Cockneys in Iceland

The Cockney Tourist, or Where Shall We Go To? © Look and Learn / Peter Jackson Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Earlier last week, I completed a working draft of one of my thesis’ chapters. Its subject matter is a bit different from what I’ve been writing about in previous months, because I more closely address trends in travel and travel literature rather than the travellers’ interactions with the environment around them. Here’s an edited (and de-annotated, so comment for further reading) version of the introduction to this chapter:

After the Napoleonic Wars, as continental Europe reopened to British travel during the 1820s, there came to be an exaggerated perception that sightseers were swarming sites of the Grand Tour, previously inaccessible due to both military and socioeconomic barriers. Many aristocratic Britons considered this type of tourist, the mere excursionist, distinct from themselves, the sophisticated travellers more interested in natural history, authentic culture, and exploration. Iceland, with its near-mythical  frigidity (reinforced by its name), was an exception to Europe’s trend of ‘tourification’ for several decades; it did not, for example, attract tourists concurrently with comparably developed regions of Scandinavia like Finland, which saw transitions by the mid-nineteenth century. Since the late eighteenth century, only a certain type of traveller had sailed to Iceland to study the island, and the journey’s difficulty, both perceived and real, had precluded most common vacationists from making the trip.

The so-called ‘discerning’ traveller visited Iceland for other reasons than pure leisure: Gaps in scientific knowledge of Iceland, a voguish British interest in Saga literature, and the romantic appeal of roughing it kept a fair number of travellers and even explorers interested in Iceland until after 1860, at a time when much of the travel through Europe was concentrated on seeing popular marvels and scenes in large groups. Around this period, steamboats began taking more of the British bourgeoisie on scheduled routes to Reykjavik for quick trips to a few attractions, and upper class travellers often referred to such tourists as ‘cockneys’, connoting effeminacy, crass urbanite sensibility, and adherence to the conveniently beaten track at all times. The more elitist travellers to Iceland began writing of the damage perpetrated by ordinary tourists, lamenting the effects of cockney tourists on the island and its residents. This trend in travel literature leads to the question of whether, in their explicit criticism of ‘the Cockney tour[ist]’, such aristocratic travellers were engaging in a classist disdain for the commoner or commenting on the threats of social and environmental degradation that come with mass tourism.

Southern Iceland © Jure Kravanja

Both seem to have occurred, with the irony that the author himself (and we are dealing predominantly with men) frequently made the same trips and observations as his targets of disapproval, at times also contributing to ecological damage—albeit more often in the name of scientific inquiry. It was not until the 1880s that travelogues from tourists who might have been labeled as cockneys by contemporaries were published in Britain. The different emphases the authors place on their experiences in Iceland are often used to distinguish themselves from previous visitors and to display their own authenticity. Whether or not the travel writers classified themselves and others in stark terms, their disapproval or endorsement of certain behavior as Britons in Iceland points toward their ideals of travel as a cultural activity. In this chapter, which I will share more of in upcoming posts, I consider the disparaging language chosen to denigrate tourists in the European and Icelandic context, and analyze British conceptions of the range of traveller types based on their rhetoric and the self-recorded actions in their books.

5 thoughts on “Cockneys in Iceland

  1. Pingback: The Guidebook and the Beaten Track (Part 1) | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Travel, Tourism and Hospitality in Iceland | Startup Iceland

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