My paternal grandfather, Charlie Payne, is the subject of a book that I am currently writing on the First World War (working title: ‘Charlie Payne’s Hatbox‘). In addition to his wartime correspondence, Charlie left a number of diaries, one of the fullest and most entertaining of which is an account of time that he spent in Genoa while working for the American Express Company in 1907; he was 23 years old. (At the time, Genoa was probably Italy’s most important port and finance centre.) Charlie’s diary captures the spirit of youthful optimism and opportunity that existed for some in the Edwardian period, before the dark shadows of the Great War descended. The following description of his journey to Italy is the first entry in ‘My Italian Diary’, to which I have added some contemporaneous postcards and photographs that were amongst Charlie’s documents .
Monday 4th March 1907.
“What a crowd to see me off at Victoria. I shall never forget it. I had a very comfortable journey down to Newhaven, with only a young gentleman apprentice as a companion, who began telling me all about himself and family (Ma and Pa etc.). It was a lovely sunny day and I thought the English meadowland looked glorius [sic]. I was soon on the boat, SS “Arundel” and about 12 o.c. (noon) we steamed out of the Harbour. The sea was rather rough and we rocked a bit and the wind was very cold, but the sun was shining brightly. There were not more than 30 passengers on board – mostly women, some of whom were soon very sick and bad, but I myself never felt so much as a qualm – so was very pleased with myself. I eat [sic] my biscuits and drank some whisky in the stern of the boat with my eyes fixed to Beachy Head as long as possible and then at last that died away in the mist and that was the last I saw of old England. The boat was rocking badly now, the spray swamping the bow until the passengers had to go below, but I stuck in the stern chatting with one of the crew. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and felt very happy – I think I ought to have been a sailor after all.
About 3 o’clock we caught a first glimpse of the French coast and very black and gloomy it looked and very rocky. At about 3-15 we steamed into Dieppe Harbour. Very similar to Newhaven, only smaller. I soon skipped ashore and evading all the porters, beggars etc. made my way to the Customs House, but went straight thro’ without having my bag examined. Dieppe as I saw it was very old and very quaint.
I secured a corner seat in the train which left for Paris at 3-37 and got in a carriage marked “Fumeurs” (Smoking) and fell into conversation with two young Englishmen. A Froggie got in, and I believe we nearly stifled him with our pipes – he kept on choking and looking fierce, but I appeased him by offering him a match for his cigarettes. The scenery between Dieppe and Paris was rather fine, but oh so quaint, funny little cottages and farmhouses, churchyards, churches, villages, factories – all quaint and new to me. I could fill pages in description if I had the time. We stopped only once – a few minutes at Rouen and then on to Paris (St Lazare) which we reached at 7-15 p.m. and it was quite dark.
Paris Station. Oh my, what a glamour and a gabble. I said good bye to one of my companions, and then with the other one changed some money (10/- for 12 francs) found a [Thomas] Cook’s interpreter, who took us to a hotel, where we had a wash and brush up, café au lait, ham and eggs etc., which cost me about 2/-. Feeling much better and leaving my bag at the hotel, went for a walk about Paris. I was accompanied by one of Cook’s interpreters (a Frenchman named Rowe) to whom I paid 2 francs. I got on a horse bus with my bag and had a ride through Paris to the Gare du Lyon. Paris was full of life and light.
The sights that caught my eye most were the cabs (small four wheeled things drawn by an apology for a horse, London cab horses are as thoroughbreds in comparison, the people sitting drinking and smoking in the boulevards outside the cafés and the funny looking electric cars. I was a bit disappointed with my first view of Paris. It is nothing like London and different to what I had expected, and the jabber enough to drive one silly. The American Express Company Office was closed so I could not call.
Reaching Gare du Lyon about 9 o.c. [p.m.] I had 1½ hours to wait, which I employed in walking about the station. At 10-30 I got in my train (“fumeurs” carriage of course) and my companions were 2 Italian ladies and one gentleman and one Froggie in a big fur coat. All thro’ the night we travelled on and all went to to sleep except me. Try as I would I could not get off, so settled down and read “Tit-Bits” and smoked. The carriages were nicely heated and quite comfortable. As daylight came on, I could see what glorius mountain scenery we were passing through. Mountains whose summits were covered in snow and again others whose tops disappeared in the clouds. Beautiful lakes and rivers (I do not know their names yet). It was glorius scenery and far more imposing than ever I thought for. Our first stop was about 7 o.c. a.m. at Aix-les-Bains, where I secured a café au lait for 50 cents, and then on again. Cottages and farmhouses built right on the side of the mountains looked very nice but very dangerous.
All thro’ the day we raced on until Modane was reached and the C[ustoms] H[ouse] officials came aboard, but I again escaped being examined. About 3 o.c. p.m. we reached Turin and from there on to Genoa was more or less flat scenery – not half so pretty as England. I was cold and very hungry when Genoa was reached at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
I was met by Mr Wyeth, who conducted me to the Hotel Victoria (as my lodging was not ready) and engaged a room for 3 francs per night, and then paid my first visit to the Office, 17 Piazza della Nugiata, a very old building – formerly a palace – with old fashioned stairs and lofty painted ceilings and pictures on the walls. A much superior place to 84 Queen Street, London [the American Express Office in London].
Then I went to a café with an Englishman named Bambridge and a German named Koth (both my own age and very nice fellows) for dinner, which consisted of:- Macaroni soup, steak (very small piece) and potatoes, cheese, nuts and fruit, washed down with claret. I was famished so did very well. Then a walk round Genoa and back to the Hotel Victoria. It was a very old fashioned room where I slept, but the bed was clean and soft so after taking a dose of Eno’s, and being tired out I was soon asleep.”
The next time that Charlie travelled from England to continental Europe was on 1st August 1917 in a troopship, facing German submarines lurking in the English Channel , and the prospect of service in the British Expeditionary Force as a Private in the 2/5th Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment on the Western Front. Certainly not as enjoyable as his 1907 experiences…..