A Tribute to John Murray III

John Murray III

John Murray III


You are probably curious who on earth is John Murray III and why should I pay tribute to him?  John Murray III is the grandson of the famous English publisher John Murray I of John Murray & Sons of London Publishers Ltd. He published the works of Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, and Lord Byron, just to name a few.  John Murray III is the focus of this post because of the enormous impact he has had on modern day travel.  As discussed in my last blog post travel guides are a critical part of travel and it’s John Murray III who we should thank for their existence.

John Murray III is known for his seminal work A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: Holland, Belgium, Prussia, and Northern Germany published in 1836.  This was the first travel guide published for interested travelers that documented a destination to enable the reader to make informed decisions about conducting a similar trip.  The success of Murray’s first travel guide spurred the creation of a series called Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers, also known as Red Books that would grow to cover nearly all of Europe, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Syria and as far away as Japan.

John Murray III studied geology and mineralogy at the University of Edinburgh and traveled extensively throughout Scotland during his years as a student.  It was during these trips that John explored creating a guide that would cater to those interested in traveling when travel was becoming cheaper.  Following John’s studies at university, he traveled to the Continent, which led to the development of the first modern day travel guide, Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers.  One of John’s notable trips was to hand deliver a copy of Lord Byron’s Marino Faliero to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar, Germany, both of whom were clients of John’s family business.   The publication of Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers came when long-distance travel was becoming easier and more obtainable to those who could afford it, thanks in part to the Industrial Revolution.  John Murray III, the pioneer he was, could identify a future market for travel guides and fill that need.  Before the 1830s long-distance travel was conducted primarily by pilgrims for religious purposes or those involved in commerce, and thus not seen as an enjoyable or leisurely experience.

John’s credit as the founder of the modern day travel guide is not without controversy.  There are several others who had published travel guides around the same time, most notably Karl Baedeker II, who published travel guides starting in the 1860s, several years after the initial publishing of Murray’s Handbooks.  The Baedekers claimed in an interview with the Pall Mall Gazette on August 23, 1889, that they brought travel guide writing ‘to the level of fine art’, but admit in that same interview they used the framework established by Murray’s Handbooks for the basis of their own travel guide series.  Other novels of travel experiences existed but none that could be considered travel guides.

I got a digital version of the 1838 second edition of A Handbook of Travellers on the Continent: Holland, Belgium, Prussia, and Northern Germany, courtesy of www.archive.org.  What impressed me most was the detail and relevance of the information that was presented in each country’s section, almost exactly what modern day travel guides present.  John explained his process for developing each section by consulting the wants and conveniences of travelers.  John’s approach was novel in that he methodically explored a destination and presented the information he collected in a simplified manner so as not overwhelm travelers but allow them to make informed decisions.  I reviewed the Holland section, which went over the essentials such as passports, money, custom-house (modern-day equivalent of passport control), travel in Holland, travel by water, consumption of the water, inns, general view of Holland, canals, picture galleries, and some peculiarities of Dutch manners.  They then followed this by an exploration of possible routes from London to Holland and then several routes throughout Holland.  The level of detail and its simplified presentation are impressive for the time and provide anyone interested in traveling to Holland an overview of what to expect.  Some editions included maps.

Throughout his career, at his family’s publishing company John saved all of his vacation time to go travel, something I admire and try to do myself.  John eventually hired specialists to write handbooks as the series expanded into other parts of the world.  As the popularity of Murray’s Handbooks for Travellers grew this caused other publishers to produce rival guides.  Once such guide was Cook’s Travellers Handbooks of the now world-famous Thomas Cook travel agents. The rights to Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers were acquired in 1915 by Blue Guides.

Next time you are planning a trip or traveling and you reach for your travel guide, think of John Murray III and his pioneering spirit that led to the creation of the modern travel guide.  John’s desire to travel paved the way for future generations of travelers and I dedicate this post in his honor.