When were country house guidebooks invented?

'The Beauties of Stow' c. 1750, part of the library collection at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire.

Britain’s first country house guidebooks were published in the middle of the eighteenth century, primarily because of the increasing – and unprecedented – numbers of tourists.

Eighteenth century tourists

As more and more turnpike roads were created and improved, travelling around Britain became faster and safer. With less risk of long delays, more people were able to travel for leisure.

By the end of the eighteenth century, clergymen, lawyers, military officers, bankers, merchants, minor landowners, and members of the aristocracy were all making tours. These often lasted several weeks and took in destinations ranging from the Lake District to factories.

Accommodating tourists

A crucial element of early tourism was the infrastructure that emerged to support tourists: inns were built to accommodate them, and many sites had guides available.

When tourists visited country houses, it usually fell to the housekeeper to show them around the inside of the house, after which a gardener would take over the tour.

The publication of guidebooks

Early country house guidebooks were designed to take advantage of this new market, and to build on the tours available at country houses. As products, the books were designed to be practical for the traveller: they were small and lightweight, often simply bound as pamphlets covered with marbled paper.

They presented information about the house and gardens according to the paths visitors were expected to follow. They also offered extensive information about the collections and spaces on display, such as the names of paintings, something tourists often accused housekeepers of not knowing.

Although only a handful of houses had their own guidebooks before 1800, these texts were popular. In 1744, Benton Seeley’s guide to Stowe was the first to be published, and it ran to over twenty editions within sixty years.

The ultimate souvenirs – and authorities

Travel literature was an extremely popular genre in the eighteenth century. Readers interested in Britain had a wide range of travel books to choose from, but country house guidebooks were unique. They could offer exceptionally detailed accounts, and because they were published with the tacit permission of owners, their authority on houses was unparalleled.

Although they have changed in many ways, country house guidebooks remain a similar power today.

Our places popular with eighteenth century tourists

A selection of National Trust guidebooks

Get hold of a guidebook 

Filled with gorgeous photos and illustrations and bursting with fascinating facts, our guidebooks to individual National Trust houses, gardens and countryside sites make perfect souvenirs and can help you get even more out of your next trip. Browse the ones we have on offer in the online shop.