Tag Archives: Tony Binder

The Thomas Cook archive

4101_Cooks Nile Service

The new book On the Nile is a history of travellers and tourists on the river in Egypt. It starts with dahabiyas and quickly moves into the era of the steamboat. The first steamboat on the Nile was, as far as I can ascertain, l’Egyptienne, built at the request of Muhammad Ali by Laird, Son & Co of Birkenhead, England and delivered to Egypt in 1837. But it wasn’t until 1851 that Abbas, grandson of Muhammad Ali, inaugurated a government-run monthly service of passenger steamers between Cairo and Aswan. This was reportedly unreliable which is maybe why it doesn’t seem to have been much used by travellers. The change didn’t come until 1870, when Thomas Cook & Son took over the running of the steamers and not only made them run to schedule but made them popular thanks to extensive marketing through its offices around the globe. The company enjoyed a monopoly on the Nile for close on the next 30 years until it had to share navigation rights with a handful of rival new steamer companies including the Anglo-American Nile Steamer and Hotel Company, the Tewfikiya Nile Navigation Company and the Express Nile Navigation Company. Even so, On the Nile comes close to being a history of the company of Thomas Cook & Son in Egypt, for which there is a very simple reason. History may be written by victors but it’s also shaped by those with the best archives – and the Thomas Cook archive is fabulous.

It’s kept at the company’s industrial park HQ on the outskirts of the unlovely town of Peterborough, 75 miles north of London. I made over a dozen trips up there in 2013 and 2014 while researching On the Nile, and so extensive is the archive I still didn’t manage to look at everything relating to Egypt, never mind the stuff concerning the company’s operations around the rest of the world (which includes everything from contracts and minutes of meetings to porters’ costumes and a couple of glass panels by Lalique from the Orient Express).

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A particularly brilliant resource for any travel historians is a complete run of The Excursionist, which is a sort of proto travel magazine, published by Thomas Cook from 1851 and which featured details of Cook’s tours, as well as general travel news and articles, book reviews and a wonderful selection of advertising.

Brochures

Even more useful, as far as my book was concerned, are the Egypt & the Nile brochures that were put out almost every year from around 1880 through until the 1930s, and which included timetables, descriptions of the ever-changing Nile fleet and tour itineraries.

There were also diaries (more of which in a future post) and letters – notably an entertaining sequence of correspondence between John Mason Cook and his son Bert, who ran the Nile service operations, with Cook senior getting splenetic over the wrong soap being placed in the boats’ bathrooms and “some mean skunk” stealing all the pieces from the boardgames in the lounges.

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Then there are the albums of photographs, the cups, glasses and cutlery, the menus and printed passenger lists, the vintage guidebooks, blueprints, the genuine 3000-year-old piece of ancient Egyptian statuary…

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Unfortunately, almost none of this material is laid out for public view, instead it is all housed in a garage-like storage unit from where it has to be retrieved by the company’s full-time archivist Paul Smith. Fortunately, he’s an amiable man who was willing to make endless trips back and forth across the car park to deliver up boxes of the raw material out of which my book was shaped. On the Nile could not have happened without the Thomas Cook archive or the assistance of its archivist. Thank you Paul.

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Filed under Memorabilia, Nile steamers

It’s Tony

Aha! Just received confirmation from Peter Kuonen that the painting in my post before last was indeed by Tony Binder. Thank you again, Peter.

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Filed under Art and artists

Victor Kuonen 1875-1949

I was recently contacted by Peter Kuonen of Urdorf in Switzerland, who wondered if I would be interested in seeing some photographs of his grand-uncle, Victor, who spent more than 20 years employed at Luxor’s Winter Palace, and before that Shepheard’s, in the early years of the 20th century. Of course I was interested. So Peter sent me the photographs and they are wonderful – he’s permitted me to post some of them, below. I also asked Peter if he could tell me a little about Victor, and he responded with the text that follows.

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“Victor was born on May 4, 1875 in a small mountain village called Guttet in the picturesque canton of Wallis in Switzerland. He grew up together with five sisters and fourteen brothers. After completing his compulsory schooling he had to help to support the family. Therefore, he went to work in a hotel at the age of 16 years. As a young man, he already had jobs in different cities like San Remo, Basel and Lucerne. In 1897, aged 22, he travelled to Egypt for the first time. He sent back travel reports, which were published in a local Wallis newspaper Briger Anzeiger from February 1902 onwards. His first report described the trip from Switzerland via Genoa to Port Said. He not only wrote what he had experienced on the trip but also about the people and the land of Egypt. He continued to file reports right up until 1923 and his most interesting are now preserved in the archives of the Canton Valais.

“He found employment in Egypt in the first-class hotels, including Shepheard’s in Cairo and the Winter Palace in Luxor – both hotels owned by fellow Swiss Charles Baehler.

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Top, Victor, at Shepheard’s in 1905; bottom with the staff at the Winter Palace, c.1930

“Victor worked in Egypt during the winter (which was Egypt’s prime tourist season) and returned to Switzerland or Germany during the summer. In Switzerland, he worked in the Hotel Mont Cervin, Zermatt and in the Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne. In Germany, he was a concierge in the Hotel Europäischer Hof, Baden-Baden where he met his wife Sophie Mohl. They had three more sons and one daughter.

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Victor at the Winter Palace in 1932

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Victor outside the main entrance of the Winter Palace. The photo has been taken by Attaya Gaddis, who had one of the shops in front of the hotel; it’s now run by his grandson Ehab

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At the Winter Palace reception desk

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An illustration of Victor, presented to him as a gift. I can’t be sure but it looks like the work of Tony Binder, who I have posted about previously, here

“In 1927, after working 30 years for Charles Baehler, – during which time he was present in Luxor when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered – Victor received a Diploma of the Swiss Hotelier Association and also a gold watch with a dedication from Baehler.

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Howard Carter and the former Spanish king Alfonso XIII in front of the Winter Palace

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Leopold and Elizabeth of Belgium at the Winter Palace

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Pioneering Swiss aviator Walter Mittelholzer dropping by the Winter Palace while making the first north-south flight across Africa in 1926

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More Mittelholzer

“Victor said good-bye to Egypt in 1931. He moved with his family to Algeria, where his second-oldest son, Oscar, had a job in a hotel. They settled in the coastal town of Bône (today called Annaba), where Victor opened a restaurant, Au Rosbif. The family ran this for about 10 years but then World War II came along and they packed up and returned to Switzerland. Back in his homeland, Victor bought the Hotel Mont Cervin in Visp/Wallis in 1941 and was a successful hotelier for the next 8 years until he died on October 13, 1949.”

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Filed under Grand hotels, Shepheard's

The Golden Books

When Shepheard’s went up in flames back in January 1952, one of the notable losses was the hotel’s set of Golden Books, the ledgers in which decades of distinguished guests had been invited to sign their names. It used to be common practice for hotels to keep VIP guestbooks and use the names they contained as marketing collateral, to be listed in ads and promotional booklets. But it’s not just Shepheard’s Golden Books that were lost, because I don’t know of any surviving examples from any of Egypt’s grand old hotels – except, that is, for one.

It comes from the Winter Palace and covers the years 1920-1935, an exciting time coinciding as it does with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the ten years of excavations that followed. I learned of the guestbook through an essay written by André Wiese, curator of the Egyptian Department at the Museum of Ancient Art and Ludwig Collection in Basel. He discovered the existence of the guestbook back in 1991 when he was preparing an exhibition devoted to Seti I. It was in the possession of Carmen Heusser, the daughter of Swiss hotelier Anton Badrutt, who managed the Winter Palace between 1920 and 1935.

Wiese was allowed to study the book and subsequently wrote a 22-page study (in German) that was published in an academic journal in 1998. He kindly sent me a copy, which I’ve translated. I’m not going to run the whole text because it’s 5,000 words long, but I will summarise it.

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‘Bound in parchment and leather, here we truly have a piece of history in front of us!’ Wiese begins. Inside, the fly-leaf is decorated with a hand-painted image of a cheery Tutankhamun (above) done by Austrian artist Anton ‘Tony’ Binder. Binder (1868-1944) was an Orientalist painter, who lived in Alexandria but travelled around Egypt gathering material for his oils of Egyptian landscapes and interiors. Some of his work was also printed on postcards. In addition to the Tutankhamun drawing, the book also contains sketches by him of hotel guests Howard Carter and Bernard Shaw.

A card painted by Tony Binder for Anton Badrutt when he departed the Winter Palace in 1936

A card painted by Tony Binder for Anton Badrutt when he departed the Winter Palace in 1936

According to his daughter, Badrutt liked collecting autographs, so this guestbook was something of a personal affair. As well as signatures it also contains notes of thanks addressed to Badrutt in person, and a number of photographs, including several of Carnarvon and Carter dated ‘Winter 1922-23, Luxor’. One is the famous image of Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn on arrival at Luxor station on 23 November 1922, being met by Carter and the Governor of Qena, just three days before they breached the tomb.

Also slipped into the guestbook is a menu for Christmas dinner on 25 December 1923 decorated with a guardian figure from the tomb of Tutankhamun, depicted befoe and after the dinner, in the latter case with a huge fat belly and smoking a pipe.

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Most of the space though is taken up with signatures, and it’s some collection. Wiese lists them: there are the statesmen, including former French prime minister Georges Clemenceau, Czech president Tomas Masaryk and ex-Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria – who were all in residence at the hotel at the same time; and the crowned heads, such as crown prince Edward of England, visiting in April 1930, who, six years later would be become king of England only to step down within the year, as well as the Belgian king and queen, Albert and Elizabeth, and the crown prince of Sweden, the future King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden.

There’s an entry in the guestbook on 8 March 1929 by Rudyard Kipling and signatures from November of that year of the American silent film star Douglas Fairbanks and his wife, the equally famous Mary Pickford (there’s also a photograph of the pair with Anton Badrutt). German novelist Thomas Mann, who spent 10 days at the hotel, signed the book on 6 March 1930 (and left a lengthy inscription, which I was unable to translate), while George Bernard Shaw wrote on 26 December 1932, “I cannot make up my mind whether Luxor is the hottest place on earth or the coldest”.

Howard Carter by Tony Binder

Howard Carter by Tony Binder

Other random names and the dates they signed the book include John D Rockefeller Jr (15 Feb 1929), Evangeline Lindbergh, mother of Charles (24 Jan 1929), Somerset Maugham (14 Dec 1929), Nelli Melba (18 Feb 1930) and World Champion Heavy weight boxer Gene Tunney (23 Feb 1931), who added the message: ‘The charm of this lovely Winter Palace is only equalled by that of its guiding spirit Mr AR Badrutt’.

Wiese includes a lot of background on Badrutt, but I’ll save that for a future post.

George Bernard Shaw by Tony Binder

George Bernard Shaw by Tony Binder

Recently, I thought I might travel to Basel to see this wonderful piece of history for myself, so I emailed André Wiese to ask if he could put me in touch with Ms Carmen Heusser. His reply was tragic:

Dear Andrew

Thanks for contacting me again. I have no good news. Unfortunately the lady suffers in the meantime heavily from dementia and the guestbook has disappeared recently when she moved to the home for old people. There exists only our digital copy in the museum.

Best wishes,

André

And then there were none.

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Filed under Grand hotels, Lost Egypt

It’s called adaptive reuse

Some years back, well before the calamity that has befallen the country, I stayed at the Zenobia hotel at Palmyra in Syria. It has the most extraordinary location, away from the modern town and right on the edge of the Roman ruins. It is possible to sit up in bed and look out of the window of your room at grand colonnades silhouetted against the moonlight. It seems natural that pieces of antiquity should find their way into the hotel, and so in the garden the ancient carved capitals of columns serve as bases for tables. I think I remember something similar in the garden of the Palmyra hotel at Baalbek in Lebanon.

Hotel de Nil

An image kindly sent to me by Susan Allen reminds me it used to be like that in Egypt too. It shows the garden of the Hotel du Nil and, in it, two great stone sarcophagus lids.

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The terrace at Shepheard’s used to boast a pair of sphinxes, reputedly from Saqqara, while the Luxor Hotel in Luxor had two statues of Sekhmet in its garden, most likely brought over from Karnak. Probably nobody at the time thought this an inappropriate employment of Egypt’s archaeological heritage. What was contentious, though, and stirred up comment in the press of the time, was architect Henri Favarger’s usage of stones from the Pyramids to build the Mena House hotel. He didn’t deny it, but in an address given to the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1892, claimed it was rubble gathered from the foot of the Pyramids that was collected, and only then with the approval and close supervision of the Egyptian museum authorities.

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Filed under Grand hotels, Lost Egypt, Shepheard's