Notes from the Library (No. 2, March 2010)
RICHARD BISSINGTON’S PASSPORT, 1837
The Society holds a small collection of the personal papers of Richard Bissington, a hatter with a shop at 34, Briggate, which he ran from 1832 until his death in 1876. Among his papers is the passport he obtained in 1837 for a journey via Paris to northern Italy, to Turin, Milan and Venice. This was probably primarily a business trip. These cities, particularly Milan (the origin of the term ‘millinery’) had long been famous for their production of the best quality silk and straw for hats, for ribbon, braid and lace, and for the manufacture of all kinds of fashionable headwear. He may have wanted to set up an import arrangement, explore new techniques, or view the latest fashions – and perhaps widen his horizons too.
His passport is a single sheet of flimsy paper, partly pre-printed, issued ‘gratis’ by the French Chargé d’Affaires in London. Identity papers were essential in this period for travel through France and the various regions of Italy, but there was as yet no established system for the British government to issue passports to its citizens except on an ad hoc basis and for a fee. Obtaining a passport from the relevant foreign embassy was therefore fairly common and often cheaper. The passport has been folded to fit in a wallet, and is totally covered in stamps, dates and signatures from the various offices and border posts where he had to present it, usually with the formula ‘Seen and good for [his next destination]’. These marks when deciphered provide a record of his route and the time it took him – a journey before the age of the railway and the transformation of travel it would bring about.
Richard Bissington obtained his passport to enter France via Calais or Boulogne on 26 August 1837, presumably by a visit to the French Embassy in London. The passport, written in French, identifies him as ‘M. Richard Bissington, Chapelier’, and gives his personal details: age (36), height (5ft.8in.) hair, eyebrows and eyes (brown), shape of face, chin, forehead, complexion – the level of detail a reminder that there were no identifying photographs then. In words very similar to modern passports, the relevant authorities were requested to allow him free passage and give him help and protection in case of need. His signature is at the bottom.
From London he had to travel to Folkestone, a coach journey of some 11 hours, and then embark on the cross-Channel packet to sail to Boulogne. His passport was stamped there on 30 August, and two days later he arrived in Paris, where he had to present his passport at six different offices and obtain clearance for his projected journey through France, via Switzerland, to northern Italy – from the British Embassy, from the French Ministry of the Interior and the French Police, from the Chargé d’Affaires of the Swiss Confederation, from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Sardinia (for Piedmont and Turin), and from the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, then under Austrian control (for Milan and Venice). It must have been a tedious bureaucratic round. Then he was off on his journey to Turin, over 500 miles and ten days away, travelling by diligence, the regular service of heavy public coaches which linked the towns of western Europe. On 6 September he reached the Swiss border and Geneva, and three days later he crossed the border again to reach Chambéry. In each place his papers were checked by the police and stamped as valid for onward travel to Turin. From Chambéry he set off on 9 September to cross the Alps via the Mont Cénis pass, the ancient route into Italy, improved by Napoleon in 1810 but still a narrow, steep road through a majestic, gloomy landscape of jagged snow-covered peaks and deep gorges – passengers had to transfer to a smaller, lighter coach for the high crossing (no tunnels then). He passed through the Montcenisio border post on 11 September and reached Turin the next day. Here his papers had to be checked by the officials of the Kingdom of Sardinia for onward travel to Milan. He travelled on through Novara on 14 September, and left Piedmont by the border post at Ponte Ticino (the bridge over the R. Ticino). He had then to pass through the Austrian border control at Boffalora to enter Lombardy and reach Milan. He seems to have spent two or three days there before moving on to Verona (18 September) and Venice – was this for some sight-seeing? He spent little time there, for on 20 September his passport was checked by the Venetian police for his return to Milan.
Now he was on his way home. On 22 September the police in Milan authorised his return to Switzerland. He travelled a different way back, from Milan to Lucerne, almost certainly by the direct route over the spectacular St Gotthard Pass, with its hairpin cobbled track and Devil’s Bridge, just in time to miss the first heavy falls of snow. His passport was stamped in Lucerne on 26 September, and he then travelled northwest into the Low Countries, arriving in Arnhem six days later, on 2 October, when the police put the final stamp on his passport. From there it seems likely that he was aiming to cross from Rotterdam to Hull and arrive back home in Leeds that way. His journey had taken well over a month and covered some two thousand miles.
Richard Bissington was not a Leeds man in origin: he was born in Southampton in 1801, and for several years was employed by a Liverpool firm of hatters, J. Gillham & Co. In 1825 he set up a shop in Leeds for them and helped to establish shops for the company in Manchester, Birmingham and Wolverhampton. In 1832 he branched out on his own, taking over the Leeds shop in Briggate, which for many years was also his home. There was fierce rivalry between the many hat emporia for what was then a huge market (everyone wore a hat), and he had to advertise constantly to keep his patrons and attract new clients. His ‘London Hat Mart’ claimed to cater for every class of society, ‘from the Peer to the Peasant’ and his byword was ‘Novelty, Fashion and Economy.’ He became a prominent figure in Leeds, twice elected Town Councillor, founder and president of the West Riding Trades Protection Association, a trustee of the Leeds Trades Benevolent Society, a foremost member of the business community. When he died in 1876 his son, Edward Bissington, also later a Town Councillor, took over the business, followed by his grandson, Harry. The shop finally closed in 1934. The papers in the Library’s collection, including this passport, may have been found then and donated to the Society to ensure their preservation.
Bissington's hat shop, 34 Briggate. rebuilt 1843 as part of the improvement of this corner of Boar Lane/Briggate. This picture predates the widening of Boar Lane (left) in the 1860s. Part of the building still stands (Macdonalds).
Sources: Passport/ Bissington papers: MS Box.VII, 41; Photograph of shop, Images, Box 2LIC © E.J Bradford Thoresby Society, 2010
All illustrations are from the Thoresby Society’s collection.