Following in the footsteps of the first Alpine holiday party

Research by local historians Brenda Fox and Denis Jones has revealed two adventurous sisters from 19th century Garstang were among a party of pioneering tourists to take part in the first organised tour to the Alps.

Friday, 17th June 2016, 5:26 pm
Updated Friday, 17th June 2016, 6:33 pm
Junior United Alpine Club

On June 26, 1863, a party of 64 men and women set off from London on Thomas Cook’s first trip to Switzerland.

Travelling by railway and steamer, they reached Geneva at the end of 42 tiring hours, after which they made their own arrangements for the rest of their stay.

In 1947 a diary, written by Jemima Morrell, was discovered in a war-damaged Thomas Cook warehouse in London. It described the adventures of seven of the travellers – four ladies and three gentlemen – who called themselves the Junior United Alpine Club, after the real Alpine Club, which had been formed six years earlier.

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Extract from Miss Jemima Morrell's diary detailing the names of the first Swiss travel pioneers

At Chamonix they bought alpenstocks – long walking poles – before climbing 3,000 feet and crossing a glacier.

They scaled the frightening precipices of the Gemmi Pass and, after a stay in Interlaken, climbed more than 4,000 feet on their way to Grindelwald. They spent their last night in the mountains at the Rigi Kulm Hotel after a climb of 4,500 feet from the shores of Lake Lucerne. In total they climbed well over 20,000 feet.

On their way home they stayed for five days in Paris where a group portrait, showing the clothes they walked in, was taken in a photographic studio.

This diary is one of the treasures of the Thomas Cook archives and to mark the trip’s centenary it was published in 1963 as “Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal”.

An early Thomas Cook party in the Swiss Alps

Only the group’s Christian names were known until the Rigi Hotel’s guest register was examined during a centenary re-enactment holiday later in the same year.

Over the past 15 years, Denis Jones, of Dorchester Road, Garstang, has been giving a slideshow to local groups entitled “In Miss Jemima’s Footsteps” which traces her journey using old picture postcards.

He has ended with the group’s Paris photo saying that, with the exceptions of Miss Jemima and her brother, Thomas Cook did not know who was who but that by careful reading of the diary he could identify them as Eliza Bell, William and Jemima Morrell, Tom Vickers, Sarah Ayres, James Mead and Mary Bell. Thomas Cook’s archivist has recently agreed with his explanation.

The most exciting discovery followed a talk at Garstang Library in March 2015 when a member of the audience drew attention to an illustration of the Rigi Hotel register showing the word “Garstang” alongside the entry “The Misses Bell”.

Thomas Cook

At first it seemed amazing that there should be a Garstang connection but a chat to local historian Dr Brenda Fox revealed that her 2014 book “Garstang, The Independent Chapel / Congregational Church c l777-1900” included a chapter about the Bell family in Garstang.

Eliza and Mary were two of seven children of Dr William and Janet Bell who had moved from Scotland to Great Eccleston in 1819 and to Garstang in 1829.

In Garstang they lived at 16 Chapel Street (now 72 Church Street) where Dr Bell practised as surgeon, vaccinator and medical officer.

He became a Freeman of the Borough of Garstang in 1864 and was elected as bailiff, the town’s highest office, in 1866.

Extract from Miss Jemima Morrell's diary detailing the names of the first Swiss travel pioneers

How the sisters came to know Miss Jemima (who lived in Selby, near York) is unclear but it is known that Mary visited Yorkshire to raise funds for the Garstang chapel.

In 1871 Mary married the Reverend Thomas Hamer, of Manchester, who had been brought up in Scorton. In the early 1880s they lived in Bonds for three years before moving to Little Lever, near Bolton. Mary died in 1891, aged 52.

Eliza, who never married, left Garstang to act as housekeeper for her brother James, a Manchester pharmacist. She died in 1919 aged 88.

Both sisters, with other family members, are buried in the churchyard of what is now Garstang United Reformed Church. They may not have become as famous as their friend Miss Jemima but they were part of one of the landmark events in the history of travel.

These details about the Bell family are now part of the Thomas Cook Archives but any further information readers may have would be most welcome. Please contact either Brenda Fox (01995 604523) or Denis Jones (01995 602665).

An early Thomas Cook party in the Swiss Alps
Thomas Cook