Journals 13.4 – Reminiscences of an Idler (Part 4)

This is the conclusion of my article on Henry Wikoff’s journal. For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 7th, 14th and 21st March 2015.

SS Great Western

The launch of the SS Great Western, as painted by Arthur Wilde Parsons (source:

High society was not just about politicians and Royalty, and there were plenty of people who were popular in fashionable circles for their interesting personalities rather than their money or power. A perfect example of this was Theodore Hook, who was known for his practical jokes, the most famous of which was the Berners Street Hoax. Hook won a bet to make an unimportant London house the famous within a week, which he achieved by sending for thousands of tradesmen in the name of the owner, and watching the chaos that unfolded when they all arrived and had to be sent away. A slightly less cruel stunt was related by Wikoff in his journal:

He was out upon a country walk one day with some friends, when they were all overtaken by the pangs of hunger. There was no inn nearer than some five or six miles and they bemoaned their sad fate at so long a delay. Of a sudden Hook proposed they should go and dine at a fine mansion looming in the distance.

‘What nonsense !’ echoed his party.

‘I am serious,’ responded Hook; ‘and if you will only follow my instructions, I guarantee you the best the house can provide.’

He then suggested they should pass themselves off as a body of surveyors, who had come to select the line of one of the new railways then under consideration for this part of the country. Greatly diverted at the proposition, they followed their jovial leader, who made his way at once to the house in question, and singled out the beautiful lawn as the proper theatre of operations. Spreading themselves all over it, they began with their walking-sticks to measure out the ground, assuming meanwhile the serious aspect of conscientious officials wholly intent on their work. Of course they were seen at once by the family from the windows of the drawing-room opening on the lawn, and servants were sent out to order them away.

‘We are engaged,’ said Hook gravely, ‘on Government work.’

When this was reported, the master of the manor came out quite perplexed to know what they were at.

‘Only laying out the line for the new railway,’ returned Hook, shouting at the same time to his assistants to be a little more spry.

‘Good heavens!’ ejaculated the astounded proprietor, ‘a railway through my grounds, and right across my lawn!’

A parley ensued, and the surveying party were earnestly invited to come into the house to talk the matter over, and to see if there was no possibility of diverting the line a little farther to the north or south. As the party admitted they had not yet had time to dine, the larder was emptied of its choicest contents, and the rarest wines were brought from the cellar. At the end of a delicious repast the soi-disant surveyor announced that he would do his best to spare the lawn, and, if practicable, to take the railway by a different route. His unsuspecting host was overjoyed, and, hearing the party had some distance to travel, immediately ordered his carriage to convey them to their destination. ‘Hook and I and the rest of us,’ said my informant, ‘came away jubilant over our bold stroke, that procured us a glorious dinner our victim could well afford.’

Another interesting character was Dyonisius Lardner, who was the editor of the remarkable 133-volume Cabinet Cyclopædia. He was keen to give Wikoff some important advice regarding transatlantic travel:

A few days after my return. Dr. Lardner called, and we had a pleasant chat. He regretted my early departure, but said I must dine with him before going. Among other topics, I deplored the necessity of my again crossing the Atlantic under sail, but hoped the time was not distant when steam would be adopted.

‘There is little prospect of that,’ said the man of science emphatically. ‘A steamer would never be able to contend successfully against the mighty power of the Atlantic. The machinery would be disabled ; the wheels would be rendered useless; the coal she would be obliged to carry would leave no room for cargo; and mere passenger traffic would never defray the expenses of such an enterprise.’

‘I admit your high authority,’ I retorted, ‘for who has written so ably on steam propulsion? But in spite of your prognostics, you know, they are building a steamer at Bristol, and another in London, to put the experiment to a test; and if either was ready, I would readily take the risk to escape the dreary ordeal of a sailing-vessel.’

‘It is astonishing,’ remarked Dr. L., ‘that people will be so silly as to put money into such experiments. It will end in failure, and probably in a dreadful catastrophe. Take my advice, and stick to your splendid “liners. Better pass an additional week at sea, than never reach the shore.’

In the face of the ominous predictions of this learned oracle I clung to the hope, if not the belief, that the Atlantic would still be conquered by steam; and so the discussion ended.

Lardner was of course somewhat wide of the mark with his predictions. There had been experiments in transatlantic steamship travel over the course of a few years prior to this journal, and in 1838 the SS Great Western, a side-wheel paddle steamer built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, embarked on its maiden voyage. It was the first ever steamship built for regularly scheduled crossings of the Atlantic and proved a great success after some initial teething troubles. Steamship travel reduced the time it took to cross the Atlantic dramatically, with the Great Western averaging 16 days westward and 13 days for an eastward crossing. Improvements in technology rapidly decreased crossing times to less than a week by the end of the century. In contrast, a crossing of the Atlantic by sailing ship prior to the age of steam would typically take virtually a whole month. This is one of the most fascinating aspect of investigating 19th Century travel journals – the experience for a traveller at the beginning of the century was so completely different to that of a traveller at the end of the century, that it makes for some interesting comparisons.

Wikoff went on to make a few return trips to England, but his memoirs become increasingly concerned with relating the details of his social life and less valuable from a historical perspective. He died in England four years after the publication of this journal, in 1884.

Another article about old travel journals 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.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, Britain, England, History, Humor, Humour, Journals, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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