In the 1830s, a London tourist might have visited the fashionable Queen’s Bazaar in Oxford Street and paid one shilling to view the Royal Clarence Vase. Made to order for King George IV in the 1820s, the gold, glass and enamel object took 15 workmen more than three years to manufacture, and weighed eight tonnes. Viewed by gaslight, the vase was described in Kidd’s New Guide to the Lions of London (1832) as “dazzling and gorgeous in the extreme”.


As well as descriptions of sites still popular with tourists today, including St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, Kidd’s Guide featured information on short-lived attractions such as the pavilion of the gigantic whale on St Martin’s Lane. The sole exhibit here was a 95-ft long whale skeleton – the whale had been found dead by fishermen off the coast of Belgium in 1827. The charge to enter the pavilion was one shilling. For an extra shilling, visitors were able to sit inside the belly of the whale.

Kidd’s Guide also reminds us that in the 1830s the Regent’s Park Zoo had a rival attraction south of the river at Walworth. Here were the Surrey Zoological Gardens, covering 15 acres of land and opened to the public in 1831. For one shilling, visitors could view tropical plants and a variety of exotic birds and animals including zebras, pelicans and monkeys.

Zoological Gardens, Regent's Park, London (engraving), 1835. (Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Images)


In the 1870s, a new craze for skating was reflected in the publications produced for visitors to London. Alongside detailed descriptions of all of London’s parks (at this time Primrose Hill was also known by the name Albert Park), The Saturday Half-Holiday Guide of 1877 included information about where the best skating might be had. Ice-skating could be enjoyed at numerous sites in severe winters, from the south-western suburbs of Surbiton and Kingston to the Lea River and Hackney Marshes in the east.

Ladies keen to skate were advised to take up the “new and fashionable” amusement of skating on rollers – “one of the few athletic exercises in which ladies can join”. Other popular leisure pursuits at this time were rifle shooting, archery and croquet, which was played at Finsbury Park, Battersea and elsewhere. Also at Finsbury Park, the enthusiastic gymnast could take advantage of parallel bars and other equipment fixed to the trees near the lake and refreshment pavilion.

A group of skaters at an ice-rink in Chelsea, London, 1876. (Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


By the end of the 19th century, ‘exhibition fever’ had taken over tourist London. Ambitious events aimed at large-scale audiences curious to find out more about ‘exotic’ cultures were held in the capital in vast public arenas such as Earls Court and Olympia in west London and the Crystal Palace in south London.

The Italian Exhibition (1888), Empire of India Exhibition (1895), Franco-British Exhibition (1908), Japan-British Exhibition (1910) and so on reflected and consolidated London’s growing reputation as a global city. A merger of commercial and national interests was evident in guidebooks that had often been sponsored or produced by railway companies, banks, shops or other businesses keen to promote their brand.

Refreshments company Bertram and Co produced The ‘Only’ Guide to London and the Exhibitions of 1888. This volume tells us that visitors to late-Victorian London might have enjoyed an evening of al fresco ballet at Crystal Palace under the brilliant illuminations of 50,000 coloured lamps, or a magnificent buffet dinner at the new and elaborately furnished Prince’s Gate Hotel in Knightsbridge.

The Women's Exhibition, May 1909. The stalls displayed items such as postcards, art, needlework, flowers and farm produce. The event was held at the Princes' skating rink, Knightsbridge, London. (Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


Spectacle and performance remained a feature of tourist guidebooks in the interwar period, with WDH McCullough’s guide, London (1938), describing and illustrating the pageants and ceremonies visitors might include in their itinerary. These included the changing of the guard, which happened daily at Buckingham Palace when the king was in residence, to trooping the colour annually on the king’s birthday, and swan-upping – a census of the swan population on the Thames – that took place near Southwark Bridge in July.

McCullough also directed tourists towards a barristers’ wig shop in the Temple; the dog cemetery in Hyde Park, and to the sheep kept in Green Park – a reminder of the countryside in the modern city.

Changing the guard outside Buckingham Palace, 2 April 1928. The guards are dressed in long coats and bearskin hats. (London Express/Getty Images)


From the late 1950s, tourist guidebooks branched out beyond the wealthy or privileged visitor: there emerged free, student and alternative guides to London, as well as guides for women, which focused on social life and cheap eats. The Student’s Guide to London (1956) reveals that young visitors to the city enjoyed Club Tahiti on Shaftesbury Avenue; the Campari near Soho Square (with its modern, mirrored décor) and the Club de la Cote d’Azur on Frith Street, where there was always a crowd and “no need to bring a partner” if you wanted to dance to the mainly Mambo music.

Meanwhile, Jane Reed’s Girl About Town (1965) warned the single girl that “most places won’t allow ‘unescorted’ females inside. Even some Wimpy bars refuse to serve unescorted girls after midnight… So that dispenses with any ideas of whooping it up by wine and candlelight without a man calling the tune!”

A group of young women 'hanging out' on the streets of Soho, London, September 1956. (Werner Rings/Getty Images)

Going out with boys meant more choice of venues, and Reed listed the Ad Lib, the Cool Elephant and Annie’s Room as the “in places” in 1960s London. For late-night pies and coffee, the Alternative Guide to London (1970) directed the London visitor to the Chelsea Bridge Pie Stall near the entrance to Battersea Park; the Cosy Café in Ladbroke Grove, and ‘Mick’s’ on Fleet Street.

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Dr Michelle Johansen is a social historian of 19th and 20th-century London based at the Bishopsgate Institute.

This article was first published on History Extra in September 2015