Thomas Cook (1808-1892)

Package holidays may seem to be a modern construct, but their origins go back over many centuries, very often being organised for mass religious pilgrimages.  

The Victorian Thomas Cook was no exception to this rule when he founded his own company to provide travel arrangements that were ‘simple, easy and a pleasure’ and in which he was ‘the willing and devoted servant of the travelling public’.

An illustration of Thomas Cook's First Trip, organised in 1841

The grandson of a Baptist minister, Cook was born in 1808 in the Derbyshire market town of Melbourne. Trained as a wood-turner and cabinet-maker, on reaching the age of twenty Cook preferred to choose a different trade. Following his heart - and soul - be became a wandering preacher. But he clearly had a yearning for adventure and discovery, which emerged when he then planned his first public excursion. 

In 1841 he organised a 12-mile railway journey which originated in Leicester and ended up in Loughborough to celebrate a temperance gala. 500 passengers paid a shilling each for their bookings, with the outing being so successful that Thomas was soon being asked to organise another.

A Tour Party in 1868

By 1855, the business was turning a profit with regular railway excursions to cities such as Liverpool or Nottingham. European 'packages’ followed where tourists could embark on  a ‘grand circular tour'. This included visits to Brussels, Cologne, the Rhine, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Paris. In each city hotels and meals were provided. Even the exchange of foreign currency (by 1874 Cook had devised an early form of travellers’ cheques) was included in the price.

There was such an interest in this form of travel that by 1865 a shop was set up in London’s Fleet Street. In 1873 by an imposing head office stood proud in Ludgate Circus. The hugely successful business was then left in the capable hands of Thomas’ son,  John Mason Cook, when, at the age of sixty-three Thomas indulged his own passion for travel and set off on a personal tour that lasted 222 days. During this time he covered more than 25,000 miles, visiting Egypt and China via the Suez Canal which had opened in 1863.

A Thomas Cook brochure cover from 1891

The business endured for almost 200 years, becoming a trusted and thriving company. But today  financial losses have led to its sad collapse.

For related railway posts please see -




Vincent Van Gogh 30 March 1853-29 July 1890 - self portrait: As an Artist

Having just been to see the recent Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Britain, I was reminded of another one in  2010 when much of the artist's work was shown at the Royal Academy in London.

The RA exhibition examined the work of Vincent Van Gogh in relation to the countless letters written throughout his adult life. Many of those letters showed quite a different side to his character - so often portrayed as the tortured depressive who pickled himself in absinthe, cut off his ear in a spate of passion after an argument with Gaugin, and finally shot himself in the chest in a badly bungled suicide, after which he took two days to die. 

Most of the letters shown were addressed to his brother, Theo (above) whose profession was that of an art dealer. But, the existence of the RA exhibition, which had been five years in the making and which displayed around 65 paintings and 30 connected drawings, was largely thanks to Theo's wife.

Photograph of the graves of Theo and Vincent Van Gogh ©Suzette Raymond

Widowed only six months after Vincent's death when her husband then succombed to the complications of syphillis (the two brothers are buried side by side in graves in Auvers-sur-Oise), Johanna Van Gogh carefully preserved every one of her brother-in-law's letters. And, rather than disposing of what had been Vincent's unsaleable paintings, all of which Theo had collected and stored, she devoted the rest of her life to promoting his talent and work.

Johanna Van Gogh

The RA exhibited some 40 letters, many of which are in such a fragile state it is highly unlikely that they will ever be exhibited publicly again. Several of them contained sketches of paintings that Vincent was planning to make in the future. The final pieces that we know so well are often composed of heavy and vibrantly coloured strokes of paint, but these smaller preparatory works were often very precisely executed, with fine straight lines and an element of realism: quite different to the Impressionist style of the larger canvasses. 

Visitors at the RA were also able to view a letter found in Vincent's pocket after he had shot himself. It is splattered with either paint or blood, and the words that Vincent wrote were: “I risk my life for my own work and my reason has half foundered in it  -”

Many of the artist's earlier letters are made up of thoughtful and eloquent prose. We 'see' a cultivated man who is clearly well-read and whose words convey poetic imagery. He describes the light shimmering on the sea -“like a mackerel ... always changing — you don’t always know if it’s green or purple — you don’t always know if it’s blue — because a second later its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue...”

Of his paintings of Cypress trees, he said: "The cypresses still preoccupy me, I’d like to do something with them like the canvases of the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that no one has yet done them as I see them. [The cypress is] beautiful as regards lines and proportions, like an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has such a distinguished quality. It’s the dark patch in a sun-drenched landscape, but it’s one of the most interesting dark notes... they must be seen here against the blue, in the blue, rather."

Imagine talking to the man whose thoughts were so poetically inspired!

Sadly, many darker moments obliterated joy. Even as a youth Vincent possessed a serious, brooding, troubled look. 

As a young man his first employment was with a firm of art dealers; his profession taking him to England and Paris. But, a series of disappointing affairs along with an increasing dissatisfaction with the unscrupulous art world led him to contemplate life as a preacher - the same profession as his father. 

That ambition was doomed to failure when Vincent failed to pass the necessary exams, though he did work as a missionary in Belgium, and there he produced The Potato Eaters - which was his first major painting. Like many of the earlier works, this was not a blazing of light, but suffused in dark and earthy tones which echoed the paintings of Rembrant. Vincent was also influenced by the prints reproduced in English magazines that showed the toil of the working man. He was to purchase a ten-year run of the popular magazine The Graphic, simply to study such gritty scenes which he then attempted to emulate.

 The Potato Eaters 1885-6

It was when Vincent travelled to the south of France that his obsession with colour began. Inspired by the French Impressionists he had hopes of founding a community of artists, but his sense of inadequacy and increasingly violent mood swings were far from conducive to such harmonious living arrangements. Even so, despite his "sounds and strange voices...that cannot but frighten you beyond measure", the time he went on to spent in an asylum did offer some security. Vincent said that the close proximity of other people similarly afflicted was somehow reassuring. It became his daily routine to set up his easel and paint - either in the hospital gardens or the surrounding countryside, producing swirling images of corn fields and olive groves.


In the few years before his death, Vincent was to move to Arles where he rented 'the Yellow House' - another subject of his paintings, and about which he was to write: "That's a really difficult subject! But I want to conquer it for that very reason. Because it's tremendous, these yellow houses in the sunlight and then the incomparable freshness of the blue." 

Well, however hard the task, there can be no doubt that Vincent succeeded in his ambition. And, how poignant it is that the art that went unappreciated during the course of his lifetime is now considered to be among the world's most sought-after and lauded.

The Real Van Gogh exhibition was curated by Ann Dumas. In this short BBC film you can hear her thoughts and view some more of the works on display.

If you have more interest in the letters of Van Gogh, Thames and Hudson have published them in a six-volume edition of books. They can also be viewed online at http://www.vangoghletters.org/.

The current Tate Britain Exhibition continues until August 11th. It compares his work with that of other artists who either influenced him, or who were influenced by his work in later years.



Feeling very Undancy by Arthur Rackham

During the VV's teenage years, instead of pinning posters of pop stars on her bedroom walls, she had some lovely printed cards, each one with softly rounded corners, and all depicting illustrations designed by  Arthur Rackham.

Arthur Rackham 1867 - 1939.  A self portrait

How serious and respectable he looks in this self portrait; more like a stern accountant than the man whose art created scenes of fairytales and myths. But then, he had once been employed as a clerk at the Westminster Fire Office, before enrolling in a part-time course at the Lambeth School of Art.

Fairy on a Spider's Web

At the age of twenty-five, Arthur left his job to work full-time at illustrating books. He devised his own techniuqe, at first sketching a pencil outline and then blocking in some colour, finally using india ink to add the finer details. Sometimes this 'sepia' stylistic theme was enhanced with watercolours, building up the layers in a series of transparent tints. He also worked with silhouettes, inspired by Japanese woodblocks.

A decidely Japanese influence in this illustration from Das Rhiengold

The film director, Guillermo Del Toro, says that Rackham was an inspiration for some of his finest work, most notably the faun in his film,  Pan's Labyrinth. And then, there is the tree seen growing through an altar in the film entitled Hellboy. This Del Toro has referred to as his 'Rackham Tree'.

The faun in Pan's Labryinth

Arthur Rackham was prolific and although his work oozes romance it is never in the least bit twee. 

The Rhinemaidens from The Ring

Today, there is a wealth of Arthur Rackham's work to view online, with his classic illustrations reproduced in many books – such as in the fairy tales collected by the Brother's Grimm,  Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland, the Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, the book of English Fairy Tales, and Peter Pan, and then The Ring - to touch on but a few of them. 

Do you have a favourite?





This letter is held by the American Library of Congress. It dates from the 1850's, and whether the original version was genuine or contrived, it is a most delightful find. Do read the explanation at the bottom of this transcription to fully understand the true intention of the message.


The great love and tenderness I have hitherto expressed for you 
is false, and I now feel that my indifference towards you 
increases proportionably every day, and the more I see you 
the more I appear ridiculous, and an object of contempt, and
the more I feel disposed, inclined, and finally determined, to 
hate you. Believe me I never had the least inclination to 
offer you my hand and heart. Our last conversation has 
I assure you, left a wretched insipidity, which has be no means
possessed me with the most exalted opinion of your character. 
Yes, madam, and you will much oblige me by avoiding me. 
And if ever we are united, I shall experience nothing but the 
fearful hatred of my parents, added to an everlasting dis
pleasure of living with you. Yes, madam, I think sincerely. 
You need not put yourself to the smallest trouble or send or 
write me an answer ------ Adieu. And believe that I am 
so averse to you that it is really impossible I should ever be,
                                 Your affectionate lover till death.
                                                                               W. GOFF


There are two ways of reading it; the father compelled his daughter to show him all letters sent to her - the unsuspecting father reads straight forward, but the daughter having the clue, reads the first, third and fifth lines, and so on. Then the contrast will be discovered. 




The past is foreign country: they do things differently there.”

L.P Hartley’s The Go Between.

Any writer of historical fiction almost needs to become a time-traveller, to ‘go native’ and familiarise themselves with the cultural workings of the 'foreign place' in which their story will be set – to draw their reader into that world without qualms as to authenticity regarding the characters, settings, or themes that, if placed in a modern novel, might seem entirely alien. A good starting point is to read the work of established authors, those from the nineteenth century, and the best of the Neo-Victorians now. That way an author’s ear can attune to the nuances, rhythm and tone of the language that was used 'back then'.

Charles Dickens

My personal Victorian favourites are Wilkie Collins, the Brontes, and Thomas Hardy; each one of these writers offering a unique and distinctive style to define the age they represent. But, of all the Victorian writers, Dickens is considered by most to be the master of the era, with his storylines rising above mere plot and offering social commentary on almost every aspect of the world which he inhabited. However, a word of warning here. Attempts to emulate his work today can result in clichéd parody in any but the most skilful hands. A writer should be brave enough to develop their own personal voice and tone, albeit while following the ‘rules’ or restrictions of the genre.

Not all nineteenth century literature adhered to Dickens’ formal tone. Moby Dick, written in 1851, begins with these strikingly ‘modern’ lines – “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…”

There is still the formal Victorian phrasing to anchor us in the era, as exhibited in the phrase: ‘requires a high moral principle’. But at the same time Melville creates a very strong vernacular; entirely original. A real, living character whose voice could belong to any age, and who draws us directly into his world.

It has to be admitted that Melville was American. Many writers prefer to emulate the more English tradition of ‘Victoriana’ – that which has been so well-observed by the modern-day author Charles Palliser. According to many reviews, his novel The Quincunx ‘out Dickensed’ Dickens himself. Indeed, almost all ‘Sensation’ themes are covered in this lengthy book, with lost or stolen inheritances, laudanum-addicted governesses, dens of thieves, and asylums, along with doomed affairs of the heart. What’s more the story’s narrator is called John Huffam – the middle names of Charles Dickens himself. An audacious decision, but justified, because Palliser’s writing is superb.
Sarah Waters, who also excels in the genre, uses a sparer lyrical prose. She is rarely florid or overblown, as illustrated in these lines taken from the start of Fingersmith – where the reader is immediately told that the narrator has been orphaned; a common Victorian theme, around which secrets and mysteries can be woven into complex plots – “My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date, and took my birthday at Christmas. I believe I am an orphan. My mother I know is dead. But I never saw her, she was nothing to me.”
Similarly, such clues are laid in The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, another stunning ‘Victorian’ novel which begins – “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper. It had been surprisingly – almost laughably – easy. I had followed him for some distance, after first observing him in Threadneedle-street. I cannot say why I decided it should be him, and not one of the others on whom my searching eye had alighted that evening.”
The novel is ‘placed’ immediately by the archaic use of ‘Threadneedle-street’ – and the fact of the oyster supper; a common meal in Victorian times and not the luxury food of today. The language also has a formality with words such as ‘had alighted’, which leaves the reader in no doubt that the genre is Victorian.

Another important factor for the writer of historical fiction is to ensure accurate scene descriptions. Inspiration is not that hard to find, with many of us still surrounded by Victorian architecture now. All the houses, shops, the theatres and bars from which our settings can be derived. The transport must be imagined, of course – the sounds of creaking carriages – the jangling of the reins – the clopping of the horse’s hooves – the rhythmic chugging of the trains, exuding clouds of cinder-flecked steam. And, as depicted in one of my novels, the common fears that “the motion and velocity might cause such a pressure inside our brains as to risk a fatal injury – a nose bleed at the very least.”

The expansion of the railways led to another common theme in Victorian novels. Train travel enabled the movement of a mass population – mainly coming from the countryside while searching for work in the city. These two settings often lead to a blunt comparison between innocence and depravity. Still, many continued to travel to London to seek their fates and fortunes – whether for better or for worse.

The city has, to this very day, a wealth of Victorian settings. A wonderful resource for any writer is to be found in Kensington, where No 18 Stafford Terrace (which belonged to Edward Linley Sambourne, a famed cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch) remains just as it would have been in its Victorian heyday. There are Chinese ceramics and Turkey rugs, Morris wallpapers and stained-glass windows – not to mention the letters, the diaries and bills that provide an accurate insight into the running of such a house. For those unable to visit, there are the objects in museums, the documents found in libraries, or via a search on the Internet where many paintings and photographs are stored.

The nineteenth century saw the dawn of the science of photography and what a treasure that has left us. Victorian scholars have a distinct advantage over those of earlier centuries, for what better way to get a true sense of interior or exterior scenes, to study the fashions that were worn, or to catch the glint of life in an eye. I can only agree with Henry Fox Talbot, one of the pioneers of the art, who described the photographic art as ‘the genius of Alladin’s Lamp…a little bit of magic realised.’

As to the day to day running of any Victorian residence, the relentless slog of housework would have lacked any magic at all. But do not take my word for it. Why not read Judith Flanders’ The Victorian House, or go to an original source in Mrs Beeton’s Household Management.

In fact, Mrs Beeton offers advice on almost any subject, from cooking, to fashion, or medicine. Her words also occur in my novel, The Somnambulist, when my narrator quotes the book as a means of objecting to the clothes that her mother wants her to wear – “I was looking through Mrs Beeton’s book, and she wrote several chapter on fashion, and with regard to a young woman’s dress her advice is very specific indeed. She says that” – and I had this memorized for such a moment of revolt – “its colour harmonise with her complexion, and its size and pattern with her figure, that its tint allow of its being worn with the other garments she possesses.”

Many other contemporary factual works are still available today. Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is surprisingly readable while giving a detailed insight into grim social realities. These studies were very useful to me when researching the Victorian demi-monde, as was My Secret Life by Walter.

Walter was a shocking libertine whose pursuit of physical gratification led to many a melodramatic encounter – and the exploration of a world that could not be more different to that which is generally perceived as the moral, upstanding society over which Queen Victoria ruled with her iron rod of respectability.

Walter, the far less ruly child, would surely have visited Wilton’s (a music hall setting used in my novels) with all of its night-time clatter and bang, where the prostitutes called from the balcony to those who sat at tables below - where the glisten of the lime lights would glance off the gleaming metal of the barley twists posts around the hall.

No doubt Walter would also have loved Cremorne – the Chelsea pleasure gardens described in my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid. The grounds were eventually closed down due to lewd behaviour, and sadly nothing now remains but a pair of ornate iron gates.

Cremorne Gardens by Phoebus Levin 1864

Unable to visit the actual place I still immersed myself in its atmosphere by reading contemporary articles printed in Victorian newspapers (the archives are still available online). I looked at paintings and adverts to gradually built a vivid scene inside my mind of the lush lawns with their statues and fountains, and the banqueting hall, and a hot air balloon, and lavish theatrical displays – such as that performed by the Beckwith Frog who swam in a great glass aquarium along with several living fish.

Freak shows were also popular as an entertainment form, though the mermaid display in my novel is purely the product of imagination. Even so, that image was inspired when reading about the Feejee Mermaids; the hideous monstrosities created by grafting a monkey’s remains onto the body of a fish. Imagine the smell smell of that!

Which brings me to another writing prop to further enhance a Victorian world, albeit one invisible – that being the sense of smell. It may well be a cliché when describing nineteenth century scenes to allude to the stench of filthy streets, but it would be wrong to ignore the fact of the constant odour of rotting food, the rising up of fetid drains, or the effluence from horses – all of which elicits a strong response from a character in Elijah’s Mermaid, who has come on a visit to London and is almost overcome by – “…sweat from the horses, and piss from the horses, though I should be used to such farmyard smells with plenty of muck in the countryside. But, in London, that perfume was too intense, as if every passenger in our cab had managed to step in a turd on the pavement, and that mess still stuck to the soles of our feet, firmly refusing to fade away.”

A writer might also think ‘outside the box’, revealing less obvious fragrances, which – in the case of The Somnambulist – was the smell of a popular perfume that came to have great significance within the novel’s plot. For this, I employed the Internet, seeking out aromas that a Victorian gentleman might use. I discovered Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, first produced in 1872 and described by the manufacturers as: ‘animalic and golden…warm and mature, redolent of old books, powdered resins and ancient rooms. At its heart is the dusky Turkish rose, with jasmine, woods, musk and powdery orris.’ Quite a vivid description I’m sure you’ll agree. And, quite a serendipity – because, after the book’s publication, I realised that Hammam’s Bouquet is still being produced to this very day. I couldn’t wait to buy some, to lift out the bottle’s stopper and breathe in the vivid scent that I had only imagined before: to close my eyes and step right back into a lost Victorian world.



Charles Dickens, the year before he wrote A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol - its full title was A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas - was first published in 1843, one hundred and seventy five years ago. 

Published by Chapman and Hall in London, it was illustrated by John Leech (above right) and met immediate success. The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. Thirteen more editions had been released before the end of the following year.

It came out at a time when there was an enormous revival of interest in Christmas traditions, with many tales of ghosts emerging, combined with a social awareness of the dreadful conditions of poverty that so many Victorians were forced to live in. As such, many academics think of this novella as a Christian allegory. 

The book has never been out of print. It has inspired countless adaptations on stage, and screen, and in opera form, with visual interpretations by artists. And now, a new novella has been released by the publisher Harper Collins. This new book is very much inspired by the original story, but looks more closely at the character of Jacob Marley and his relationship with his sister, Clara - leading to the title of Miss Marley.

Miss Marley was conceived and written (and very almost completed) by Vanessa Lafaye, the writer for whom this Victorian story had become almost an obsession. The resulting novel was acquired by publishing director of Harper Collins, Kate Mills. It is beautifully produced and has been seamlessly completed by the writer Rebecca Mascull. Illustrations have been created by Emily Carew Woodard.

The perfect Christmas gift, available at all good book shops.



The royal Christmas tree at Windsor Castle

Queen Charlotte (the consort of King George III) first introduced a pine tree in the royal rooms at Christmas time. But, it was Prince Albert who really encouraged and popularised the decorated festive tree as a more general tradition - and one that we still follow now. 

However, on December 14th, 1861 when the Windsor Castle tree would normally have glittered with its hundreds of tiny candles, every single light was doused ~ because of Albert's sudden death at the age of only 42.

Victoria and Albert enjoying Christmas with their children

In the years that followed on, Queen Victoria still celebrated Christmas, but she hated to be in Windsor which reminded her too painfully of her husband's death there. Instead, she travelled to the Isle of Wight and the Italianate palace of Osborne House where, during Albert's lifetime, the family had spent so many happy times together.

The royal family in happier times

Another change to the family tradition was the fact that, after his father's death, Bertie, the Prince of Wales preferred to spend his Christmas days at Sandringham, claiming to find Osborne House 'utterly unattractive'.

Bertie, (Edward) the Prince of Wale, and his father, Prince Albert, on the right.

But, perhaps an element of guilt influenced this decision. Shortly before his father's death there had been a notorious scandal involving the then future king who was studying at Cambridge, and the actress Nellie Clifton. Intrusive press publicity had caused Prince Albert great distress. He wrote Bertie many letters and, eventually, in appalling weather, travelled to meet his son in Cambridge. 

 Prince Albert's deathbed at  Windsor

The stress of such a journey, combined with a pre-existing illness (some say caused by the Windsor drains) led to Albert coming home again in a state of some exhaustion. He died very soon afterwards in the Blue Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria definitely blamed the Prince of Wales for this sad end, as illustrated by this line which is taken from a letter written to one of her daughters: "That boy...I never can, or ever shall look at him without a shudder."

In the VV's novel, The Goddess and the Thief, Victoria's grief is dramatised - as is her ensuing interest in the hiring of spirit mediums. Much of the book is fictional, but it is true that the widowed Queen very often tried to contact the spirit of her husband. As time passed she relied more and more upon her closest friend, John Brown - the game keeper who also claimed to be a spirit medium. There were rumours of private seances, some of them described by the Queen herself - a notoriously regular diarist. But these records were destroyed at the time of Victoria's own death; being viewed by her advisers and other family members as potentially embarrassing.

What a shame that is! What interesting reading they would make today.

An Audible version is also available.