This week, a recently catalogued item in Special Collections has set us thinking about summer travel abroad – in the past as well as the present.
Hidden inside this brightly coloured wallet is a nineteenth-century British passport. It is a far cry from our modern passports – the familiar booklet of paper pages complete with photo and description. Instead, this is a single sheet of parchment, bound in linen at the edges, carefully folded, and stitched into a leather-covered wallet.
This is the passport of “Mr. Charles Lewis (British subject) accompanied by his wife; travelling on the Continent” [MS 351/8]. It was issued and signed by George William Frederick Villiers, fourth Earl of Clarendon, who was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the time and is dated 5 October 1853. There are no details for Mrs Lewis – not even her full name – and she did not travel on a separate passport. Another nineteenth-century example in our collections is for “Mr Evelyn Ashley, British subject, his wife and maid travelling on the Continent” [MS 62/BR68] and it is not unusual for passports to include servants, valets or maids in this way. By this date, the language and format of the passport followed a standard pattern; the main details were pre-printed and only the particular details of the bearer were written in by hand. Interestingly for the date, it is written in English. It is generally stated that until 1772, both Latin and English were used for passports, then French alone until 1858, and English only from that date onwards. Although the destination abroad is given in general terms we can tell where Mr Lewis travelled because the passport is ink stamped and countersigned, front and back, by various consuls and police departments, including those for Calais, and Aachen:
Aachen, or Bad Aachen, lies today in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, near the Belgian and Dutch borders – the Dutch know it as Aken – the French as Aix-la-Chapelle. It had been occupied and annexed by the French in 1801, and passed to Prussia in 1815, but its significance stretched back beyond the days of Charlemagne – whose palace was here and whose tomb lies in the magnificent cathedral. From the 1830s it was also part of a growing railway network – was Charles passing through on his European travels or was Aachen his destination? Famous for hot springs from Roman times and a popular spa town, Charles and his wife may have been enjoying a holiday here.
Who was Charles Lewis? We don’t know: we are told that prior to World War I the possession of passports was largely confined to merchants and diplomats. By the 1850s, when Charles made his journey, those applying for passports had to be relatively well connected and well-heeled, in order to be able to afford the necessary fee and to supply a reference. You can see Charles’ signature on the lower left-hand corner, as it was a legal requirement that the passport was signed.
Why did Charles carry a passport? The answer may seem obvious to us today when the requirement to carry a passport is widely accepted – but Britain did not oblige foreigners to show a passport when they disembarked here. Belgium and France, on the other hand, required them: so Charles had his passport viséd at the French Consulate in London, and by Joseph Octave Delepierre, the Belgian Consul and Secretary of Legation in London. By doing so he was probably following Foreign Office advice. The nineteenth-century traveller needed to know the correct procedure for travel and this was not straight forward. We know this from an exchange in the correspondence of the first Duke of Wellington, dated 1835, when the subject of passports was under discussion:
“It is the practice of the Foreign Office to give a passport to an individual about to travel on the continent. But that passport is to enable the individual to travel in or quit this country; it will not enable him to quit the place in which he may land unless countersigned by the foreign minister residing here or by some authority at the place itself. The usual practice of travellers is to have the passports given to them at the Foreign Office countersigned by the minister residing here on the part of the sovereign of the countries through which they may travel. Or if they do not take this course they are under the necessity of having their passports countersigned by one of the local authorities on their entrance. The signature of an authorised person of the country through which the traveller may pass appears to be considered indispensable in every instance in which passports are required. The Duke suggests that the best course to be pursued is to have clear instructions drawn up indicating to travellers the course which they are to pursue to enable them to travel through the country or about the country and that every measure should be adopted to obtain for each traveller the necessary passports…” [MS 61 WP2/41/39, 31 March 1835]
Later that year when Lord Mahon proposed to introduce the subject into the House of Commons, Wellington returned his paper on passports with the following comment:
“The King’s subjects have a right to travel and even to quit the Kingdom without passport, let or hindrance. They require passports on landing in foreign countries by the laws of those countries. If they touch the matter at all it must be by the assistance of the neighbouring powers. They would have to prevail upon them to stop Englishmen going abroad without the permission of the Foreign Office: this would not look well. The Duke objects generally to Mahon’s proposal as well as to his proposed tariff.” [MS 61 WP2/33/101-2, 18 May 1835]
Wellington’s comments reflect the general dislike of the ‘passport system’ which was seen as bureaucratic and costly by the public, but there was also a resentment at the very idea that an English gentleman might need permission to travel – or be required to produce a document to establish his good name and character in the eyes of the world. Whatever the wider debate, we do know that Charles Lewis went to some effort and expense to obtain his passport, and that its value ensured its survival.