Norman D Ford, First President and Founder of the Globetrotters Club
What do an urge to write, a sailing yacht and The Daily Mirror have in common?
All were steps that led to the founding of the Globetrotters Club a few days after the end of World War II. I grew up in Wales and I was 18 when the Second World War began. By then, I’d already toured the UK by bicycle and had youth-hosteled in Ireland and Switzerland.
That was enough to convince me that it was entirely possible to travel the world without being rich. But World War II abruptly put an end to all civilian travel. So I trained to be come a radio officer in the Merchant Navy and spent the next six years sailing the seas on merchant ships and visiting ports in countries from New Zealand to USA, the Middle East and Sri Lanka.
While home on leave in England in 1944 a friend and I purchased a 50-year old sailing yacht that was laid up on the Essex coast. We intended to sail it around the world after the war. At about the same time, I also took a correspondence course in journalism. And by writing while at sea, I began to sell occasional articles to various publications including the Daily Mirror.
We soon discovered that to fit out the yacht required more funds than my friend and I could raise. So several weeks before the war ended, I wrote a piece for the Mirror describing our planned voyage around the world. I added that we were looking for two other adventurers to help crew the yacht and finance the trip. The Mirror ran the story on the front page under the headline,
“Two Men Needed to Help Sail Yacht on 20-Year Voyage Around the World.”
Response was immediate. Within two weeks, I received over 200 inquiries from people eager to join our global cruise after the war. Since only two could actually join us, I invited the rest to enrol in a newly formed Globetrotters Club.
At this time, I was on a small tanker that was part of the British fleet that invaded Rangoon in April 1945. Each afternoon, we docked in Rangoon to load water overnight and next morning we sailed up and down the Irrawaddy River, supplying water to any ship or allied forces that needed it.
This routine allowed me to get ashore by 4pm each day and to spend several hours exploring the Rangoon area on foot or by bicycle. During these excursions, I discovered a tiny Burmese print shop which had an old-fashioned duplicator left behind by the Japanese.
It was on this duplicator that the first announcements of the founding of the Globetrotters Club were printed and, a few weeks later, the first issue of Globe. Thankfully, postage to and from those in the forces was free. So all 200 people who wrote in learned that, for a five shilling membership fee, they would receive a monthly newsletter describing how to travel the world at rock bottom cost, plus a list of other members.
Thus members could contact other members to form duos or groups to set off and travel after the war. About 40 people joined and the first member was William J Redgrave of Marlow, Bucks. By now it was well into August 1945 and by the time I mailed out the first issue of the newsletter, World War II had ended.
I Appointed Myself President
Since the club existed solely by correspondence, and someone had to head it, in the absence of any committee, I appointed myself president a move to which no one seemed to object.
During the post-war months, as I and millions of other servicemen were returned to England and discharged from various services, I used a secretarial service in Gloucester to print and mail out the newsletter.
By early spring of 1946, the club had about 50 members and we began to fit out our yacht. Club members from London would often come down for the weekend and we’d all go for a sail along the Essex coast before repairing to a local pub to discuss future travel plans.
Bill Redgrave and another member set off by bicycle to tour Europe and a few others planned to emigrate as a way to start seeing the world.
In the first year of peace any mode of travel was complicated by strict food rationing in Britain and on the continent while virtually all ships and planes outbound from England were booked to capacity by wartime volunteers returning to their own countries.
All this made travel very difficult. We did sail our yacht over to France and around to the South Coast of England. But the voyage proved the ageing vessel to be unseaworthy and we sold it for twice the price we’d paid. I used this money to emigrate to the US early in 1947, flying across the Atlantic in an unpressurised DC-4 with refuelling stops at Shannon and Newfoundland.
After I left England, the club languished for a few months until Gordon Cooper, a prolific travel writer, revived it and became the second president. Cooper, a University of Edinburgh graduate who occasionally spoke about travel on the BBC, breathed new life into the Globetrotters Club.
He promoted the club as a way to experience “Adventures in Understanding.” This meant that travelling on a low budget at the backpacker or non-tourist level brings us into intimate contact with the people and culture of another country. Thus we learn and understand far more about another culture than do tourists who pay much higher prices for the privilege of being isolated behind the walls of a tourist hotel while they view everything through the windows of a tourist bus.
Cooper died in East Africa a few years later. But others stepped in to serve as president and officers. And while the club never became a large organisation membership has averaged about a thousand it never became moribund again.
Over the years, hundreds of men and women members have carried out spectacular journeys to the farthest corners of the globe. And many of these explored territory that a few years previously had required a full-scale expedition. There’s no doubt that the club was a powerful influence in helping to popularise what we nowadays call “adventure travel.” Perhaps this was why the club never grew larger.
Jets Have Shrunk The World
Nowadays adventure travel is the fastest growing segment of the travel industry. Anyone with money can buy a packaged trek to Mount Everest or a mountain bike trip through Shutan or Patagonia or up the Karakoram Highway, all neatly squeezed into a 2-3 week holiday with all arrangements made and with everything designed to run smoothly without delay or inconvenience.
Obviously, adventure travel in any form is more rewarding than travelling as a tourist and the adventure travel companies offer hundreds of packaged trips for busy, affluent people.
But these trips cost money. They’re often 6-8 times as expensive as doing the same trip on your own at the backpacker level. So it’s not surprising that the adventure travel companies (plus other adventure travel clubs that flourish in other countries) have siphoned off members who might otherwise have joined the Globetrotters Club.
Yet, the pace of many commercial venture trips often leaves little time to really meet the people and experience the customs of other countries. For those with plenty of time and comparatively little money, the Globetrotters Club, and a few others like it, continue to promote the idea that travelling on your own, and on a low budget, is by far the best way to experience other countries and to learn about their cultures.
Today, jets have shrunk the world; overpopulation and uncontrolled industrial growth have dehumanised many of the world’s cities and virtually eliminated half the world’s forests and its native peoples and their lifestyles and customs. Once handsome cities like Katmandu, Mexico’s Guadalajara and even San Jose, Costa Rica, are enveloped in a brown miasma of smog while soaring high-rise office towers dwarf ancient monuments and centuries-old historic sections.
Fifty years ago, most affordable overseas travel was still by ship and it took a month to reach Australia, 17 days to the Cape and about 3 weeks to South America. Even in 1954, it took me two entire summers to travel the length of the Pan American Highway, riding from Texas to Argentina and Brazil in a series of rickety buses.
But travel half a century ago was much more rewarding and much more fun. And it often cost much less in 1946, Youth Hostels in Britain charged only a shilling a night (25 US cents) while B&Bs averaged about five shillings per person. Cars and trucks were minimal and slow and you could bicycle safely on any main road in Britain or ride through the heart of cities, including London, without concern for traffic.
A cup of tea cost two-pence. And other countries were even cheaper. A popular American guidebook in the early 1950s was entitled Europe on Five Dollars a Day which included room and three meals for one person. Yet the multi-geared lightweight bicycle had not been invented and we still rode heavier 3-speed bikes. No guidebook as detailed or as helpful as the Lonely Planet or the Bradt or Moon series existed .
And the wonderful mountain bike, which opened up rough back country roads and even footpaths to bicycle travellers, did not appear until the early 1980s. Nor did modern anti-malarial prophylactics like Lariam exist. But malaria was easier to prevent than it is today and Giardia was virtually unknown. Overall, the world was much safer then with far less risk of being robbed or mugged.
In fact, every year since 1945 I’ve witnessed a world-wide deterioration in the quality of life and the quality of the travel experience. Each year, more Coca-Cola signs appear and almost every country is rapidly losing its national character while it fuses into a faceless industrial monoculture. So if you’re planning to travel, my advice is to start as soon as you can. In another ten years the entire world may be as standardised and mechanised, and have the same mind-dulling sameness, as the typical city and community in the United States today.
After reaching America and working at a series of mindless and unexciting jobs, I finally became editor of a magazine called Ships And The Sea. Meanwhile, in my spare time, I’d written a book called “Where to Retire on A Small Income”. First published in 1950, this guidebook became a popular seller.
With the royalties, I quite my editorial job moved to Florida and became a freelance travel writer. For the next 3 decades, a single publishing house printed my entire output of books. Bill Redgrave, who had first emigrated to South Africa, left Johannesburg and came to America to handle revisions of my travel guides.
Altogether, we had 25 guidebooks in print and under annual revision, covering everything from freighter travel to retirement havens in the US and overseas, and travelling on a budget in Mexico, Europe and Around the World.
In 1980, however, the publisher retired and travel writing had become extremely competitive and overcrowded. So Redgrave launched a nursery in Florida while I moved to the Colorado Rockies and began writing health books. Both Redgrave and I are still working and travelling, and neither of us has held a job since 1951.
Bicycle touring was always my favourite way to go and I’ve been able to explore 36 countries by bicycle, most recently Ecuador, Costa Rica and Vietnam. Perhaps one day I’ll be forced to see the world from a tourist bus.
But until then, I plan to keep on pedalling my way to a still more exciting series of Adventures in Understanding.
Norman D Ford