Victorian Packing


One of the enjoyable parts of researching and writing The Sacred River was thinking about what the three characters take with them. Leaving London in thick fog, in January 1882, Harriet, Louisa and Yael all have different hopes and fears about their journey and their destination – Egypt. Each packs accordingly.

Twenty-three-year old Harriet, the youngest traveller, takes her dog, the red, leather bound journal in which she writes her own spells, and travel bottles of inks. Yael, Harriet’s aunt, takes her Bible and her peppermints as well as a black umbrella, which she can use rain or shine. Louisa, Harriet’s troubled mother, forgets a spare packet of hairpins but takes unsuitable shoes and a pistol.

Actress Sarine Sofair playing Harriet Heron, in Luxor

Actress Sarine Sofair playing Harriet Heron, in Luxor, for the trailer for The Sacred River

The Cook’s  handbook of the period, for the Nile and the desert, recommended that women take ‘a good woollen costume, not heavy; one or two of light texture; and a serviceable dark silk.’ The serviceable silk sounds like the little black dress of today, the one that can be rolled up.

Other necessities were cold cream, eau de cologne and brandy, any of which might still be useful. The ‘small, strong writing case with writing materials’ is probably less so but an off-the-beaten-track traveller might still benefit from the advice to pack needles, buttons, soap and a compass.

Many Victorian women travelled and many of those who did so wrote about it. Often, they describe what they took with them. Mary Kingsley begins her engaging book about her travels in west Africa by describing her preparations.

‘I was too distracted to buy anything new in the way of baggage except a long waterproof sack neatly closed at the top with a bar and handle.  Into this I put blankets, boots, books, in fact anything that would not go into my portmanteau or black bag.  From the first I was haunted by a conviction that its bottom would come out, but it never did, and in spite of the fact that it had ideas of its own about the arrangement of its contents, it served me well throughout my voyage.’

Mary Kingsley

Mary Kingsley

Miss Kingsley took quinine – for use against malaria, and a phrase book including such useful translations as: “Why has not this man been buried?”  “It is fetish that has killed him, and he must lie here exposed with nothing on him until only the bones remain.” This may have been useful to her, as she was studying traditional belief systems.

Kate Marsden, setting off to minister to lepers in Siberia, took food as well as warm clothes. She was sustained by boxes of sardines and biscuits, bread, tea and ‘quantities of good, solid, old-English plum pudding’. In the introduction to her subsequent book On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers, 1892, she credits avoidance of alcohol, and use of Jaeger woollens with seeing her through the privations of the trip. ‘Humanly speaking, I believe I owe my life to this abstinence, and also to Jaeger clothing without which it would have been quite impossible to go through all the change of climate and to remain for weeks together without changing my clothes.’

Miss Marsden and her companion Anna Field suffered anyway, with icicles freezing on her friend’s veil. Miss Field abandoned the trip at Omsk (I happen to have been to Omsk and can vouch for the freezing temperatures there) while Miss Marsden travelled onwards, with her watch, her whistle and a herb reputed to have magical healing properties.

Many of the Victorian women travellers were wealthy, hence Lillias Campbell Davidson’s oft-quoted remark that taking a maid was a ‘great nuisance’ unless she could travel first class like her employer. The author of the excellent Hints to Lady Travellers – first published in 1889 – gave a sunburn remedy involving the application of sour milk and advised packing dark-coloured petticoats that didn’t show the dirt.

Mary French Sheldon, an American heiress called Lady Boss by her many porters, arrived at Zanzibar dressed in a walking suit and equipped for an assault on Mount Kilimanjaro with a medicine chest, a spy glass and a ball dress embroidered with rhinestones.

Perhaps what equipped all these travellers more than the items that they carried with them was attitude. The privations and hardships many of them endured, the real risks they encountered, were considerable. Explorer Samuel Baker, writing of his wife Florence Baker, who he had reputedly first fallen in love with and purchased in a Hungarian slave market, remarked that ‘she had a share of sang froid admirably adapted for African travel… Mrs Baker is not a screamer.’


Lady Florence Baker


Read the first chapter ofThe Sacred River here.


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