Posted by: billpurdue | July 8, 2015

Tonic Sol-fa-ists and Puggarees

Travel writing as a genre doesn’t always excite me, but if it has anything to do with railways, then it’s a bit different. So the title “Three Men and a Bradshaw” attracted me as the name Bradshaw of course refers to the Victorian railway guide publisher, George Bradshaw, which over the past few years, Michael Portillo, in his ‘Great Railway Journeys’ series of TV programmes has got a lot of people excited about.

This book is subtitled “an original Victorian travel journal” and the original writer of the journal is John George Freeman. The book was discovered by Shaun Sewell at an auction and has been edited by Ronnie Scott who has added various notes in the margins to explain some of the language and add a little to the historical information. The journal is a series of accounts of holidays in various parts of Great Britain – beginning with Jersey, followed by North Devon, North Wales, Scotland (mainly Perthshire and Edinburgh) and finally South Wales, these holidays having been taken from 1873 to 1877.

John and his two brothers were in the habit of taking their annual holidays together and presumably planned their routes with reference to Bradshaw’s Guide. The actual text of the journal does not refer to Bradshaw’s and it seems that the travellers often called at the railway station, wherever they happened to be, to ascertain the train times. With one exception, their holiday always begins and ends with a railway journey, although their main method of getting from A to B (as they rarely stayed on one place for long) was walking. The distance travelled on foot in one day was sometimes quite high – in one case it was 24 miles and even the writer states that this distance was exceptional. So much walking, especially during indifferent weather, might seem a toil of pleasure these days.


The reader soon finds out quite a lot about the brothers – they were ardent non-conformists and made a point of attending a service of worship twice on Sundays, whether on holiday or not. They were also keen users of the method of learning music by the Tonic Sol-fa system, which was a method of sight reading music using the syllables ‘do, re, mi etc for the notes. In fact they were very keen choir members and thought nothing of bursting into song during their walks, sometimes to the consternation of the local people within earshot.

Another thing which seems to have amused the local people was the puggaree worn by the brothers to keep off the strong sunshine. If you look up images of puggarees, you will find that this name covers a wide range of hats in all shapes and materials. What the hats all have in common is a kind of wide band around the hat.

Although it contains little to excite the railway fan, I really enjoyed this book: there’s no plot or surprise conclusion, just a thoroughly absorbing insight into the Victorians on holiday.

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