New online catalogue for the archive of the British Guild of Travel Writers – insights from the Project Archivist

Originally, the project to catalogue the British Guild of Travel Writers’ Archive started in March 2020, with its completion designed to coincide with the Guild’s sixtieth anniversary celebrations. However, Covid interrupted that plan and we had to pause for quite some time, but cataloguing is now complete, and the catalogue of the archive is now available online.

To view the online catalogue of the collection, go to http://calmarchivecat.surrey.ac.uk/calmview/ and using the Advanced Search, put the collection reference BGTW in the Ref No search field. The catalogue is a guide to the collection, those interested in seeing the actual content should come and explore the materials in person in our Research Room as the collection items are not available to view online.

It is a tribute to the Guild that its archive has been preserved so extensively. Much of the credit for that is due to those members who have acted as the Guild’s Archivist, namely Kenneth Westcott Jones, Russell Chamberlin, and (currently) John Ruler. Thanks to their efforts, the Guild’s archive is now preserved at the University of Surrey not only for consultation by the Guild’s own members, but also for research into the history of tourism and travel writing generally.

A folder of documents prior to cataloguing work commencing

The custodians of the Guild’s records had helpfully devised their own archive classification scheme. This scheme is, I hope, reflected in the final arrangement of the online catalogue, though the online version inevitably differs because of the need to include a wide a range of material in a comparatively short project timescale.

Not everything is available for consultation. The Guild is an active membership organisation whose archives run up almost to the present. In managing archive collections, the need to protect administrative confidentiality and to fulfil the legal requirements of data protection, means that some records have had to be closed to public access for varying periods. So, if you spot gaps in the numbering of the online catalogue or certain inconsistencies in the covering dates of records, this is likely to be the reason.

Nevertheless, what is available provides a wealth of information for research into the Guild’s history, and the development of travel writing since the middle of the twentieth century.

Here can be found early editions of ‘Go’ magazine from the late 1950s, in the period running up to Guild’s foundation in 1960. ‘Go’ was a holiday and travel publication edited by Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Portham (the Guild’s first Chairman), and the copies in BGTW/2/6/2 include articles by Kenneth Westcott Jones. The circumstances in which the Guild was founded are reflected in letters from Thomas Cook & Sons, at whose premises the early meetings of the travel writers took place; there are records of the Guild’s earliest Committee meetings (BGTW/1/1/1), and correspondence from founder members (BGTW/1/2/1).

Images of ‘Go’ Magazine (Ref No BGTW/2/6/2, January/February 1955, May 1958)

An example of the new Guild’s desire to represent its members’ interests is demonstrated by correspondence between Geoffrey Portham and the BBC dating from 1961. Portham wrote to the BBC to complain about an item on the Tonight programme, which he claimed ‘…the objects of this Guild and its members’ activities were cynically distorted’. Portham was evidently happy with the BBC’s response, and followed up by inviting the Corporation’s Director of Television Broadcasting to address the Guild’s membership – and to meet Portham for lunch (BGTW/1/3/1).

Correspondence between the Guild of Travel Writers and the BBC, 1961 (Ref No BGTW/1/3/1)

Well-preserved as the Guild’s archives are, many of the papers were still in a considerable state of confusion when cataloguing commenced. One of the many satisfying aspects of the BGTW project was being able to place stray Committee agenda and minute papers and Guild Newsletters in their correct position in the archival hierarchy. Thus, it was possible to restore a stray undated Newsletter to its correct chronological position in BGTW/3/1/1 because it contained a brief reference to the acceptance into the Guild of explorer and writer Tim Severin. A check of the Membership lists showed that Severin joined the Guild at some point between September and December 1967.

One is struck on looking through the Guild’s records at how much administrative work its officers undertake. BGTW/1/3/1-3 contain a significant amount of correspondence recording the Guild’s activities in the 1960s, which it was possible to collate from various other parts in the archive. Much of the correspondence emanated from John Carter, the Guild’s Secretary and Chairman during this period.

The archive contains a long run of Guild Committee minutes, and near complete runs of membership lists and Yearbooks (now the British Guild of Travel Writers Directory). The membership lists are interesting in showing the way in which the records of travel writers’ activities have changed (and stayed the same): writers in the 1960s and 1970s made contributions to books, guides, television, newspapers, and magazines; today they contribute increasingly to online resources; an interest in food or hiking is nothing new; an interest in LGBTQ travel is.

There are a number of files on individual members in BGTW/2/2. The files contain obituaries, press cuttings, and related material, and the largest of them is devoted to Kenneth Westcott Jones, including over a hundred photographs. The file on Otto Herschan, one of the Guild’s first Treasurers, contains a letter from Herschan pointing out that he had been omitted from a list of surviving founder members published in the Guild Newsletter, GlobeTrotter, in 1999: Herschan had, he wrote to a Guild official, inadvertently been ‘relegated to the next world’. The official in question was Adele Evans, many years Herschan’s junior, whose obituary sadly is also included here: Evans, according to her tribute in GlobeTrotter was ‘an ineffable blend of joy, verve, vivacity and merriment. Throw in a stiff macchiato, a glass of Champagne, a puff of smoke, and you have Adele’.

Both Kenneth Westcott Jones and Adele Evans are commemorated in awards currently issued by the BGTW, and correspondence in the collection shows the way the BGTW’s awards have developed, and the important place they now hold in the work of the Guild. A number of objects in the collection include examples of Guild awards, such as the Trophy for Most Innovative Travel Feature (BGTW/7/3).

Trophy for Most Innovative Travel Feature, sponsored by Virgin Publishing Ltd. The trophy is a pen and inkwell in silver on a wooden mount (Ref No. BGTW/7/3)

The correspondence in BGTW/1/5 (correspondence with non-Guild organisations) is of interest in showing the history of links between the Guild and outside bodies, such as the Society of American Travel Writers, ABTA and FIJET; and the professional development files (BGTW/4/1) demonstrate the emphasis the Guild has placed ever since the 1960s on social events, visits, press trips, and training (including an early emphasis on developing members’ IT skills).

In conclusion, the British Guild of Travel Writers Archive not only provides valuable insights into the development of the travel and tourism industry over the course of the past sixty years, and numerous examples of original creative travel writing, it is also a record of how a membership organisation develops, responds to change, and collaborates over time.

Who knows what changes the next sixty years will bring?!

Martin Woodward, Project Archivist, British Guild of Travel Writers