Sunday, May 27, 2012

Top Ten tourist attractions in London, 1780

By Mike Rendell

Look at a current list of the most popular tourist attractions in London and you would probably come up with a Top Ten which would include the British Museum, Tate Modern, National Gallery, Natural History Museum, The London Eye, Science Museum, The V&A, Madame Tussaud’s wax works, Maritime Museum and the Tower of London. Throw in St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and you have a dozen of the most popular sites in the capital, visited by millions of people every year. But sight-seeing is not new, and it begs the question: what would that list have looked like if it had been prepared 250 years ago? Which museums had opened their doors? Where were the popular art galleries? Would it have been that different from our modern list?

Of course I do not have admission figures for the Georgian era, but what I do have is my great, great, great, great grandfather’s diaries and can see what he liked to visit – and perhaps the results are not so different to today’s tourist attractions. Sure, we didn’t see the London Eye in the 1780s but we did have something else which gave panoramic views of the city before skyscrapers and tower blocks interrupted the scene. My ancestor Richard Hall may not have had the Tate Modern, but he had other galleries and exhibitions to look at, and there follows my own Top 10 from the 1780s – a personal selection of places to visit if the hero or heroine in your novel is coming to London.

• The Tower

It may no longer have been the home of the Astronomer Royal, but it did have lots of other things - the Royal Regalia, the Royal Menagerie and the Royal Mint.
It may come as a surprise that tourists could call round and watch the coins being minted but that is exactly what my ancestor Richard Hall did in 1771. The Tower was only a few hundred yards from his shop and home at One London Bridge. He and his friends would have seen half guineas being minted (small gold coins worth ten shillings and sixpence – the equivalent of perhaps £45/$70 in terms of current buying-power). They bought three pence worth of macaroons (almond-based sweets) and ate them as they wandered around, and they paid the driver to keep the horse-drawn carriage waiting outside so that they could avoid the rain on the journey home. Richard bought a pamphlet listing the royal regalia. It cost him an entrance fee of one shilling a head to view the coronation jewels etc because he went in a group (the rate went up by half as much again for solo visitors). Further information on The Tower is included here.

• British Museum

The British Museum opened in 1759 and Richard went to see it the following year. Visitor numbers were strictly controlled – you bought a ticket some days in advance and were given a fixed time and date to call. Visitors were accompanied by a guide, taken round in groups of a dozen. More details about the British Museum appears at the link here.

The original museum was housed in Montagu House, pulled down in the 1840’s. Entry was free and given to ‘all studious and curious Persons’ and included the chance to see the vast collection of natural curiosities (shells, fossils, insects, and natural phenomena) built up by Sir Hans Sloane, as well as the magnificent bequest from George II of the old Royal Library.

 • The Monument

202 feet high, the Wren-designed Monument is exactly 202 feet from where the Great Fire of London broke out in Pudding Lane in 1666. The 311 steps up the winding staircase gave an amazing panoramic view of the city. Richard would have been able to look immediately below him and see his shop next to St Magnus the Martyr Church, and at London Bridge crossing the Thames to where he had been brought up as a youngster in Southwark. Turn round and face north and he would have observed how the rapidly expanding city had swallowed up farmland in the aftermath of the Great Fire, as far as the eye could see. The climb to the top was not for the faint-hearted: there was no safety cage at the top until the 1842, and there were several instances of people falling or jumping to their death.

• Royal Academy

Richard bought this engraving showing ‘the back front of the New Royal Academy’ when he visited it in 1780. The building opened twelve years before and by 1781 some 547 paintings were displayed. By 1801 the number had almost doubled, and in accordance with the taste of the day, paintings were displayed closely together, from floor to ceiling. Further information on the Royal Academy appears here.

• Pictures at Spring Gardens (otherwise known as Vauxhall Gardens)

For his one shilling admission in 1780 Richard would have been able to see all London life. The gardens were frequented by anyone who was anyone (the Prince of Wales and his aristocratic buddies were regular visitors) as well as by the lowest of the low. Promenading gave the opportunity to see and be seen, and as darkness fell the place was illuminated with oil lamps, music would be played and guests would take their seats in the fifty or so supper boxes. Each was adorned with a different painting and in the daytime these were available for the general public to view. The link to my post on Vauxhall Gardens appears here.

• Cox’s Museum

James Cox was a jeweller who made fabulous bejewelled automata (i.e. with clock-work moving parts). At one stage he claimed to have a thousand silversmiths and jewellery workers in his employ, turning out objects for places such as the Imperial courts in Russia and China. He opened a museum at Charring Cross to display some of his wares. Entrance was not cheap (Richard would have paid ten shillings and sixpence per head to go in – and then forked out the same again for the official catalogue). But what a spectacle! He would have been greeted by a gold dais, surmounted by giant paintings of King George II and his Queen, painted by the court painter Zoffany. From there he would have been led through to a succession of salons, each exhibiting things such as full sized tigers and elephants made of silver and gold, studded with precious stones. He may have seen the gorgeous life-sized silver swan, with its articulated neck which enabled it to bend forward and appear to pull a silver fish from the water (still in working order today, and nowadays to be seen at the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle). Time and time again Richard went back to see the display, taking a succession of guests with him throughout the 1770s.

• Don Saltero’s

Don Saltero was in reality John Salter, and he ran a coffee house by the side of the Thames in Chelsea. He thought a Spanish variant of his name gave a little added colour - and his was no ordinary coffee shop. It was a veritable treasure trove of tat - a museum where display cabinets filled every space, and with exhibits hanging down from the ceiling. Natural curiosities, holy relics, fossils, shells, coins and medals – anything and everything was displayed. Entrance was free as long as the visitor bought a cup of coffee – or, as in Richard’s case, you purchased an exhibit. Thirteen shillings appears to have been paid for shells and I still have Richard’s collection today. More information on Don Saltero's Coffee Shop can be found here.

• Mrs Wright’s waxworks

Before Madame Tussaud came to London (and got trapped here because of the war with France!) there had been a succession of wax-works. The one Richard favoured was in Pall Mall and was run by an American woman called Mrs Wright. She created a sensation with her models of the Great and the Good, and reportedly enjoyed playing tricks on people by arranging her models in life-like poses on a settee, and watching as the visitors tried to strike up a conversation! Mrs Wright later sought a pension from the US Government, claiming that she had in fact been acting as a spy while in England, sounding out politicians about their plans during the War of Independence, and smuggling notes back to America, rolled up inside the wax effigies which she had made. More information appears here.

• The Leverian (Holophusicon)

Writing in 1780 Richard Hall mentioned that he went with ‘Wife, Daughter, son Francis and Sophy to see Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum of Natural Curiosities – and curious they indeed are! Dined afterward at a steakhouse.”
The Leverian as it was called (when it wasn’t going by the weird name of the Holophusicion) had opened in 1775 and entertained visitors for over twelve years. Inside were a small sample (well, 25,000!) of Sir Ashton’s vast collection of fossils, shells, and animals (birds, insects, reptiles, fish, monkeys and so on). Richard would have paid over twenty five shillings (equivalent to perhaps a hundred pounds or 150 dollars) for his party to explore the exhibition at Leicester House, and for this they would also have been able to marvel at some of the curiosities brought back by Captain James Cook from his Pacific voyages.

• Visiting Greenwich – Royal Hospital

Richard Hall noted in his diary that he and Martha (his daughter) went by boat to Greenwich and ate whitebait. He would have marvelled at the beautiful buildings making up the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, (subsequently the Royal Naval College). Designed by Sir Christopher Wren and constructed in various stages throughout the first half of the century, the buildings were designed to accommodate up to 1500 sick and injured sailors, When the baroque Painted Chapel in the King William Court was finished it was deemed far too grand for the sailors and it became a tourist attraction.

What comes across from my ancestors diaries is how much time (and money!) he was prepared to spend entertaining friends and showing them the sights. Many more details appear in my book The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman and I have expanded many of the thumb-nail sketches listed above into full posts on my blogsite at


  1. Wow. This is superb! What a treasure you have in your 4xgreat grandfather's diaries. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Why thank you! I am indeed lucky to have so much "trivial" material which would otherwise have been binned centuries ago. I see it as my part in the 'historical chain' to make details available so that if, for instance, someone is writing a book and is looking for historical accuracy, this can be a starting point.

  2. What a great post! I can only imagine how precious all those items are to you. I find it fascinating that they survived and are possessed by someone who values them. So many times historical things like this are thrown away by uncaring people. Kudos to you for cherishing them and sharing them with the world through your book!

    1. Living in a museum can have its drawbacks! (Like, keeping all the items clean and dust free and secure). And of course, the perennial question arises: "what are you going to do with it all when you die?" I will endeavour to keep things in the family if only because museums are not really interested in such mundane matters.So I will continue 'flogging it to death' so that others can benefit from the collection while I am around!

  3. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsMay 28, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    Thank you, What a fantastic find, to have such documentation from one of your ancestors. It definitely is interesting and worthy. It gives us all an insight into those times...Wow, how lucky we are that you shared.

    1. I find it intersting to see how little things have changed from 200 years ago - in terms of what we do with our spare time, what we aspire to etc. We face the same problems as our ancestors in terms of educating our children, keeping them on the straight and narrow, worrying about health and finance, coping with bereavement etc - and in the age-old problem of "what shall we do with so-and-so when they come to stay for the weekend?" The answers in terms of seeing the sights in London are not so very different today!


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