Historian Looks for Five-Star Hotels of the Victorian Era

Guests used visitors’ books to rank and rave

Kevin James

O the fleas! The frivolous fleas!
They delight just to smite and to bite at their ease;
The ten plagues of Egypt were nothing to these
Fearless and fat and filibustering fleas! 

Think of them as the 19th-century version of TripAdvisor with one major disadvantage: the hotel and inn visitors’ books of that time period were kept on-site, so you couldn’t read warnings like the one above until after you checked in.

Until the outbreak of the First World War, people weren’t required to register at hotels in the United Kingdom, but many hotels and inns in Ireland and Britain did set out visitors’ books. Some guests wrote just their names and home addresses, but a surprising number wrote lengthy paragraphs or poetry, disagreed with comments made by previous visitors or added notes in the margins. Some signed with obvious pseudonyms.

History professor Kevin James is using the visitors’ books from several Irish inns and hotels to describe how people narrated their travel experiences. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“I am looking at the culture of hospitality and how travellers saw it,” says James. “Did non-Irish travellers see the stay at an inn, for example, as an extension of the experience of being in Ireland, or was the hotel a refuge, a chance to get away from the reality of life in Ireland?”

James first discovered one of these old visitors’ books about four years ago while researching the industrial history of shirt manufacturing. “The archivist mentioned to me that this completely unexplored visitors’ book was available, covering the time of the Irish famine,” James recalls. “I filed that away in my mind and later started looking for other sources.”

Florid inscriptions in the visitors’ book seem to have been very much a British and Irish institution, although the books themselves were also found in North America and Europe. The books were typically left out in the lobby, but guests could take them into the parlour to read or carry them up to their rooms to peruse in bed.

James is interested in how people narrated their travel experiences in their visitors’ book notes, and what the experience of staying at a hotel or inn was like for them. “It’s not just about having a bed for the night; staying at an inn or hotel was also a cultural experience. The food available would be different from place to place, and so would the amenities of the room,” he says. His research spans the years from 1840 to 1919, “from the earliest entries I could find to the end of the war and a whole new political situation in Ireland.”

The inscriptions also shed some light on the situation of the privileged in Ireland during the famine of the late 1840s. James says that Lord George Hill, who considered himself an “improving landlord” built a hotel called Gweedore on his property. The entries in the Gweedore visitors’ book praise him lavishly. “Many of the guests were well-known, wealthy people,” James says. “They talk about the famine as something occurring everywhere but in Gweedore, and give him the credit. They ignored the poverty and famine around them.”

James says the praise of Lord Hill was so enthusiastic that often the writers ran out of words and would write comments such as, “I can only agree with all the preceding sentiments.” One guest waxed poetic:

GWEEDORE – 
If hospitality and fun you think a treat
At Gweedore Hotel you will with these meet – 
Also every comfort you will there get – 
If in any place it is to be met – 
The Landlord and agent (without any jest)
To make it comfortable have done their best – 
What can you wish more
BUT GOOD LUCK AND SUCCESS TO LORD G HILL’S GWEEDORE

Written by a constant visitor
And a crack hand at metre

James is also interested in the stereotypes perpetuated in some of the visitors’ book entries. “The Irish innkeeper was seen as good-natured and hospitable but rather ineffective,” he says. “Some of the entries would mock the hosts or speak about them in a condescending way. Scottish inns were seen as higher quality, but visitors looked for every example of the innkeeper’s efforts to extract extra money.”

There was one other interesting use of visitors’ books during the Victorian era: they often showed up in divorce cases. As James explains, divorce was difficult to obtain at the time, but adultery was an accepted cause. Producing a visitors’ book from a hotel where the husband or wife had checked in as Mr. and Mrs. at a time when the other half of the couple could be proven to be elsewhere would provide grounds for the divorce. James adds that often the couple agreed to this plan as the easiest way to get a divorce they both wanted, and the visitors’ book was the evidence.

Sadly, he adds, few of these visitors’ books have survived. “Inns and hotels changed hands frequently, and many of these books were simply thrown out.” Their rarity makes the stories contained in the ones James is working with all the more interesting.