Realistic Travels

Paul Bond, Realistic Travels Subject Specialist

There is much inaccurate information about the Realistic Travels company and their Great War cards in both the written and internet spheres and I hope here, to make a start to correct some of those misconceptions. The most frequently quoted source is The World of Stereographs by William C. Darrah (Land Yacht Press, 1977, second edition 1997). Darrah claimed that Realistic Travels was the most successful publisher of British stereoviews and that the company was active between 1908 and 1916. Even the most cursory look will see that the sets include post war views, yet professional archives have blindly published these dates alongside their set of views including the post war ones!

The origins of Realistic Travel are somewhat unclear. The story starts with Charles Hilton DeWitt Girdwood, a Canadian by birth – he seems to have disliked the Charles and preferred to be known as H D Girdwood. After moving the England in the early 1900’s he worked as a salesman and later, as a photographer for Underwood and Underwood. He seems to have spent quite a lot of the pre-war period in India, where he photographed big events such as the Delhi Durbar in 1911 and images of British troops stationed in India. Alongside his work for Underwood, he started to publish stereoviews under his ‘HD Girdwood Publisher’ branding; interestingly there are Underwood and Underwood Durbar photos with copyright credited to Girdwood as well as alternative views from the same event published under his own name.

Stereoview sales had generally started to decline before the war and Girdwood was eager to get into the new business of cinematography. At the outbreak of war, he was still taking photographs of the British troops in India and was keen to travel with them to France; initially to try to get the first cine film of a real conflict, thankfully he took his stereo cameras as well.

In April 1915, using his Indian contacts, he was eventually able to get permission to film and photograph the hospitals for wounded Indian troops in Brighton and Bournemouth (as long as he avoided the severely wounded). After protracted battles with GHQ Girdwood eventually got permission to travel to France arriving on the 25th July 1915. This time was spent with the Indian contingent and their attached British units, it is likely that the rare images of French and Belgian troops were probably bought in.

The authorities tried to limit him to a set, 10-day program of sites away from the front, and prevented him from photographing many sensitive areas such as the airfields. Girdwood was frustrated, but eventually managed to use his influence to extend the trip to around 40 days. Front line live action was however going to prove difficult; a large wooden camera on a tripod would make an excellent target for the enemy.

The solution was to effectively ‘stage’ some short film sequencies to represent real action showing both ‘action’ from the Leicesters and Ghurkhas on separate training grounds. The ‘Germans’ seen in the staged views are in fact Leicesters in captured uniform; but remember there are no actors here, they were just recuperating behind the line after seeing action and would shortly be in action again. On the 31st July 1915 Girdwood was allowed near enough to the front and succeeded in recording the very first piece of real action film. Sadly, his film ‘With the Empire’s Fighters’ has been lost and almost forgotten about. However, alongside the film, Girdwood and his assistant took lots of stereo images, and these ‘stills’ make up a significant part of the published collection, these are mixed in with shots of real training in progress – we have indicated the images we understand to have been part of the film in the master spreadsheet together with the ‘chapter’ number (e.g. WEF009 for an image from the ninth chapter or just H if it is from the early hospital film).

The lack of understanding around these stills and Girdwood’s rather ‘imaginative’ use of captions (e.g., associating staged images with real events that took place later in the war) has sadly led to the regular dismissal of the value of the whole output. The images do however deserve much more appreciation, there are lots of other, important images in here – the best record of Indian troops in France, some great Gallipoli images (bought in), good images from the home front such as Zeppelin damage, submarines and rarities like a Women’s Rights march along with lots of just-post-war images.

Girdwood’s Great War images were published under the Realistic Travels banner; however, an occasional apparent Great War image is found with ‘H D Girdwood Publisher’ logos. These were previously associated with use of old card stock – it has now been discovered that the majority of these were in fact pre-war images from the various ‘Regiment Series’ he photographed in India which were subsequently ‘re-cycled’ as Great War views from ‘Africa’. These regiment series cards are very similar to, and easily confused with, the Boer War images published under the Underwood banner at around the same time.


All sets seem to contain post war images so we suspect that production did not start until after the war (Girdwood himself was very busy during the war showing his film around England). Sets are normally found in royal blue boxes of 100 cards (which have now faded to a brownish grey), but red and even white boxes have been seen. Smaller sets were produced in 25 or 50 boxes.

It seems that the initial plan was to sell a comprehensive 600 card set, but these were way too expensive and very few were ever produced. Smaller sets followed, 500 is reasonably common, but 100 and 200 card sets dominated the sales. Although huge numbers of cards were produced, Realistic Travels would be today classed as an ‘agile’ company, quickly changing the composition of its sets to meet local requirements, so unlike the other main players there is little consistency between sets. Customers were also able to buy additional views which were un-numbered. There is evidence of some specialist sets being produced e.g. a zeppelin set of 25 and a naval set – from the same image stock but occasionally with the captions ‘adjusted’ to fit the situation.

This inconsistency of set composition has led us to effectively abandon the card number as a useful way to identify a given image; in fact, there is no 1:1 relationship between caption and image either, with the same caption used for different images as well as several captions for one image! We have created a unique number in the master table which corresponds to an individual negative (N0001 etc) and a unique number for each of the known image/caption combination (the CC0000 number). Produced photographically, the images frequently show big differences in exposure and commonly minor cropping variations (these minor variations in cropping do not have an individual entry but may be viewed in the image library), if there is a major cropping version from the same negative, we have added this separately to the table with a ‘C’ suffix.

As well as cropping variations it is important to note that when photographing people Girdwood would typically take a couple of negatives, just in case someone moved; surprisingly we frequently find that both were used, leading to hard-to-spot variants.

To add yet another layer of complexity some images are also seen in ‘Painted’ form – an early type of ‘photoshoping’, primarily those training ground ‘stills’ to make the images look more like a real battlefield. This is the most spectacular example, but there are others.

All of this means that well over 1000 images were actually published with a variety of captions, giving around 1600 caption / image variants at the latest count. If card numbers were added into the mix there would be over 3000, so we strongly recommend collectors should consider looking out for the 1000 images or the 1600 variants.

There are also logo (both side and copyright) differences, with four main distinct series which could be related to time and/or printing location. Adding series would bring the total to well over 5000 different cards.

Strangely the manufacturing quality seems to have reduced over time; perhaps the capacity of the operation was badly stretched. There were at least two different manufacturing processes, some had everything printed in one run on the card before the images were added; others clearly had everything added in stages so we get logos facing in, facing out, both facing the same way and even mixed logo styles as they changed the design.

We have included Girdwood’s pre-war logos here for completeness:

For the earliest type, two different ‘Royal Command’ versions are known. Print quality is generally good and the logos are correctly orientated with the top of the lettering towards the outer edge of the card. It seems that these early cards had both logos and text information printed at the same time as the alignment is excellent.

There are fewer Realistic Travels variations

Both the ‘square box’ and ‘trademark’ logo types can be found with the small or large rounded corners. The curly box type seems to only be associated with small rounded corners and the brownish card – these cards also have a significant South African bias so may have been printed locally. The trade mark version continued to be used during the 1920s

Far less care was taken with the Realistic Travels logos, in the majority of cases it seems that the two sides were printed separately; we have different heights, angles, inversions, sometimes printed on opposite sides and many just so blurred as to be unreadable.

With no official image numbers and no historical references, it is highly likely that even this much enlarged list is not complete; if you have any other captions and / or images we would love to hear from you, please use our dedicated email . We are also interested in recording any pre-war images showing British troops based in India, usually with the words ‘regiment series’ in the title. There is an additional column in the table which indicates if we hold a physical card, the two primary collections here are the JF (Jordan Ference collection) and the B (Bond collection) in all other cases we are aware of the card but do not have access to a physical copy, these are included on an information-only basis and as such further scans are unavailable.

After the Great War, Realistic Travels branched out into ‘world tour’ and highly sought after ‘industrial’ views, the last dateable views come from 1924. Girdwood himself eventually retired back to America in 1953, having run a seaside Hotel in the 1940’s. Although some 2D photos were donated to the British Library the fate of the stereo negatives is unknown.

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