Mavis Johnston and the 1950s travel revolution that shrunk the world

Mavis Johnston and the 1950s travel revolution that shrunk the world

(CNN) – The glamorous black and white photos seem to come from a golden age of travel. The post-war era of streamlined planes, elegant swimsuits, elegant hotels, empty country roads and cool cars.

In these snapshots, the Englishman Mavis Johnston is the apparent embodiment of the sophisticated jet set traveler.

And in many ways, it was experiencing the kind of tourism that would become extremely popular in the decades to come.

In a photo, she basks on the grassy hills surrounding Loch Lomond, Scotland, burst out laughing.

On the next page, she sits next to her husband on a Spanish terrace, surrounded by terracotta pots. They both radiate under the Catalan sun.

In another, she boarded a plane descending, descending the stairs bearing the BEA logo of British European Airways – a forerunner of British Airways – binoculars and trench coat in one hand.

The reality, of course, is that travel is never as glamorous as it seems. But, says Johnston – now 87 years old and reflecting on a life of glorious summers – these trips were no less happy because of their ups and downs.

The striking photos of Johnston offer a fascinating glimpse of a British vacation at the start of the travel boom in the mid-20th century.

And for me, they are particularly interesting because Mavis Johnston is my grandmother.

Johnston’s story begins in the north of England. Born in 1933 in the city of Leeds, her few childhood vacations took her to traditional seaside resorts less than 100 miles from her home, where entire industrial cities often decamped for a week’s vacation at the same time.

His childhood journeys were interrupted by the Second World War. On August 31, 1939, she and her parents arrived in the seaside town of Yorkshire, Bridlington. The next day, Germany invaded Poland and the family returned home.

“I mostly had a new bucket and a shovel, but I never got to use it,” she says. “It was the last time we went on a family vacation.”

Like many of his generation, during the war, Mavis was evacuated from his house in the city center to the countryside. Her father died of illness in the late war years.

In her late teens, she moved to Manchester for work, less than 50 miles from Leeds. Here she met Peter Johnston, my grandfather, who had just completed compulsory military service. He had also grown up in a working-class district in northern English, but a year spent in the RAF, working and sleeping with men around the world, had broadened his horizons. He was hungry to see as many people as possible.

Britain was just emerging from years of conflict. The austerity endured by many during the war was still visible. The rationing had just ended. Even a modest vacation was a luxury.

Mavis worked in a clothing store and Peter was a textile seller. When they married in 1955, none of them had ever ventured far beyond the north of England, let alone traveled abroad. This photo of my grandmother disembarking from the plane marked her first plane trip.

“I’m just relieved to be in the field,” she said, laughing when asked about the snapshot.

She was traveling with my grandfather to the Isle of Man, she says, shortly after their marriage.

Arrival on the Isle of Man.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

Situated approximately equidistant between England and Ireland, the Isle of Man was a tourist hotspot in the middle of the 20th century thanks to its sandy beaches and its seaside hotels teeming with travelers.

Although the island is a British dependence and, in many respects, similar to the mainland, its autonomy status and its distinctive identity have undoubtedly given it a whiff of exoticism to vacationers who did not travel much in the post-war period. . Today, it is still popular, especially with sailing enthusiasts.

Most people traveled there by ferry from Liverpool, but because Mavis wanted to experience their first flight by plane, the couple decided to fly from Manchester Airport. It was a tiny propeller plane, she recalls, with space for only a few passengers.

“Grandpa was sitting next to the pilot and I sat behind him,” she says.

She remembers being delighted. But was it as glamorous as she made it appear in this chic photo of her landing?

“Well, it was a bit more random at the time,” she says, remembering being somewhat terrified by the short and bumpy voyage across the Irish Sea.

The vacation package industry was in its infancy, she said. At the time, traveling by plane was not really trivial.

Honeymoon Bournemouth 1955

The Johnstons on their honeymoon in the South West of England in 1955.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

For this reason, many of the snapshots from the Johnstons’ 1950s brown leather photo album were taken from vacation destinations across the UK. The post-war period was the height of the British Sea and, like many, my grandparents took their honeymoon in Bournemouth, a coastal town in the south-west of England.

There is a snapshot of the couple posing in front of a car at Swanage Harbor in Dorset. The photo was taken, says my grandmother, by another honeymoon couple staying at the same hotel in Bournemouth.

“We rented the car between the four of us, to go see different places,” she told me.


Mavis Johnston on his honeymoon in Bournemouth.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

At the time, the Johnston family did not own a car. Mavis only learned to drive a decade later. But Peter’s father had been a driver and had always been interested in cars.

Mavis also remembers arriving at the Bournemouth Hotel after the long train journey from the north. Her first impressions were that it was cold, dark and nothing like she had hoped for when she chose it from a travel brochure – a reasonable concern in a country whose reputation for dismal hotels would still persist a half-century.

“We thought, ‘Oh, we made a terrible mistake here, it’s terrible,'” she says. “But in the morning, we drew the curtains and there was a beautiful view of the sea.

“Wherever you were by the sea, for me who grew up in the city, it was always very exciting.”

Arrested in Barcelona

Grandparents 1956

Mavis and Peter Johnston visited Spain in 1956.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

Some of the most striking photos from Johnston’s photo album were taken during a 1956 trip to the Spanish region of the Costa Brava.

In the mid-1950s, the Mediterranean was not yet the destination of choice for the British it would become. The package holiday industry was in its infancy and Spain was still in the grip of the dictator Francisco Franco.

However, in the summer of 1956, my grandparents chose Spain as their destination for their first trip abroad. They booked an excursion through the now-extinct travel agent Thomas Cook, which had been launched in the 1840s, but had reached cruising speed in the post-war period.

Colleagues at Mavis’ store were surprised when she said she planned to travel abroad – and even more shocked when they found out where.

“I just always wanted to go,” she says. “Several years before, I thought:” When I grow up, I will go to Spain. “I had an idea that it would be an interesting place to go.”

It turned out to be correct, but perhaps not in the way she expected.

There were only a few flights a day from the UK to Spain, and all took off from what is now Heathrow, but was then known as London Airport.

“There weren’t all planes coming and going in Spain, as there are now,” she said. “It was only a few years later that Spain really opened up to visits. In 1956, you had to book with an agency and get on a coach from the airport to where you were staying . Before you can fly, you have to prove that you have accommodation at the other end. You can’t just go down the hill. “

After traveling to London by train, the Johnstons boarded the plane with a few other excited British travelers, sun hats on their knees and swimsuits wrapped in leather suitcases in the hold of the plane .

Passengers were allowed one piece of check-in baggage per passenger and another small bag as carry-on baggage, recalls Mavis.

“I had a little zipper bag and I rolled up my coat and put it on the rack,” she says.

Before boarding, each passenger was weighed by the airport authorities while holding their luggage.

“The plane could not carry as much weight as people and as much luggage,” says Mavis.

The experience on board was very different from that of modern flight – even if she laughs at the image of martinis in flight that we could imagine to be a staple of the so-called golden age of aviation.

“You had no cabin crew or anything. As far as I know, they did not serve drinks. At the time, you were not allowed to drink alcohol on the plane I think you could have lemonade or orange or something like that.

‚ÄúThere were only about ten people on the plane. Everything was open in the sense that the pilot was seated in the same area as you. We were right behind the pilot and co-pilot – we could have touched him. “

She remembers being nervous as she got on board, but that was quickly replaced by excitement after takeoff was completed and the plane in flight. She was amazed to see the sea sparkle below.

“I was so excited to go out in the sun and go abroad,” she says.

Spain 1956 tease

Spain in 1956 was on the verge of becoming a popular vacation destination.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

When they arrived at Barcelona Airport, the passengers were agitated by security, but my grandparents were pulled aside and prevented from passing.

The couple were interviewed in Spanish – and their blank responses had them transported from the airport to a Barcelona police station.

Mavis and Peter did not speak Spanish and the officials were not fluent in English. The situation became more and more difficult and the couple began to worry. Getting arrested on the first day in Spain was not on the agenda.

Finally, a representative of the nearby German embassy got involved. It turned out that there was a typo on Mavis’ documents, and that alerted the suspicions. Another start-up problem for a travel industry in its infancy.

After clarifying that it was a mistake, organizing temporary papers and paying a heavy fine, the couple were free to leave.

The consequences could have been much worse in a country which then had a reputation for arbitrary and harsh justice in response to petty crimes.

Mavis and Peter were relieved, but exhausted. Their introduction to Spain had been a baptism of fire.

“I was wondering if we should ever have left,” she said.

Spanish policeman and hotel 1956

They took photos of the sites, including a police officer and their hotel.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

But years later, they laughed at the experience. My grandmother chuckles telling me the story now.

“I would have liked to have had the contact details of the German lady who helped us,” she said. “At the time, I was too upset, but we enjoyed it so much. We were so stressed and tired, we were in the wrong clothes, I came from work and wore a thick sweater. Among all the concerns, we also overheated. “

While all the other members of their group had been met at the airport and taken on an organized bus directly to the neighboring coastal town of Lloret de Mar, my grandparents rushed to get there by public transport.

Kind strangers, she said, saw their besieged expressions and their obvious confusion, and helped make sure they were moving around safely.

Spanish Villa

The vacation was Mavis Johnston’s first trip abroad.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

A few hours later than everyone else, they arrived at the hotel. They had lost their reserved room when they did not show up with the rest of their group, but ended up with their own villa in the hotel’s picturesque grounds.

It was a real treat, beyond their wildest dreams.

“We didn’t have a lot of money to spend on this trip,” says my grandmother. “And much of what we brought with us, we had to spend on the fine.”

Despite this, in each photo, they seem to have fun: laughing on the beach, sunbathing on the hotel veranda, posing in group photos with other travelers.

After a few days of fun in Lloret de Mar, the excursion group went to the island of Mallorca.

In the photos, my grandmother wears polka dot skirts, impeccable white shirts and brightly colored 1950s-style swimwear. She remembers that many Britons abroad were sunburned, it was a pre-solar age, and many were not used to the hot Mediterranean sun.

“We really couldn’t believe how hot it was,” she says. “It was incredible for us.”

Irish adventure

Londonderry 1951

On the walls of Derry / Londonderry in 1957.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

In 1957 my grandparents went to Ireland.

“We booked the trip through Lewis’s, the Manchester department store, which had a travel department.” she says. “They had no travel agents at the time. But Lewis had what they called a travel office, in the store. The department store was right across from the store where I worked in Manchester, so c was very practical.

I always wanted to go to Ireland, mainly because my father’s father was from Ireland. “

Vacation photos show her sitting atop a cannon on the city walls, her feet in crossed sandals. In another shot, my grandfather, in a suit, languidly leans on the walls.

In another reflection of the austerity of the period, Mavis says that the highlight of the trip was not the monuments or the landscapes – but getting several pairs of nylon stockings.

Rationing had ended a few years earlier, but there were still shortages. In Manchester, she sometimes stood in line for hours outside department stores and left empty-handed.

In the south of Ireland, according to Mavis, the nylons were a little more readily available, and on a day trip from their place of residence in the north, the women of the tour refueled.

“You were allowed to bring two pairs to customs, but most of us bought six,” she said.

“What we were told to do was take the nylon stockings out of the packages, leave the packages in the public restroom and wrap the stockings around your belly under your clothes.”

Loch Lomond, Scotland 1958

Mavis Johnston lounging on the shores of Loch Lomond, Scotland in 1958

Courtesy of Francesca Street

Trips to Scotland, where my grandfather’s family came from, also appear in the album – as well as a vacation to Cornwall and a stay in the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago off the southwest coast of the United Kingdom. Uni accessible via another tiny propeller plane.

These photographs of my grandmother’s adventures somewhat evoke what the trip looked like for some British travelers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Photos of smiles and sun hats and planes suggest what it must have been like living your childhood through the constraints of war and emerging in a new world, a new decade, with opportunities and promises stretching out before you.

Francesca and grandmother

The writer Francesca Street and her grandmother, Mavis Johnston, today.

Courtesy of Francesca Street

Mavis and Peter never returned to Spain. Later, when my mother and aunt were born, the family went on a seaside vacation in Cornwall and spent summers in holiday parks in France. When my grandparents retired, they embarked on odyssey in Germany, Scotland and Ireland to find family trees and meet distant family members. My grandfather died in 2018.

Today, my grandmother marvels at the number of trips I make, living at a time when economic flights and Airbnb allow me to travel in a jet set to Mediterranean cities for weekends, to land to the United States within seven hours or schedule tours to the east of the country. Europe, Hong Kong or Australia.

“There are many places I have never been to,” she says. “But I am so grateful to have been able to explore the destinations I have made. It was an incredible time to travel.”


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