Never hurry a Murray

Apologies but this is going to be a wordy post. One of the reasons for creating this site was to provide a home for all the bits that didn’t make into the Grand Hotels book (for reasons of space – not because they were rubbish). One element that, with great reluctance, I had to jettison was an appendix I’d written on the wonderful old guidebooks of the 19th century, the Murray’s, Baedeker’s and Thomas Cook’s. So over the next few weeks in a series of posts I’m going to recycle that material here. It’s a bit hardcore and geeky, but then isn’t that what the internet is for?

Long before I started writing Grand Hotels I was a big fan of old 19th-century guidebooks. Hardly surprising, given that for several years I wrote guidebooks for a living. From 1993 onwards, I indulged a fetish for unloved regimes covering places like Kaliningrad, Siberia, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Syria for Lonely Planet. When the basketcase countries ran out I returned to Egypt and did several editions of a guide to the country, as well as a spin-off stand-alone title on Cairo, which ran to two editions before it was shelved due to lack of interest. I developed a profound admiration for the work of those who trod this path before me. It was arduous enough researching a guidebook with planes, trains, air-con coaches, telephones and the internet at my disposal – how much more difficult must it have been to do the job 150 years earlier?

Some of the earliest guidebooks are, understandably, a bit suspect. The oldest one I’ve got is Usborne’s Guide to Egypt and the Levant, published in 1840, which blithely advises that although there are around 300 mosques in Cairo only three of these are really worth visiting, and warns travellers of tarantula spiders of a “very large size” which it says are extremely venomous and derive their poison from feeding on the bodies of the dead.

But the quality of the information quickly got a lot better. Just seven years later, the first proper dedicated guide to Egypt was published by John Murray of London (est 1768), pioneers in the field of guidebooks. John Murray III, grandson of the company founder, took a trip round the Continent in 1829. He travelled without a guidebook for the simple reason such a thing didn’t exist, an omission he set about righting on his return. “I set to work to collect for myself all the facts, information, statistics, &c … which an English tourist would be likely to require or find useful. I travelled thus, note-book in hand.” There were several exhaustive research trips, which Murray wrote up and then had friends go out and test his “Routes”. It wasn’t until 1836 that the finished book –Handbook for Travellers on the Continent – was ready. It was swiftly followed by “Handbooks” to Southern Germany (1837), Switzerland (1838) and Northern Europe: Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia (1839). Murray wrote the first two himself, but by the third had begun to recruit collaborators.

For Egypt he contracted John Gardner Wilkinson, who had spent the years 1821-1833 in Egypt, a stay that resulted in the seminal work of Egyptology Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, published in three volumes in 1837. For John Murray, Wilkinson returned to Egypt in 1842 and the first Handbook for Travellers in Egypt was published five years later. (For comparison, as a Lonely Planet writer I would get six months to research and write a new book.)

Between 1847 and 1907, Murray’s Egypt Handbook went through eleven editions. Wilkinson did the updates for the second and third editions, but with the fourth edition of 1873 the task of revisions was handed on – eventually falling for the ninth and tenth editions, in 1896 and 1900, to Miss Mary Broderick, one of the earliest of women Egyptologists. By this time, though, Murray’s handbook was no longer the most popular guidebook to Egypt in English, having been overtaken by the guides produced by Karl Baedeker, about whom I’ll post next time. Out-muscled in the guidebook market by their German publishing rivals (not just in Egypt, but everywhere), in 1915 John Murray sold the rights to their whole backlist of Handbooks, which were subsequently relaunched as the Blue Guides.

Meanwhile, if you fancy taking a look at the original 1847 Murray’s Handbook for Travellers to Egypt, then the whole thing has been scanned and posted up online here.

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