Early travel books: Gresham Collection

Guildhall Library holds a wonderful collection of travel books which are part of the Gresham College Library Collection. In the nineteenth century Mrs. Laetitia Hollier presented her late husband’s library, which included rare and valuable works on architecture, astronomy and mathematics as well as bibles and many books of travel to Gresham College. This collection was retained at Gresham College until 1958 when it was deposited here at Guildhall Library.

These travel books primarily date from the first half of the nineteenth century, but also include some works from the late eighteenth century and contain fascinating first-hand accounts of expeditions both overland and by sea. The authors were intrepid travellers and were often emissaries, army, navy and medical personnel or employed by wealthy patrons and on behalf of foreign potentates. 

Often featuring sociological and anthropological surveys of the countries and their people, the volumes may also include ecological and natural history reports, maps, select dictionaries and vocabularies of the indigenous population and even sheet music with accompanying local songs. 

Some ambitious works covered the world, but most concentrated on a specific country or region and were often written as a diary, journal, reports or letters. Considering the dangers and difficulties of charting what was often unknown territory, these works represent amazing feats of courage, determination, skill and survival.  Some follow the trading routes, especially to Turkey and through Central Asia to the Far East. Others include travels through Russia, Lapland, Greenland and expeditions to the North Pole. 

Prints from two books in this collection are shown below with extracts from the volumes.

“Towards the evening we entered the mountain and the Andes, by a glen of a steep ascent, up which we rode, and which carried us deep into it, that we lost all view of any ground except what was close around us, like small funnels; and we continued to wind, during an hour and a half, out of one steep funnel into another, until one of them became a little larger than the rest, and in it we found Villavicencia, where we halted for the night. This town serves to illustrate what has been observed, of the liberality with which the name is bestowed in South America: it consists of two huts in which we did not find any inhabitants, and a corral…

            Our resting place was in the open air, where a fire was lighted up and supper cooked to which an uninterrupted ride of thirteen hours had insured a welcome reception… Owing to a peculiar introduction and accident of light, the rising sun was here most magnificently beautiful, although the prospect did not extend beyond the sides of the funnel and the sky above it. The effect was rather that of a night scene, and of some forest on fire before us, than of the break of day and a rising sun. The Plate is from a sketch made of Villavicencia after we had left it. The travellers are getting up at the dawn of the day, and the peons lighting the fire for taking matés. A man is going to saddle the mule left in the corral all night, and to fetch the others from their pasture ground.”

Image and extract from:
Travels into Chile, over the Andes, in the years 1820 and 1821: with some sketches of the productions and agriculture; mines and metallurgy; inhabitants, history, and other features, of America; particularly of Chile, and Arauco by Peter Schmidtmeyer (Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, & Green, 1824), pp. 204-205.
Guildhall Library Reference: Gresham 70

Castle of Morzouk

“Morzouk is a walled town, containing about 2500 inhabitants… The houses are generally built in little narrow streets; but there are many open spaces, entirely void of buildings, and covered with sand, on which the camels of the traders remain. Many palms grow in the town, and some houses have small square enclosures, in which are cultivated a few red peppers and onions. The street of entrance is a broad space of at least a hundred yards, leading to the wall that surrounds the castle, and is extremely pretty: here the horsemen have full scope to display their abilities when they skirmish before the Sultan. The castle itself is an immense mud building, rising to the height of eighty or ninety feet, with little battlements on the walls (a fancy of the present Sultan’s): and at a distance really looks warlike.”

Image and extract from:
A narrative of travels in Northern Africa, in the years 1818, 19, and 20: accompanied by geographical notices of Soudan and of the course of the Niger by Captain G. F. Lyon (John Murray, 1821), pp. 97-98.
Guildhall Library Reference: Gresham 304

A list of travel books in this collection can be viewed on our catalogue: http://capitadiscovery.co.uk/cityoflondon/items?query=class%3Agresham+travel

All the books in the Gresham College Library Collection can be consulted at Guildhall Library – as these are classed as rare items you will need to sign in and show one form of identification.

Rosie Eddisford
Assistant Librarian


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