A Luxury London Retreat: The Journal of Margaret Howes

Margaret Howes was approaching eleven years when she recounted her vibrant experience in London during the September of 1855 (NRO, MC 340/7, 710×9). After travelling from Norwich through Cambridgeshire, and sightseeing in the cities of Ely and Cambridge, Margaret, accompanied by her parents Mr and Mrs Howes, her sister Edith and her Grandmother, finally arrived in the bustling capital. In her journal she talks of her experiences of visiting the Crystal Palace 4 years after the Great Exhibition and describes feeding the animals at London Zoo.


The Preface of Margaret’s Journal. NRO, MC 340/7, 710×9

Location of Lodgings

Soon after settling in and having dinner, the family (sans the exhausted Mrs Howes) went to the first of the many theatre trips they would have during their stay; to see Sleeping Beauty. The luxury and entertainment of the theatre must have felt a world away the following morning when the family was awakened by the sound of coal carts from the quarry near their lodgings. She notes how the horses had to pull a heavy load, often up high slopes. In order to stop the cargo and the animals tumbling back down stones were laid down behind each cart.

Tourist sites: Crystal Palace

Margaret travelled to the Victorian hub of innovation, the Crystal Palace. The site of the 1851 Great Exhibition, it set the stage for many world fairs to come. Pioneers around the world would proudly show off their inventions and discoveries, engaging in friendly competition with each other. The family walked through a rose garden in the palace grounds before entering the structure and coming across many ponds filled with lilies of all colours. Stunning flower baskets hung from the ceiling and Margaret described that in one part ‘there were some Indians & some animals in the bushes & palm trees’. The family visited the palace gift shop where Margaret got ‘4 little babies in a bath to float about in it’ and a China shop which her mother eventually had to be pried away from. They then observed a water fountain show before heading home, they would return a second time however, to visit the courts. Margaret especially enjoyed the Alhambra Court, as well as the Byzantine Court, commenting that it seemed a shame to walk on the beautiful mosaic pavement. Sadly, the Crystal Palace no longer stands, being burned to the ground in 1936.

Tourist sites: Houses of Parliament and London Zoo

After touring the New Houses of Parliament and the House of Lords, commenting that the Queen’s throne ‘was the only thing I liked there’, Margaret and her family visited the world’s oldest science-oriented zoo, London Zoological Gardens. Today the zoo only houses a select few larger species and is primarily focused on conservation efforts and education. In Margaret’s time however, the Zoo displayed many large and majestic animals from across the globe, drawing in huge crowds. During her visit, Margaret came across megafauna including giraffes, rhinos, hippos and polar bears, as well as the many tropical birds and monkeys that also inhabited the park. She clearly took a liking to the elephants and describes feeding one pieces of bun. She also fed the bears too, managing to coax them up the pole in their enclosure to grab the snacks. Guests feeding animals treats was once an accepted and common practice in zoos, very different to today where staff try to keep animals to their natural diet.


Diary entry for 8 September. NRO, MC 340/7, 710×9

Tower of London

Towards the end of the retreat, the family visited the Tower of London and were guided by one of the famous Beefeaters. Margaret explored the armoury where she saw the execution block and axe used for Mary Queen of Scots, as well as the dungeon in which Lord Dudley and Lady Jane Grey (the nine-day queen) were imprisoned shortly before their inevitable executions. Margaret described these morbid reminders of the Tower’s bloody past as ‘miserable looking things indeed’. She then came across ‘Traitors Gate’, in which prisoners guilty of treason would be taken through to meet their usually gruesome fate.

St Paul’s Cathedral

On the same day they took a cab to St. Paul’s Cathedral where Margaret got immense view of London from the galleries, before descending into the crypts where she came across the tombs of the two great Napoleonic War heroes, the Duke of Wellington and Vice Admiral Nelson, which can be observed today lying in close proximity to each other. During their stay another war was already taking place, the Crimean War (1853-1856), the first major conflict in Europe since Napoleon’s conquest, in which British, French and Turkish forces fought against the Russian Empire. Margaret saw panoramas of Sebastopol which was under siege at the time, as well as dioramas of the Alma and Inkerman battlefields.

London sightseeing has often been a popular pastime although as we can see from Margaret’s journal the landscape has changed quite significantly since the Victorian era.

Researched and compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger

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