Whilst today it is a popular summer destination, in mid-Victorian Britain, Cornwall was a region that only attracted the most dedicated travellers. When the popular sensation novel writer Wilkie Collins journeyed to the far South-West in the 1850s, he accordingly entitled the account of his adventures Rambles Beyond Railways, or, Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot. Accompanied by the artist Henry Brandling, Collins was clearly seeking to capture Cornwall’s more aloof and suspenseful qualities. In this lively account, he discusses local superstitions, impressive rock formations, and the shortcomings of reaching a place beyond the known.

The Devon & Exeter Institution is lucky to hold a first edition copy of Collins’ Cornish travels, published by Richard Bentley in 1851. The cover is unassuming— Collins himself noted “I have made it as neat as I can,” choosing a “coat of decent cloth.” However, his fellow traveler Henry Brandling’s charming lithographs mark the volume out as work of visual interest. Brandling’s predilection for capturing rock formations such as the cliffs of Land’s End, the Tintagel promontory, and the famous “Cheese Wring” tor on Bodmin Moor, (complete with a comparatively small depiction of Collins to emphasize the edifice’s enormity), betrays a desire to focus on the historic geology and non-industrial drama of the Cornish landscape. The illustrator’s aesthetic was in-keeping with the author’s designs. Collins described Cornwall as “untrodden ground,” depicting the far South-West as a place untampered by human interference. This was a characterization that sometimes betrayed the evidence in front of him. When he later made a special expedition to Botallack Mine, he made sure to suggest it was “as extraordinary as the first view of the Cheese-Wring,” and as he recounted the moments spent within this industrial monument, he appeared to be mesmerized by the mine’s fantastic qualities, as a space “under the bottom of the sea,” where a “low, mysterious moaning” could be heard. In its very first iteration, Collins’ work was a piece of nostalgia and romanticism, a sensibility that haunts the illustrations and the text.

Throughout the volume, Collins makes a feature out of Cornwall’s particularism and its remoteness, declaring the train “stops short at Plymouth, and shrinks from penetrating to the savage regions beyond!” In parallel, he suggests the eccentricity of himself and Brandling in journeying to such a place, arguing his friends had suggested he should avoid such a “dreary country,” where he might be “robbed and maltreated” by “wreckers and smugglers,” and instead visit a place “where other people went,” such as “the Lakes of Killarney, to Wales, to Devonshire.” In such a vein, Collins tapped into the contemporary perception of the Cornish people, so frequently characterized as smugglers and reprobates by an urban population which not only rarely visited the area, but failed to understand the need to seize opportunities for food and goods. More emphatically, Collins argued “without entering into this question of the past […] “wrecking” is a crime unknown in the Cornwall of our day. So far from maltreating shipwrecked persons, the inhabitants of the sea-shore risk their lives to save them.” Moreover, he stated himself and Brandling had managed to wander “through districts inhabited only by the roughest and poorest classes, entirely unmolested.” Though mining had certainly helped Cornwall’s fortunes, life was still difficult in the mid nineteenth century. Collins was rare in recognizing Cornwall’s poverty, but also in refraining to demonize its inhabitants. At the same time, he might well have been adopting a slightly idealistic position in his praise. Latterly, the suggestion that Cornish people deliberately incited wrecks by carrying lanterns along the cliffs has largely been disproved, (most notably by Cathryn Pearce’s work on Cornish Wrecking), yet it is likely that they would have benefitted from wrecked and washed-up goods where this occurred. A contemporary prayer composed by the Reverend Troutbeck in relation to the nearby Isles of Scilly characterized this position:

We pray thee, Lord not that wrecks should happen, but if’ they do, thou wilt guide them to the Isles of Scilly for the benefit of the poor inhabitants…

Similarly, to highlight his point about Cornish hardship, Collins dedicated a specific chapter to “Cornish people,” left “to straggle in the rear of the great onward march of the busy world before them.” Moreover, he appears to understand their “traditional and superstitious” nature as a condition of the remoteness of their habitation: “the strong superstitious feelings of the ancient days of Cornwall still survive, and promise long to remain, handed down from father to son as heirlooms of tradition, gathered together in a remote period, and venerable in virtue of their antiquity.” Collins presents Cornwall as a place with rich ties to its past, left behind in the wake of modernity (his last chapter, Legends of the Northern Coast, highlights some of the lingering superstitions in question). Nonetheless, this was a county on the brink of great change. Collins’ dedicated account just preceded the advent of tourism. From the 1850s onwards, the Victorian predilection for the “home holiday” took hold, enabled by new travel innovations and increased leisure time. Indeed, for later editions, Collins acknowledged the account’s anachronistic name: shortly following Rambles publication, the growth of the train line had rendered the Beyond Railways title, and much of his whimsical musing, inaccurate. In 1861, he reflected:

…the title attached to these pages was strictly descriptive of the state of the county, when my companion and I walked through it. But when, little more than a year afterwards, a second edition of this volume was called for, the all-conquering railway had invaded Cornwall in the interval, and had practically contradicted me on my own title-page.

Despite his protestations that his travel journal was “strictly descriptive,” Collins’ Rambles was a sentimental account that captured the state of Cornwall’s fortunes at a particular point in time. His peaceful journey on foot just preceded more efficient and established options. Following this publication, the growing appetite for Cornish material became clear; “a second edition” was soon “called for,” to cater to, Collins’ implies, Cornwall’s new travellers, brought in by “the all-conquering railway” to examine the truth of his descriptions themselves.

-Beth Howell, Librarian.


Collins, Wilkie. Rambles Beyond Railways, (London: R. Bentley, 1851). S. W. Cupboard 1851 COL

Pearce, Cathryn J. Cornish Wrecking, 1700- 1860: Reality and Popular Myth, (Woodbridge; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2010), AC 387 PEA