A Summer’s Day at Greenwich

William Shobel Esq. Henry Colburn, publisher. 1840

“Being a guide to the Hospital and Park; with a select Catalogue of the Pictures in the Painted Hall; to which is added A History of the Ancient Palace from its foundation.”

I got an email the other day from the splendid Graham Dolan who had just discovered a book he had never heard of – he wondered if I had. I hadn’t.

I am delighted that after thinking I’ve at least come across every book written about Greenwich in Victorian times, there are still gems to be found. A Summer’s Day at Greenwich is not going to change any perceptions about the history of the town. It doesn’t tell the history of Greenwich particularly well – there’s far too much forelock-tugging rosy historical glow for my liking – but what marks it out is what it tells us about the day-tripping habits of our ancestors.

I’ve (obviously) never seen it in paper form, but it’s in the library at Princeton (God knows why) and they have kindly digitised it for the human good. You can fiddle about and get a PDF to print off (if memory serves, I pressed the big red button on the left) read it as an e-book or just look at it on screen. It’s 137 pages, plus all sorts of extra Princeton-added strange pages at either end, so if you’re going to print it off, be warned. Get your reams in…

William Shoberl was the son of Frederic Shoberl, an author and collaborator with Henry Colburn, a London publisher specialising in non fiction and what we might recognise as early travelogues. William followed Dad into the business as writer and publisher. I don’t know how many guides he produced, but there’s an ad for his forthcoming ‘Summer’s Day at Richmond, with a visit to Twickenham’ in the fly so it looks as though it was a series.

It’s obvious to see why Greenwich was an attractive subject for a book – in 1840 the railway was still new, steamers were frequent and the fair (of which there is a vivid description, though he does say, somewhat sniffily, that it is ‘nothing remarkable that is not to be met with at Croydon…’) was massive. In the days when virtually no one could afford a foreign holiday, and the seaside was still a long way away for working people to do in a day, Greenwich was a big draw.

Whitebait, rolling parkland, ancient buildings, art in the Painted Hall, healthsome walks, a brand new shopping centre – the 19th C equivalent of Westfield – and great views, what wasn’t to like?

Clearly there was stuff not to like, but Shoberl sweeps it all away sharpish – I can’t actually find the bit where he describes the ladies of Greenwich, making it clear that they’re VERY RESPECTABLE. NO – REALLY, but it made me smile. This particular lady seems to be protesting just that little bit too much…

He takes his time to actually get to Greenwich, starting at what sounds suspciously like his office, making his way through London, discussing the various options for getting there, describing the people he meets on the journey, shooting off on tangents whenever he feels like it.

And that’s why I like this book. Whether he’s going off on one about gypsies on the heath, the docks at Deptford, or the venerable old gent John Worley, that silver-haired innocent – who everyone talks about nowadays with great glee as being a dirty old reprobate – Shoberl is just great fun.

It’s great to read about the town when what is our ‘history’ is then’s ‘now.’ Princess Sophia is still in residence at Ranger’s Lodge. The pensioners are still in residence at the ORNC. Sick seamen are still in residence on the Dreadnought. Caroline of Brunswick’s house has only just been pulled down and they’re still digging up Roman artefacts on the Heath.

His tips include remembering to give your guide a trifle (sound advice in any age, though in this particular case, given the guides were salty old seadogs, best to choose the sherry variety…) and, oddly for a Victorian guidebook, not to miss the perepheries – Blackheath, Westcombe and Deptford all get at least a nod.

My tip is to take a peek. Skim the history bits – there are far better volumes on that subject – but linger over Shoberl’s own experiences of his ‘now.’ Enjoy some whitebait, look through a pensioner’s telescope by the observatory and gird your loins for the fun of the fair – though good luck doing that lot in one day…

the attachments to this post:

Line drawing statue of George II
Line drawing statue of George II

Line drawing John Worley
Line drawing John Worley

Line drawing greenwich railway low
Line drawing greenwich railway low

3 Comments to “A Summer’s Day at Greenwich”

  1. Cheers Michael – fixed now…

  2. Dominic says:

    I’m somewhat familiar with Shoberl – I briefly quote from him in my main piece on the Blackheath Cavern:

    “The mine became inaccessible in 1839-40 – we know this because William Shoberl wrote in his 1840 A Summer’s Day at Greenwich:

    This cavern was, till very recently, open to public inspection for a trifling charge; but it is now closed, some parts having lately fallen in.”

    Shoberl’s note is critically important in establishing how recently the Cavern was open – a subject on which many have written wildly inaccurate accounts.