Travel Thursday: Thomas Thomson in Sweden

Sweden map smWritten by Louise Cowan, Trainee Liaison Librarian

This week’s Travel Thursday takes us to Sweden with eminent scientist Thomas Thomson.  As the first teacher of practical chemistry in a British university and an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (Morrell, 2004) it is no surprise that much of Thomson’s travelogue has a scientific focus.

In particular, Thomson devotes a considerable amount of his work to mineralogical observations and detailed descriptions of the mines he visits on his journey.  One such mine is the copper works at Fahlun, one of the oldest in Sweden, which Thomson describes as being 200 fathoms deep and constructed, “according to very scientific and sound principles.”  The maps accompanying his description are wonderfully detailed and were “copied from a very accurate set of charts of this mine, constructed by Baron Hermelin.”  Interestingly, the mine remained open until 1992 and is now a Unesco World Heritage site

Perpendicular section of the copper mine at Fahlun

Perpendicular section of the copper mine at Fahlun

(Falu Gruva, 2014) meaning travellers to Sweden today are still able to tour the mines as Thomson did over one hundred years ago!


Thomson’s scientific interests were also piqued during his time in the Swedish capitol, Stockholm.  In particular, he remarked that the Academy of Sciences, “deserves to be visited by every scientific foreigner who goes to Stockholm.”  It does indeed sound like a fascinating place with an interesting variety of objects. For example, among their collections could be found a piece of bread which in “some parts of Norway and the north of Sweden is made of the bark of trees.”

Elsewhere in Stockholm, Thomson also marvelled at the curious collections in the Arsenal, especially the “the clothes and hat worn by Charles XII when he was shot in the trenches before Frederickshall,” which remained bloodstained from the fatal wounds. He visited most of the churches the city had to offer but did “not consider it as worthwhile to give a particular description of them,” and finally found the perfect spot to view the city – a magnificent bridge joining the central island of Stockholm to the main continent:

When you stand upon this bridge and look south, the King’s palace immediately strikes the eye, a building of immense extent, and seen with peculiar advantage from the bridge.  Toward the east, the inlet of the Baltic stretches itself before the eye covered with ships, and thick scatted with barges plying from place to place under the direction of women; for the boats in Stockholm are all rowed by women.

stockholm map sm

Map of Stockholm, 1812

Again Thomson provides a beautifully detailed map to help illustrate his descriptions.  This map of Stockholm was copied from one published by Fr. Akiel in 1795 and although it had been updated and was considered one of the most accurate maps of the town, Thomson believed, “the style is somewhat blameable, as not sufficiently distinguishing between what is town and what fields.  His object seems to have been to swell the town as much as possible, and conceal its real dimensions from the eye.”  Thomson therefore made several corrections in his own copy.

Overall, Thomson travelled more than 1200 miles in a short seven weeks and though his descriptions of the sights and collections he encounters across Sweden are full of lively detail and interest, it is of course the human stories that provide the colour and character to the narrative; from the wily Olof Essen, a spoke-maker who treated Thomson very ungenerously “with regard to the rate at which he let us have horses from Lilla Oby to Oby;” to the group of English sailors in Stockholm who “had all got quite drunk and had fallen together by the ears, to the number of ten or twelve in the middle of the street, and raised a clamour that was quite diabolical.” Thomson was so mortified by this particular scene that he went so far as to claim:

In most Englishmen who travel, as far as I have had an opportunity of observing them, there is an unaccountable wish to let foreigners, with whom they associate, know that they despise them.

On a lighter note, one of my favourite pieces of the human story in Thomson’s travelogue comes at the end, in an appendix chart showing the population and professions of Sweden:


Total number of chocolate makers? One – but he is a master of his art!



Thomson, Thomas (1813) Travels in Sweden during the autumn of 1812. London: Robert Baldwin [Overstone 26F/23 – available upon request]

Jack Morrell, ‘Thomson, Thomas (1773–1852)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006 [, accessed 6 July 2016]

Falu Gruva (2014) Welcome to Fahlun Mine

New acquisition: a collection of rare agricultural pamphlets

Written by Erika Delbecque, UMASCS Librarian

We are delighted to announce the purchase of a collection of twenty-two rare agricultural pamphlets from the mid-19th century. These works, which relate to the agricultural innovations and economics of this period, will enhance our existing collection strengths in British agricultural history.


A report of the discussion on drainage, 1848

The collection includes rare works on early applications of agricultural chemistry, studies of production and demand, and farmers’ reports on the use of new agricultural equipment. They provide a unique insight into the economic and technological developments in British agriculture in the mid-19th century, a pivotal period that marked the final stages of the British Agricultural Revolution.

Key innovations of this period that are represented include the improvement of agricultural drainage systems and the development of new fertilisers beside manure, such as guano (seabird excrement), sodium nitrates and potash. Another pamphlet promotes George Dollond’s “atmospheric recorder”, a type of weather station that records variations in air pressure, temperature, and humidity, for which he was awarded the council medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

An engraved plate showing Dollond's atmospheric recorder, 1845

An engraved plate showing Dollond’s atmospheric recorder, 1845

Not all innovations were as successful. One pamphlet deals with the promotion of the alpaca as a profitable alternative to other breeding stock in England, claiming that the alpaca is “as fat as any sheep I ever saw” and that the animals “never ramble from their hill pasture”. In case alpacas are not of interest, the advertisers add that they also sell “turtle alive, or ready cooked and securely packed in jars”…

The Alpaca, with a wood-engraved illustration, 1844

The Alpaca, with a wood-engraved illustration, 1844

Most of the pamphlets were written by enthusiastic farmers or promoters of new farming methods and agricultural equipment. It was through cheap, often locally printed pamphlets such as these that farmers could keep on top of these developments. Therefore, pamphlets from this period are an important historical source for studying the dissemination of agricultural innovations.

These pamphlets were part of the collection of Sir Walter Gilbey (1831–1914), who was the president of the Royal Agricultural Society of England in the late nineteenth century. He donated his collection to the Society in 1896, where they remained until they were sold along with the rest of the RASE collections in 2014.

The pamphlets will now be processed and catalogued, and then join the rest of our extensive MERL book collections. The library and archives at the Museum of English Rural Life are recognised as one of the most important collections in the country for the study of the history of British agriculture, the countryside and rural society. All items can be consulted in our reading room.

This purchase was generously funded by the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries.