My childhood travel muse
When I take a retrospective look at who inspired my imagination, from quite a young age, about the world of vintage fashion and the golden era of travel, my earliest recollections turn to my lovely mum, Patricia.
Climbing into what seemed like an enormous bed at my grandmother’s house as a child, I’d stare in awe at mum’s 21st birthday portrait photograph from the 1950s on the wall. The framed photo had that classic colour-washed effect that was common in the era. With her arched, defined eyebrows and dusky pink dress, to me she resembled a glamorous film star of the 1940s or 1950s.
Her photo albums from her first overseas trip were like treasured books of wonder and possibility to me. On the parched, brown and thick paper in leather albums with the Pyramids of Egypt on the front cover, it was through mum’s photos of her first voyage overseas in 1958, from Sydney to London, and all the ports she visited during her six-week passage and two-year stay in England, that I began to glimpse the world for the first time.
Slim and petite and dressed in the cutest fashions of the late 1950s, there I became acquainted with my mother as someone else entirely. No longer was she just a mother to me and my five older siblings and entwined in all the domesticity that running a household entails, but my goodness, she led quite the adventure long before I was born and during an era when many women her age were expected to be married and have children.
In those black-and-white photos pasted into the albums with silver photo corners, and through coloured slides, I saw my mum sunbaking on the cruise ship on which she travelled to England; she is pictured outside youth hostels with her arms around new friends; she is on the back of a rickshaw in Colombo, Sri Lanka; she’s chatting and smiling with Italian guards outside the Colosseum in Rome; she’s walking in a floral dress across a bridge over Singapore’s river; she’s photographed emerging in county Cork in Ireland from a truck that she hitchhiked in; she’s posing in front of the Pyramids in Cairo; and she’s posting Christmas mail home in a classic red letter box just outside the flat where she lived for two years, in Elgin Crescent in London.
In recent months, I have been making an effort to try and preserve in digital format some of these images taken more than 60 years ago of my mum and her sister Margaret on their two-year adventure living in the UK. Observing mum, now aged 89, looking at her old photos again and her various travel mementoes (she was a prodigious at taking notes, journaling, writing post cards and even documenting the slides and photos they took at the time), I see her eyes still twinkling brightly with recollections of her travels. She may not be able to tell me what she ate for breakfast this morning and yet, here she is, recalling the names of people they met in 1958; the colours, smells and sounds of different places; the songs they sang and places they danced; the one and only time they felt afraid while hitchhiking; and most of all, without any words, she has inadvertently transcribed for me just what those travels meant to her and their imprint on her life.
There are some stories which I’m sure she has kept for herself – and that makes me happy. For almost the past 60 years, she’s been our ‘mum’… but in 1958, 1959 and 1960, in those innocent days, she was just a young and carefree Australian woman acquiring experiences that are hers alone, embossed on her soul and heart.
“I think it’s a great eye opener to travel before you settle down and get married,” she tells me one Sunday morning over a cup of tea “Education wise, I suppose, and meeting other nationalities. It broadens your outlook. I think it makes you more tolerant of other people. I’ve got a card that says, ‘To Travel is to Live’ – and I agree with this. I think it’s a great education to travel.”
Travel is enduring and the trip itself can last well beyond your return home date. Travel provides more than the literal and physical journey. As I watched my mother’s thin, wrinkled and aged hands turn the pages of her old diaries, notebooks and passports, I realise that travel can also take you on an imaginative journey through time itself – whether you’re a doe-eyed little girl wondering where her mother has been; or an old lady transported through the past, down the corridors of her memory. It’s the nostalgia of our adventures that provide some of the brightest colours on our life’s tapestry. I’m forever thankful to my mother for subliminally encouraging me to also stretch my legs further afield and explore our fascinating world, knowing all the while I had a safe and loving home to return to.
Read on for my Q&A with mum following an interview I conducted in July 2020, just six weeks before her 90th birthday.
What made you decide to travel overseas?
Well, Margaret my sister was going with two other girlfriends. Somehow, they pulled out and decided not to go so then I thought, oh well I might go and take their place.
How old were you when you departed?
Do you remember how much the fare cost you for your ship passage to England?
No, unfortunately I can’t remember but it was much cheaper than flights.
What month or date / year did you leave Australia? Do you remember the name of the ship?
We left on 10 April, 1958. The ship was Italian and was called Castel Felice
How long did the cruise take? What was life like onboard? What sort of activities did you take part in?
The cruise took about six weeks. We used to dance at night. In the daytime, you could play sports onboard. We would lie on sun loungers on the deck and swim in the pool. Some people played cards. It had a shop onboard. Our cabin accommodated six people, with no balcony. There was myself, Margaret, another old English lady who drove us mad (a whinging Pom) and three other people I can’t quite remember.
Did you have a plan set up – i.e friends you and Meg stayed with until you got a job etc?
The Hennessy twins (friends of Margaret’s) had a flat in Elgin Crescent in Notting Hill Gate. They were leaving to return to Australia and we were going to take over their flat after they left. We didn’t move straight into there, we moved into somewhere else for a couple of weeks until they moved out.
Which ports did you stop in on the way over?
I boarded with a white suitcase that had red lining. We headed up north from Sydney through the Great Barrier Reef and we went to Jakarta, Indonesia – but we weren’t allowed off the boat (I think there was trouble there at the time). Then we docked at Singapore. We stopped in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Egypt, visiting Cairo and going through the Suez Canal. Then onto Naples in Italy.
Was it common for women your age to undertake a trip of this nature – or was it considered quite adventurous?
Yes it was common – it was the ‘done’ thing for Australians to save up and go to England before settling down.
Do you remember how long you had to save up to be ready for the trip?
Quite a while. We each took a second job as waitresses at Cahill’s Restaurant in Kings Cross on top of our day jobs as administration clerks to help fund the trip.
What was your address in London?
76 Elgin Crescent t in Notting Hill Gate, London. It had the red letterbox basically right outside our gate. Our mum used to post a letter at the GPO Box in Sydney on a Friday and we’d get it on Monday morning, in London. We couldn’t believe it! You can’t even get post to travel that quick in Sydney now!
What sort of work did you and Margaret find?
Margaret didn’t have any trouble as she was a secretary so she got secretarial jobs at legal firms. I had to work as a sales assistant and had never sold anything in my life. I worked at Thomas Wallace department store at Hyde Park. I also worked at Selfridges in Oxford Street and D.H Evans in Oxford Street. I got used to selling and picked it up. I think I was put in the souvenirs department at Selfridges and the lady who trained us said, “You Australians have to remember that there’s not eight half crowns in the pound”.
My hours were usually 9am until 5:30pm. I would travel to work by the number 15 bus, down Oxford Street past all the shops. I ended up at Thomas Wallace and we had a floor walker called Mr Hayes and he liked Australians; he was lovely. Cricket was the great thing and Mr Hayes was mad on cricket. He couldn’t get over the fact that I had a signed letter from Donald Bradman.
Once based in London, how often did you travel in Europe etc? Where did you go? What were some of your favourite sites eg: Mermaid in Copenhagen?
We arrived in the European summer in May. We met some Dutch boys on the ship. My boyfriend was Martin Doll and he invited us back to his family home. We had the nerve to call on them and I think we stayed about a week. Gosh, you have so much hide when you are young, don’t you? When I think of it now!
In August 1959, we took a ship from Newcastle to Norway. From London, we hitched up to Tyne Quay in Newcastle to board ‘Leda’. We visited Bergen, crossed a fjord, Oslo, Stockholm in Sweden, Copenhagan in Denmark, Hamburg in Germany, Amsterdam in Holland, Antwerp on Belgium and then Dover to London. I think Norway was lovely I LOVED the little mermaid!
In September, 1959 we travelled through Ireland. We got a ferry from England to Dublin in Ireland. From there, we went to Galway, Limmerick, Tralee, Killarney. That was a joke – Killarney. I think we stayed in the hostel and we hired bikes and drove around Killarney. We were in this park and we put the bikes down but it was actually a golf course! We lay down on the green. We were so stupid we didn’t know about golf. We were having a rest and we looked up and here were some golfers getting ready to tee off so we had to dive up and make a quick exit.
We headed to Ballycotton county in Cork because our maternal grandmother came from there. Her surname was Cuddigan and we tried to find some people by that name and we found them… but they didn’t know if they were related to our grandmother, Margaret Mary Cuddigan. We just got into the town and looked up the phone book – it was only a little village. Someone recommended we go visit ‘Paddy and May’ Cuddigan, saying they had just returned from the US. We found out, however, that they had travelled back in 1937 – it was then1959! But they were so kind, they took us in and gave us a hot lunch.
We went to Blarney Castle and kissed the Blarney stone. I was scared stiff. They hang onto your feet and you’ve got to arch backwards. It’s supposed to give you the gift of eloquence or something – I don’t think it does! Then onto Glendalough.
In July 1960, we travelled to Scotland by hitchhiking. We went to Edinburgh, Inverness, Loch Lomond, Thursby (my mum’s maiden name); and the Lakes District.
Tell us about hitchhiking – is that how you got around from place to place? Were you ever nervous? Was that the common thing?
Yes, it was very common. You wouldn’t do it these days. We travelled mostly by hitchhiking – it was cheaper. We were only scared once. We were somewhere in Germany. This fella had a Mercedez and we think he’d been drinking. We got a bit scared. We asked to get out but he wouldn’t stop but he was going around a roundabout and had to slow down, so we jumped out. We travelled with a duffle bag which we had on us so we were able to dive out. We got away from him. It scared us a bit but we had to get another lift eventually! We were told to never hitchhike in Italy so when we were there, we got a multi pass train ticket.
What did you use for luggage when you were travelling?
It was a canvas, over-the-shoulder duffle bag, in a ‘sleeping bag’, circular shape.
Can you tell me about dress attire? Did you always have to wear gloves for instance? What about swimwear on the beach?
Well, we never wore gloves when we were hitchhiking! We didn’t take swimwear with us. We wore sensible sandshoes. Poor old Margaret got an infected toe! We only had one pair of shoes… we couldn’t carry too much.
What did you miss the most about Australia while you were away?
The first thing I missed was milkshakes! You couldn’t buy a milkshake anywhere! I always remember that… I couldn’t get over it. Things were different, but you got used to it. The winter in the UK and the fogs in November were terrible.
How did you record your travels? Eg: photos, slides, journalling, postcards etc.
I kept a travel diary. We shared one camera between us. I sent home lots of postcards. I kept a log of all the photos I took in a small notebook and their locations.
How long did you stay away for and were you at all nervous about returning home?
We were away for 24 months. I wasn’t nervous to come home. I’ll tell you what Margaret said on the first weekend we were back home in Sydney. It was a Sunday morning and Margaret looked out the window and asked, ‘Are the pubs open on a Sunday?’ Mum nearly fell off her chair, as we didn’t drink much before our trip!
What did that experience mean for you? Looking back now, how do you feel that you got to have this experience before meeting the man you would marry and going on to have six kids with?
I think it’s a great eye opener to travel before you settle down and get married. Education wise, I suppose and meeting other nationalities. It broadens your outlook. I suppose it makes you more tolerant of other people. I’ve got a card that says, ‘To Travel is to Live’ – and I agree with this. I think it’s a great education to travel. We were a bit worried about mum as our father had died and she still had kids at high school. She must have missed us. She was so delighted when we came home. She never once complained or wrote to us to come home… she let us do our thing. She was very good. It must have been tough for her, the poor love.
When did you depart England? Can you remember the name of the ship? And what ports did you visit on the way home?
We left England in 1960 and sailed home on the Willem Ruys which also took six weeks to reach Australia.