American Tourists in Victorian London

Mary and Maggie interrupt their sojourn in Wales with a week-long trip to London. Mary grew up largely in Topeka, Maggie probably in Columbus, Ohio. What a transformative experience London must have been for two proper young Midwestern ladies!

Due to a schedule mix-up, their train pulls in to Paddington Station late at night.

Alone in London with no place to go. However we put a bold front on & walked up the street looking for a hotel. We finally decided to ask a policeman which I did, asking if he could recommend a hotel. He took us across the street to Ashton’s Hotel & with a dare-or-die expression on our faces we followed. He put us in charge of a young lady…

In room number five, Maggie goes quickly to bed,

while I began writing in my Diary. Here we are, our first night in London, ignorant & bewildered we are going to see all we can.

In the morning, they haul their luggage by underground and tram-car to 384 Commercial Road, the home of their intended hosts, the Christian family. But two of the family are sick, so the girls must lodge back at the hotel. Undaunted, they stop at Madame Tussaud’s on the way, and Mary finds it “magnificent”.

Alone or in the company of Mr. Christian and his son, the girls hit the tourist spots: Tower of London, Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, Haymarket, Kew Gardens, National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, British Museum. They are all described in detail.

She is awed by the Crystal Palace, a massive glass and cast-iron structure built as a symbol of Victorian economic and political power.

We…spent several hours promenading through the halls & looking at the stalls & going into the different side-shows. We took in the horse-taming exhibition, which was quite interesting in its way. From there we went to see the diver & the lady swimmer, & this we found very interesting. We saw “Gone” which was the sudden disappearance & reappearance of a woman…  There is a picture gallery, aquarium, skating rink & switch back, but as our time was short, we did not get to these latter places. The grounds surrounding the Palace are beautifully & tastefully laid out. There are fountains with beautiful pond lilies in the basin… It seemed a veritable Fairyland indeed.

Even more intriguing to me is “Venice in London”, a creation of Hungarian-born producer Imre Kiralfy, whose historic and geographic epics were performed in the U.S. and London. His extravaganzas included Nero, or The Fall of Rome, presented on an open-air stage on Staten Island. He mounted “Venice in London” at the Olympia, a vast exhibition hall that still exists. Mary writes:

It is a large building & inside everything was arranged to look like Venice. There was real water & for 6d you could get in a gondola & go all over gliding under the bridges, & curving in & out. Musicians were stationed at different points & discoursed sweet strains all the while. There was a vast hall with hundreds of seats overlooking a large body of water & across the water was the stage. At 2:30 the spectacular pantomime commenced, & it was magnificent. There must have been near a thousand people on the stage at one time…After the performance we walked through the halls, over the bridges & on the promenade….In one end overhead was hung cut glass which sparkled in the sun, & at the other end were glass globes of all colors… It was like the Arabian Nights & seemed almost too dazzling to be true.

Crystal Palace and “Venice in London” are surely among the precursors of Disneyland and Busby Berkley musicals.

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