The Great Tour of John Patteson

Twenty-two-year-old John Patteson left Norwich in March 1778, with his dog Doctor, for a great tour through Europe.  He was no stranger to travel.  At the age of 12 he had been sent to Leipzig, where he stayed for three years in preparation for taking his place in an international textile business.  He spoke German and French. Now, with a servant engaged in Rotterdam, he travelled through the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, with a detour to Malta, before returning through France and Belgium eighteen months later.  

John Patteson (1755-1833) Painting by Sir William Beechy c.1803, in the uniform of Lieutenant Colonel of the Norwich Loyal Military. Credit: Norfolk Museum Collections

Grand Tours are often associated with the sons of the aristocracy but this venture could also be enjoyed by wealthy commercial families such as the Pattesons of Norwich, highly successful master weavers, on the cusp of commercial wealth and gentrified leisure. Norwich had until mid-century been the second city in the land; its textiles enjoyed an international reputation.  John Patteson’s journey was uniquely a business trip as well as an educational experience. 

John Patteson wrote to his mother Martha, younger brother Harry (a Cambridge student), his friend William Herring and his cousin Elizabeth Fromanteel.  His journal and his letters to his business partner John Iselin have not survived.  However, the existing collection of letters paints a vivid picture of a Europe where Germany and Italy were still patchworks of principalities, dukedoms and other jurisdictions. Patteson is revealing about the difficulties of travel when facilities could often be primitive. He describes political, social and oppressive religious systems as inferior to the English.  He was often critical in his comments about local people, although recognising the burdens that socially-stratified systems placed upon the lowest ranked. But he came to realise that he should not generalise too much and should accept that modes of life different from the English should be respected. 

John Patteson’s mother’s letters are essentially of a family nature.  She wrote about city life, seen from one of the best houses in Norwich.  She gossiped about the state of trade, property, the letting of farms, health, marriages, the purchase of a church living for Harry (whose idleness she deplored), the assize week, entertainment, socialising, cards and politics.  She worried about the dangers of travel. They were certainly real, with American privateers operating out of French ports (it was the time of the American War of Independence) and there were wars on the continent.  John Patteson described the impressive gathering of Prussian troops in preparation for a battle with Austria in the Bavarian War of Succession.

Martha hated Italy with its licentious population, religious fanatics, sharpers, brigands and opera girls. She worried about her son’s heart and wrote about his marriage prospects on his return. The tour, after all, was not simply to make connections to enhance the family’s status and to increase trade, it was a preparation for a polite world and a step to a fine marriage. Eligible girls had a financial value attached to them.  In their letters brother Harry and friend William were more explicit about the physical charms of Norwich girls.  John Patteson was reticent in his replies. The details of his stay in Sienna, for example, may well be incomplete. 

John Patteson’s experience in each country visited was different.  Germany was not well-geared to the needs of tourists: inns could be disagreeable and the barren heaths of Westphalia he thought were ‘daresay not much unlike the deserts of Arabia’. The consistent anti-Catholic thread in the letters is exemplified by the comparison between the ‘sufferable’ Protestant part of Westphalia with the Roman Catholic part that was ‘shocking beyond description’. For Patteson business was paramount and he renewed his acquaintance with the host family in Leipzig. 

John Patteson provides a vivid account of being carried on a chair across the Alps at Mount Cenis, to arrive in Italy where his journey took on the more traditional character of the Grand Tour. Making business contacts in Italy was difficult, with the nobility and trading classes not mixing, so that there was no access to first-rate firms.  But, Patteson recognised, Italy provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  There were still some appalling inns, like the one encountered in barren country on the way to Italy: Patteson wrote that he could not describe his room better than that Doctor, with the greatest contempt, turned up his leg against the wall. 

English travellers tended to ‘herd together’.  If in a place a traveller had no recommendations or was not staying long, Patteson thought it rational and unavoidable that they should associate closely. John Patteson’s four long letters about his Sicilian adventure are as good as any accounts of the Grand Tour experience get.  There his group included Thomas Bowdler, whose name has entered the English language as the expurgator of the works of Shakespeare.  Also in the group was a young architect John, later Sir John, Soane, travelling on a King’s studentship.  Soane was later to gain many commissions in Norfolk from his meeting with Patteson. The profusion of princes and dukes in Sicily led to laughter from the visitors.  Patteson admitted that the profusion of ‘venerable ruins’ excited him less than it did Soane, for whom the sight of a Roman building gave him ‘infinite pleasure’.   

John Patteson speculated that he could live as an old bachelor and ‘be a very pretty kind of creature’ in the southern climes.  Nevertheless, he assured his mother that he was feeling tired of travelling and wanted to get among his friends at home.  He had seen nothing in the south ‘equal to what I have left’. 

John Patteson arrived back in England in November 1779.  The letters he wrote describing his great tour, and the responses of his family and friends, eighty-one in all, are published , as The Great Tour of John Patteson 1778-1779, ed. D. Cubitt, A.L. Mackley, and R.G. Wilson (Norfolk Record Society, Volume 67, 2003).  The volume also summarises John Patteson’s later life.  Did he fulfil the high hopes his mother had so firmly pinned upon him?  He met, through business contacts, a wife with a marriage portion of £2,000 and heiress to a small landed estate.  He progressed through the Norwich political ranks as successively alderman, sheriff and mayor.  The Norwich textile trade was, however, suffering, with competition from Lancashire cotton and the rising West Riding woollen industry.  But with a propitious investment in brewing, Patteson’s career reached a peak in the early 1800s.  He entered parliament, first for the pocket borough of Minehead, then as the MP for Norwich.  However, Patteson’s business affairs started to unwind in the difficult economic climate after 1815.  He was saved from the humiliation of bankruptcy by the intervention of his son.  But property had to be sold, including the Surrey Street mansion that was the focus of Patteson family life in the time of the letters, and his collection of pictures.  Eventually Patteson lived out the last years of his life in a small house in Bishopgate, next to St Helen’s vicarage where his youngest son resided as chaplain to the Great Hospital.

Patteson’s Mansion on Surrey Street, Later known as Bignold House, c.1894.
Credit: Aviva Group Archive

Martha’s words in her letters were only too prophetic.  She had warned about the ups and downs of business, the difficulties of maintaining a balance between the traditional extravagance of the landed gentry and the prudence of the business community.  This guidance about social advance and business enterprise, worked out in the context of John Patteson’s great tour and subsequent career, give these letters their significance in accounts of the top rung of provincial urban society in later Georgian England.

John Patteson Memorial at St. Peter Mancroft, Norwich.

The Great Tour of John Patteson, 1778-1779 is edited by A. L. Mackey, D. Cubitt and R. G. Wilson, was published by the society in 2003.

This blog was written by Alan Mackley

Other Resources: