Harry Gill was born in 1858, the sixth child of Thomas and Margaret Gill, flax manufacturers of Summerbridge, Nidderdale. The whole family were closely involved with the Wesleyan Methodist movement; Harry was a lay preacher and class leader from 1881. When Harry travelled from his home in Nidderdale on the Steam Yacht Argonaut in 1899 to visit Greece, the Holy Land and Egypt, it was the trip of a lifetime; he would visit the places that he was familiar with from the Bible. In effect his journey was a pilgrimage.
Throughout his voyage, he wrote frequent letters to his fiancée, Maggie, who lived in Derbyshire, signing off most letters with “from your faraway Laddie”. All the letters were written on headed notepaper supplied by World Travel. He also took more than seventy photographs. These personal letters and photos had been kept in the family, together with souvenirs and mementoes of the trip. From these items, it was possible to work out the itinerary of the cruise and Harry’s impressions of the people and places he visited.
The Steam Yacht Argonaut was operated by Henry Lunn’s company, World Travel and it was a magnificent vessel: a newspaper at the time carried a promotional article about the forthcoming cruise.
This cruise was an early package tour which was intended to inform and educate passengers. There was enough accommodation for up to 120 passengers and 120 crew. Argonaut had electric lighting and a large refrigerated food store. It had been newly fitted out with new boilers and quadruple-expansion engines. The facilities on board were first class, the food was wonderful, concerts and lectures were organised and there were opportunities to exercise. The promenade deck was large enough to play quoits or cricket; lost balls incurred a fine (according to Harry many balls went overboard!) There were several official group photographs taken by the company which could be purchased by passengers. These appeared in the holiday album compiled by Harry and Maggie on his return.
When the party was unable to land on the Island of Patmos a group of ministers and preachers read the whole of the Book of Revelations, all twenty-two chapters. They visited the places associated with St. Paul such as Corinth and Athens. According to Harry there were seventeen ministers, an Episcopalian and an Evangelist.
Of interest, was the number of photographs that Harry took. Up to this point photographs were taken using plate cameras, generally by professional or gentleman photographers. In the late 1880s George Eastman patented celluloid roll film for use in the Kodak camera. His tag line was “You press the shutter and we do the rest”. For the first time the user could take holiday ‘snaps’. In 1898 Kodak patented a day-light loading folding pocket camera; it is probable that this may have been the type of camera that Harry used. This camera was the Victorian equivalent of the iPad.
Harry took photographs of shepherds with their dogs in Greece, traffic in Marseilles, the eruption of Vesuvius, leper women at Bethany and Bedouin locust killers in the Jordanian desert. Everything that he saw would be so different from life in Nidderdale and his letters and images convey his fascination with these experiences but he always professed that there was no place as wonderful as Yorkshire or Derbyshire.
He brought back water from the River Jordan, lace from Malta, pressed flowers from the Garden of Gethsemane and even some of the locusts to show to Maggie on his return. Maggie and Harry married on 31st August 1899 and the water from River Jordan was used to baptize their six children and some of his grandchildren.
The photograph of the travellers in Egypt was taken by the tour organisers; Harry notes that “We had our photos taken on camels a few of us, they are not particularly good but the Pyramid & Sphinx for background are excellent so shall buy one”.
Harry wrote the first letter of his journey from on board the Argonaut in Marseilles on 28th March 1899. It was Holy Week and the whole trip lasted for just over four weeks. The letters shared his impressions of the people and places that he encountered on the way. To preserve the original letters, I photographed and then transcribed them so that they could be archived along with the photo album where they had been kept.
It is obvious from the letters that post was received and sent throughout the journey at various ports of call. Sadly none of the ones from England have been kept so this is a one-sided correspondence. You can read my transcriptions of Harry’s letters by clicking on the link under ‘Downloads’ at the bottom of this page.