Treasures Tuesday - A Passport from 1855

A Passport from 1855 

Not many families have original passports used by their ancestors in the 1800s. The main reason is that before the First World War a British citizen didn't need a passport to travel to other countries or to be allowed to return to Britain. However, merchants travelling and diplomats usually held them. It was a way of introducing themselves to important people in other countries. It’s possible that you have found evidence that your ancestor had a passport. The irritating thing is that you probably haven't found the actual document and you would like to know what one looked like. One of our treasures here at the SoG is a passport for the Reverend John Cholmeley, issued in London on August 11, 1853. It shows us what passports were like in the mid-1800s.





The passport is on parchment and has creases to show that it has been folded into four. Some of the wording is pre-printed, leaving gaps for the issuer to complete. It is issued in the name of George William Frederick, Earl of Clarendon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at the time. There are two crests: the one at the top is the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom; the one at the bottom appears to be the Clarendon crest. It is signed by both Earl Clarendon and by John Cholmeley. The passport states:

‘….request and require in the Name of Her Majesty, all those whom it may concern to allow the Reverend John Cholmeley (British subject) travelling on the Continent to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford him every assistance and protection of which he may stand in need.’

Anyone with a current British passport will recognise these words. They are almost exactly the same as those used in every passport issued today. Isn't it interesting that we have never found a better way of expressing the passport’s main purpose?

The passport has two stamps that appear to be visas. The writing is very faint but they seem to be allowing John passage through Belgium and through areas that are now part of Germany.

I'm fascinated by this step back in time. There are so many unanswered questions. Who is the Reverend Cholmeley? Where was he going and why? The passport is held in one of two boxes in the Cholmeley family's Special Collection. I can see that they are a wealthy family but there's nothing in the boxes relating to John’s travels.

Using the free PCs in the Lower Library, I trace John Cholmeley’s life through the census. John is born in 1827 in Wainfleet St Mary in Lincolnshire – one of 14 children. His father is the Reverend Robert Cholmeley, perpetual curate at Wainfleet St Mary. Black’s Law Dictionary tells me that a ‘perpetual curate’ is a person appointed to officiate in a parish where there is no rector or vicar.

I find a book in the Middle Library called Letters and Papers of the Cholmeleys from Wainfleet 1813 – 1853. It gives me an entertaining picture of the whole family. They have a comfortable, happy family life. John goes to Eton in the early 1840s and then to Cambridge. His mother mentions in letters that he finds life at university very expensive. In January 1851, John is appointed curate to his father at Wainfleet St Mary. His father, Robert, dies in 1852 and the book of letters ends soon after. Back with the Cholmeley boxes in the Special Collection, I find papers showing that John is given the perpetual curacy, that was his father’s, at Wainfleet St Mary in January 1853.

So, his education is finished, he has a job for life, he's not yet married – does John decide to take a break and travel? Gap years aren't new. The idea of seeing some of the world between the end of formal education and the start of work has been popular for a long time. In the 1800s for the wealthier, it was called the Grand Tour. Was John embarking on his Grand Tour?

I look up the Passport Application Index on the TNA website. It gives me a link to an Index to the Register of Passports held on Findmypast. I have a moment of excitement. I can see that John applied on August 8, 1855. On August 11, his uncle, Sir Montague Cholmeley, and a younger brother, Charles Humphrey Cholmeley, applied for passports. Sir Montague was a politician but he had lost an election in 1852 so he was certainly available to take his two nephews on a tour of Europe. Sadly, we don't know any more for sure about John’s travels. Does anyone have any further information or other ideas?


To find information on passports, try the TNA website research guides. The one covering passports gives you a number of links to papers that they hold and a link to Findmypast, which holds the Index to Register of Passport Applications 1851 to 1903.

Letters and Papers of the Cholmeleys from Wainfleet 1813 – 1853 was edited by Guy Hargreaves Cholmeley and is published by the Lincoln Record Society Vol 59, 1964. Our copy sits in the Middle Library.

-Sherryl Abrahart

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