriving in the midst of the social ‘season’, finding accommodation in London was difficult. Broadly speaking, the ‘season’ ran for the first half of the year, and was a time when all the most important parties and balls took place. The 19th Century was a golden age for the tradition, although it dated back at least as far as the 17th Century.

‘No room, sir,’ was the monotonous reply from a dozen hotels I drove to on leaving the coach, and I feared I should pass the night in the street. At last we found shelter. It was the height of the ‘Season,’ and London was crammed. I had often heard of the Season; the grandest organisation for dining, dancing, dawdling, and flirting — for pleasure and excitement — the sun ever shone upon. Here, in leafy June, Parliament was sitting. Fashion on her throne, picture-galleries and operas in full swing. In short, all the world was in town. Strange anomaly; when all other cities were dispersing for ‘fresh woods and pastures new,’ London was gathering recruits from every quarter in mad pursuit of amusement. The solution is simple. In summer London is dry, fogless, and never hot, the thermometer varying from 65° to 75°. Then or never it must be enjoyed.


The second part of this article will follow soon. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.

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About Windows into History

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Administrator of frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Autobiographies, Books, Britain, England, History, Journals, London, Nature, Stagecoaches, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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