There is nothing specifically English about travel and exploration. However, the English have always taken to travel with a certain style that is unique to their sensibilities. A stoic, furrowed brow, stiff upper lip, and the toting of an umbrella is the way in which we often think of English explorations—or incursions, depending on one’s point of view. Of course it is true that a good deal of English travel has included red-coated, pith-helmeted soldier types who claim foreign territories by the barrel of an Enfield and the stripes of the Union Jack. However, it has not always been this way. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, English civilian explorers set out in great numbers to see and explore the world. Numerous clubs–like the Royal Geographic Society–sponsored cultural and scientific explorations for the sake of a greater understanding of humanity and our natural world.
Victorian England witnessed the new economy of industrialization. Industrialization brought leisure time and discretionary spending to a new and growing middle class. And for that middle class, seeing the world became all the rage. It was an age when explorers boarded huffing steam trains with the help of porters who hefted aboard steamer trunks full formal wear. Men wore day-cravats and top hats while cantering gangly camels through Giza to the foot of the Great Pyramid. Women wore bodices and petticoats and dragged sunshade umbrellas behind them as they climbed to the tops of Alpine mountain peaks.
Though the attire and equipment had not yet evolved to designs that were appropriate for the more challenging altitudes and latitudes of outdoor travel, explorers pushed on undaunted.
The purpose was simply to explore and learn for the sake of understanding people and the natural world. Field research studies had not yet become the domain of professional or university scientists. Expeditions like the excavation of Egyptian burial sites, the categorizing of Galapagos finches, and the cartographic exploration of Himalayan peaks were all done by amateur explorers.
Over the next few weeks I will consider and share with you the contributions of men and women Victorian explorers who ventured very far afield to make contact with distant cultures, or uncover the buried ruins of past civilizations, or document new and important species.
Next week, I will share little-known biographical facts of amateur birder who made his name and fame because of a certain beagle.