Evolution of the Westminster Abbey Guidebook
Guidebooks are an important part of any tourist attraction visit and have been for several hundred years. They started out as catalogues of the items that were on display and have evolved into the all-encompassing information books that we see today. Following a chance encounter with an older version of the Westminster Abbey Guide outside of work, I started to think about the origins of our best-selling product and thanks to the Westminster Abbey Library I was able to chart its history.
The first guide to the Abbey was produced in 1600 and was written by William Camden who was librarian of the Abbey from 1587-97. The book was 84 pages long and was written in Latin. It was not sold on site at the Abbey but it provided a comprehensive guide to the many monuments that could be found within it. This was reprinted twice in the subsequent years and was succeeded by many other guides over the years as the Abbey grew as a visitor attraction.
Our present day guidebooks can be seen to have its roots in a book that was published in 1885 called The Popular Guide to Westminster Abbey which was also known as The Deanery Guide to Westminster Abbey. It was sold at the Abbey and was written by the Bradley sisters who were daughters of Dr G.G. Bradley who was Dean of Westminster from 1881 - 1902. The original co-authors of the book afterwards become Mrs Alexander Murray Smith and Lady Birchenough. The book included an introduction from Dean Bradley and line drawings and an architectural study by A. J. Grahame. The book covers each section of the Abbey, the North Transept, the Nave and so on, and describes the general history alongside a description of all the monuments. The book uses an easy to follow structure and ends with a full index of all the monuments that could be found in the Abbey.
This book went on to be reprinted numerous times with Mrs Murray Smith adding to and amending the guide up until her death in 1946. The most obvious changes started with the 1894 edition when black and white photos began to be introduced alongside the existing line drawings. As can be seen in the photo below, during the early 20th century the inside cover and first page of the book were filled with adverts promoting anything from hair oil to lightning conductors. This clearly subsidised the cost of printing the book and helped to keep it at the reasonable price of one shilling (which would be around £3.13 in today’s money). This would have been crucial during the war years as people were struggling financially and feeling the effect of rationing.
In 1965 the guidebook appeared in a completely new format with a colour photograph on the cover, glossier paper and new photographs. The foreword of the book states that despite the guide by the Bradley sisters being of “great use and value” it is time for a “complete revision”. It stated that the new version is “largely rewritten, dates have been checked and a more representative selection of illustrations” had been added. Despite the many changes that were made it still retained the tone of the older version and elements of the text can still be seen across the chapters, however it now included sections relating to the Cloisters, the Bells and the Abbey flags.
Further revisions were made to this format over the years by different Keepers of the Muniments and Librarians to allow for the inclusion of the latest information based on scholarly research. Despite the constant revisions it was still never able to claim a full list of every burial within the Abbey church and precincts, as a complete record of this has never been compiled.
By the late 1990s the book was very different from where it had started as it now included colour illustrations and plans alongside colour photographs. It also included timelines and helpful information like a list of the Abbots and Deans of Westminster who have presided over the Abbey over the centuries. It looked at the Abbey’s precincts (the gardens, the Cloisters and Dean’s Yard) in much greater detail than ever before, with the inclusion of photographs.
During the 20th century a pictorial guide to Westminster Abbey was also produced, much more of a souvenir product for the tourist visitor. This format was developed for visitor attractions across the country, and featured more accessible text and plenty of photographs. Moving into the 21st century, and these two books, the ‘Official Guide’ and the ‘Pictorial Guide’, have been substantially redesigned and updated to better cater to the more sophisticated tourist visitor.
As such we have now created a larger format Treasures of Westminster Abbey, providing a detailed study of the tombs, memorials and gravestones that can be seen at the Abbey, covering each section of the building in the order in which the church was built and complemented by beautiful photography. The Souvenir Guide provides an engaging overview of the Abbey’s history, with a section on each area of the Abbey and of course illustrated with many photographs.
Both of these titles are available to purchase here.