The Origins of the Club ,The Early Years, Malcolm Keir Turns Back the Clock

The origins of the club

Though one invariably associates Globetrotting with overland travel, it may surprise members to know that the Club was originally conceived as a yacht touring club. In 1944, while on leave from the navy, Norman Ford purchased a 23-ton yacht, the Silver Foam, with the intention of embarking on a 20-year, round-the-world cruise immediately after the war.

In February 1945 The Daily Mirror published an article about the plan, saying that Ford was looking for two others to share the cost of the trip and to crew the yacht. In the meantime he left for Burma; it was not until he reached Port Said that he received by mail 250 applications to join the trip!

It was it that point that he conceived the idea of a club through which people with similar interests could meet up and possible arrange joint travel ventures. So, while weaving through the Red Sea, he typed up a short letter to each applicant outlining his proposals for such a club and posted them at Aden, By the time he arrived at Colombo he had enough acceptances to warrant forming a club and the first invitations to become Charter Members of the Club were sent off from there.

The first issue of Globe

The first issue of the new club magazine, Globe, was produced in the autumn of 1945 on a captured Japanese duplicator in Rangoon. After the war, the Club HQ was located aboard his yacht in Essex.

By June 1946, the Club had no less than four yachts, all intended for world cruises. However, the financial burden of all four trips was more than had been foreseen and they all eventually had to be abandoned, though not before an initial attempt was made to sail Silver Foam to Tahiti.

It did not unfortunately get very far since the ancient yacht foundered crossing the Bay of Biscay and had to be towed back to Falmouth! Nevertheless, the Club survived and in the summer of 1946 held a summer camp in Wiltshire. By 1947, however, it had become almost moribund.

The refounding of the club

The Globetrotters Club was effectively re-founded in the spring of 1948 and given the character it has had ever since had by Gordon Cooper and a group of dedicated enthusiasts whose indefatigable spirit kept it going in the ensuing years.

The Globetrotters Club Mark II was a child of its time, born out of the age of austerity, shortage and rationing. After World War II the foreign travel allowance was set at £25 per year (later reduced to £20) and the would-be traveller had to be fairly creative and ingenious to get round its limitations. Also, in those post war years of shortage, people’s means were limited (average income was less than half what it is today), hence Gordon Cooper’s immortal phrase about the Club being for people with “anaemic wallets”

Most people also had no more than two weeks paid holiday per year. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Club meetings were usually occasions when members reported back on how to make their £20 go as far as possible during their two weeks abroad.

Meetings gradually became less preoccupied with this, however, and as European tourist offices gradually reopened their doors in London in the early 1950s they were approached to supply speakers and publicity films.

Early copies of Globe appeared irregularly when subscription revenue ran out ~ no further issues appeared, hence most Globes appeared in the first half of the year. Getting new members therefore assumed a high priority. Globe in those days was printed on stencilled sheets, approximately 6″ x 8″ with a green or pink paper cover and always a photograph on the front.

In the early days

In the early days the Club was as much a social club as a travel club, as can be seen from the following notice, which appeared in Globe in August 1951 “A walk has been arranged, starting from Penshurst, Kent to look over Penshurst Place, home of Lord de Lisle and Dudley V.C. and then over the country to Edenbridge (it won’t be too energetic!)”.

In September 1951, a coach party for London members was arranged to visit Southend-on-Sea illuminations and a theatre visit was also planned for October.

The Club also always had an annual party. Globe announced in January 1955 that there would be dancing to a radiogram, some typical Globetrotter competitions and other amusements “while refreshments in the form of tea, coffee, sandwiches, cakes, soft drinks and light alcoholic drinks will also be provided”.

One major problem in these years was finding an adequate venue for the monthly London Meetings. Many early ones were held in Gordon Cooper’s modest flat in Paddington. Various other, mostly unsatisfactory venues were tried as well, for example,

the dingy basement of the Interval Club in Dean Street, Soho (February-September 1952),
St. Bride’s Foundation Institute, Bride’s Lane, near Ludgate Circus (September 1952 to March 1953)
and the Club Med in Great Russell Street (April-May 1953).
Finally, in September 1953, congenial and relatively spacious premises were found at the Royal Scottish Corporation in Fetter Lane in the City, not too far from the Prospect of Whitby pub, to which members repaired for evening refreshment after Saturday meeting

Membership grew steadily

Membership grew steadily from a mere 200 in September 1952 to a peak of 925 in early 1956. This was in part due to the creation of a number of new branches. In March 1952 what for six years was to prove a very successful branch was established at Lancaster (the North Lancs. branch); two years later another one was established in Nottingham (the North Midlands branch), while in February 1953 the first American branch was set up in Jackson, Michigan. Several other English branches followed: in South Wales and at Warrington, where the whole membership of a local club called the Globetrotters Association affiliated to the Club.

Regrettably, however, the two most active branches, the North Lancs. and the North Midlands branches, eventually broke away to form their own organisations, but the overseas membership rose considerably, due to the recruitment efforts in the USA of Norman Ford and another American member, Bob Christopher.

By May 1960 membership had crept back to over 600, with 54% of members now American. In the late 1940s and early 1950s most members didn’t travel much beyond Western Europe.

Yugoslavia, the outer limit?

Yugoslavia was about the outer limit and it was in every sense a “frontier zone” ~ politically because it bordered the completely closed communist bloc of countries in Eastern Europe (the Yugoslavian leader, Tito, had himself broken away from the communist bloc in 1948) but also because conditions in Yugoslavia were in many ways what today we would associate with some parts of the Third World. Roads were notoriously bad, food was atrocious and local living conditions came as a shock too many travellers.

This nevertheless did not stop one member enquiring (in the ‘Mutual Aid’ column in January 1952) “Can you tell me to whom I should apply for details of the Labour Brigades in Yugoslavia?” This gave you 7-10 days free holiday in return for 3 weeks’ work on railway construction.

An enterprising lady member

One member who gloriously disregarded all these limits, however, was Jill Donnisthope who in 1951 managed to hitch hike by road, rail and air from London to Johannesburg. For this she won the President’s Silver Medal, given for the first time in February 1951 for ‘the most interesting Globetrotting feat of the year’. The editor of the January 1952 issue of Globe offered his “many congratulations to this enterprising lady member”.

For those like her with the will to travel far (and especially those who were British) the state of the world in the early 1950s bestowed certain advantages. For one thing, the British Empire, not only in Africa but also in the Middle East (where it was never a formal empire but a highly effective informal one) still existed and you only had to be moderately determined to get down into Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

Oil trucks constantly crossed the desert from Turkey down to Basra and you might even be lucky enough to hitch a plane ride in Jordan from the RAF, which had an air base at Habbaniyah in the Iraqi desert. At that time European imperialism had hardly begun to be challenged, and Globe is full of references to colonial names like ‘Southern Rhodesia’, the ‘Belgian Congo’ and ‘Malaysia’. The attitudes, too, of an imperial era were still reflected in the way in which the indigenous peoples were invariably referred to in Globe as the natives

Other big differences in travelling between then and now were that there were few guides to independent travel other than the hallowed Baedeckers and Blue Guides for well-heeled cultural tourists.

The pioneering Lonely Planet guidebooks didn’t appear until the late 1970s hence the importance of the ‘Mutual Aid’ column in Globe. International air travel was in its infancy and where it did exist was exhausting and expensive. It took 14 or more uncomfortable hours, for instance, to cross the Atlantic by Boeing Super-Constellation propeller-jet while Australia was four or five days away by air.

Sea travel was for many therefore the only viable way of travelling over long distances and happily, there were many shipping lines, which ran combined freight and passenger services, which offered economy rates. In about 1954 the club founder, Norman Ford, actually published in the USA a Bargain Guide to World Shipping Routes and Schedules.

Are they illiterate?

Then, as now, getting members to contribute to Globe was a problem ~

“Do they not travel?
Are they illiterate?
Can’t they afford a 2½d [sic] stamp?”

~ fumed Gordon Cooper.

When members did contribute, they still offended, it seems. In a somewhat school masterly admonition to the membership in February 1952, Cooper declared

“there has been a marked improvement in the supply of articles. Let me repeat, however, the vital need for information to be presented in a concise, lucid style. We have no space to devote to literary impressions what we want are FACTS, FACTS, FACTS”.

One member at least, a Miss Loubser, described by Globe as “that indefatigable lady member”, sent in regular reports of the requisite kind about her wanderings around Europe, thus redeeming the membership somewhat from the charge of neglecting their duty of passing on ‘hints’ and ‘tips’ to fellow members.

One positive consequence of the campaign to boost the quality of the contributions to Globe was the decision in September 1953 to award a £5 prize (a considerable sum in those days) for the most interesting journey described in the magazine during 1953.

A pity there wasn’t a prize for the most budget-conscious trip that year, this would assuredly have been won by the member who spent a mere £18 in a 13-week trip to Morocco, during which time he did all his own cooking and even managed to bring back with him the jam and sugar he had brought out from Manchester!

The more prosperous years of the late 1950s

As the more prosperous years of the late 1950s brought with them an extension of paid holidays, people began to travel for longer and farther afield and independent travel also began to take off. This trend was noticed in a Globe editorial in June 1958 ~

“Public interest in unusual and enterprising travel certainly seems to be on the increase. Streams of travel books continue to pour out of the publishing houses. More and more stories appear in the press of adventurers setting of on scooters, on foot, on rafts and almost always on shoestrings. A sign of the times here somewhere.

The new prosperity was also reflected in the way that holiday snaps and commercial films increasingly gave way to the new (and quite expensive) colour slides at Club presentations. Articles, too, began to appear in Globe about more far-flung places, India and the Middle East being particularly favoured locations.

A sense of how things were opening up is shown by a note in Globe in August 1955 that a Mr Moujab of the Yarmouk Hotel in Damascus was offering half the usual rates at his hotel and restaurant to Club members producing a membership card, whilst two Globetrotters en route by motor bike to India were guests at the Shah’s Sporting Club in Teheran for five days, and later on of the Rajah of Cawnpore.

Seeking out local dignitaries

Seeking out local dignitaries often seemed to pay off through the offer of hospitality One member in the summer of 1956 spent a day with the Sultan of Zanzibar and another stayed for a time as the guest of Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambarene The occasional celebrity could also be attracted to address Club meetings.

In March 1956 the North Lancs branch was addressed by Fitzroy Maclean, the noted pre-war explorer of Soviet central Asia and Churchill’s personal wartime emissary to Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia. Maclean was at the time the local Lancaster MP but the meeting must have been a success since in February 1957 the Hon. Mrs. Veronica Maclean, the member’s wife, gave a talk to the branch entitled “To Persia by Landrover”.

At its April 1956 meeting the North Lancs branch was also addressed by Alfred Gregory who had been a member of the British Everest Expedition of 1953. As if not to be outdone, the London branch could boast, at about the same time, of Lt. Col. Mackenzie Fleming on “Tibet” (with slides!) and Dr Neil Orr, member of the 1956 Oxford University Exhibition on “Socotra Island of the Dragon”.

Members now were not only travelling farther afield – to central America, Africa and the South Pacific ~ but also seeking work further afield. One member wrote in October 1956 that there was plenty of work to be had in Canada for skilled males as mechanics, car body sprayers, sheet metal works and, especially as pipe welders on the Trans-Canadian gasline,(“lousy conditions but good pay”), while women could get work as typists, waitresses, nurses and cooks in snack bars.

Another member wrote to say that he’d worked as a steel erector at the British Trade Fair in Baghdad in 1955, helping to build the first-ever television station in the Middle East (in temperatures of 120F !).

Then, as now, age proved to be no barrier to travelling and in late 1955 71-year old American member, Captain Gerlach, embarked on a no-frills world tour of his own, working his way through Africa and Latin America and reporting back to Globe on every stage of his journey. Even so, that didn’t prevent the editor of Globe from complaining (in July 1957) of the continued shortage of articles from members.

Travelling became more enterprising

As the 1950s progressed, travelling became more enterprising and adventurous One Particularly intrepid traveller was the American Robert Christopher who spent much of 1957-58 in the Sahara where he stayed as a guest of the king of the Touaregs having successfully undergone 3-day test of his ‘suitability’ (he didn’t go into details of what this involved!).

He later travelled with a camel caravan across the desert, where at one stage there was such a desperate water shortage that the survival of the party necessitated a camel being killed and its blood drunk, diluted with water (‘a revolting mixture,’ wrote Christopher) not perhaps a typical Globetrotters experience but never the less a mark of just how far, by the late 1950s, independent travelling had changed since the austere days of 1948.

By 1960, independent travel and The Globetrotters Club, which had done so much to encourage and promote it … had come of age.