120 years ago, a Victorian shopkeeper traveled around the world. Along the way, he kept an amazing diary that had reached to nine-volumes by the time he returned home 11 months later.
The Wandering Grocer is a blog dedicated to my great-great grandfather, William Whitehead (the Grocer) and his journey around the world in 1898 (the Wandering). William loved communicating with people and being aware of the latest news, so being a grocer may have been the ideal profession for him. From his shop at No. 58 Church Street, West Hartlepool, where he lived in the Northeast of England, William would have been at the center of all the local events, and just a 5-minute walk from the harbor of the 5th largest seaport in the country. Sooner or later, almost everyone from the town — and even far beyond — would have passed through his doors.
Born in Berwick-upon-Tweed to the north in 1847, William lived next to the sea his entire life, moving to West Hartlepool to apprentice as a Grocer and a Ships Chandler in the early 1860’s. For sure, the idea of sailing around the world must have occurred to him from a very early age. By 1898, that dream had become easier than ever to achieve: it was already 25 years since Jules Verne had written Around the World in Eighty Days, and even more since Thomas Cook had established his famous travel agency.
When William’s eldest son was old enough to manage the business by himself, he finally decided to make his dream a reality. He left West Hartlepool for London and then the World on January 12th, 1898, and returned home 11 months later. Along the way he visited Gibraltar, Malta, Italy, Egypt, Yemen, India, Ceylon, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, the continental United States and Canada.
I sometimes think of William as the Victorian Forrest Gump, since he seemed to show up that year just in time for some very historic events. For example, in Bombay, India in February he had an invitation to the wedding of the son of Jamsetji Tata, the founder of Tata Group, and he regretfully declined only because he wanted to meet his own son Albion, my great-grandfather, in Calcutta and couldn’t delay. He was in Colombo, Ceylon in March at the offices of Thomas Lipton and Company on the day that company went public. Fifty million had been subscribed for the 3 ½ million of public stock offered. Later in May, off the coast of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao during the Spanish-American War, he watched two crestfallen Spanish officers who had come aboard his steamer to make enquiries about the progress of the war learn that Manila had fallen to the Americans. In August, William arrived in Hawaii just 10 days after it was annexed by the United States. He went to church with President McKinley in Washington, DC in November, and while in Buffalo, New York he passed the site of the future Pan American Exposition of 1901 where President McKinley would be assassinated in 1901. And while William was in New York City in November, Theodore Roosevelt, who would replace McKinley as President, was elected Governor, helped by the fame of his famous charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba earlier that year.
In addition to all these events, William had an abiding interest in modern technology, and sought out the latest innovations in retail and mass production. He visited all the major department stores in the largest cities he visited. In Adelaide, Australia he viewed the refrigeration operations for shipping frozen meat to England, and in Canada the chilling operations. He toured the Chicago slaughterhouses 7 years before Upton Sinclair wrote his famous exposé, The Jungle. William knew the world was changing fast, and was amazed by much of what he saw.
Now, 120 years later, I will be blogging the journals online each day that there is an entry so that interested readers around the world can share in this historical resource. You can follow William’s journey day-by-day, and share in his amazement at the world he found. Subscribe to the journal via the Contact Me page, or follow William on Twitter (@WanderingGrocer) or Facebook (The Wandering Grocer).