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

CNN  — 

The glamorous black and white photos appear to be straight from a golden age of travel. The postwar era of streamlined airplanes, stylish bathing suits, swish hotels, empty country roads and cool cars.

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

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

In one photo, she’s lounging on the grassy hills surrounding Loch Lomond, Scotland, caught mid-laughter.

On the next page, she’s sat next to her husband on a Spanish terrace, surrounded by terracotta pots. They’re both beaming under the Catalonian sun.

In another, she’s snapped disembarking an airplane, descending airstairs emblazoned with the BEA logo of British European Airways – a forerunner to British Airways – binoculars and trench coat in one hand.

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

Johnston’s striking photos offer an intriguing insight into British vacations at the onset of the mid-20th century travel boom.

And for me, they’re 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, the few vacations of her childhood took her to traditional seaside resorts less than 100 miles from home, where entire industrial towns would often decamp for a week’s break at the same time.

Her childhood travels were cut short by World War II. On August 31, 1939, she and her parents arrived in the Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington. The next day, Germany invaded Poland and the family went home.

“I’d got a new bucket and spade especially, but I never got to use it,” she says. “That was the last time we went on holiday as a family.”

Like many in her generation, during the war Mavis was evacuated from her city center home to the countryside. Her father passed away from illness towards the end of the 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 was fresh from completing his compulsory military service. He’d also grown up in a working-class northern English neighborhood, but a year spent in the RAF, working and bunking with men from across the world, had broadened his horizons. He was hungry to see as much of the world as possible.

Britain was only just emerging from years of conflict. The austerity endured by many during the war was still visible. Rationing had only just ended. Vacations, even modest ones, were a luxury.

Mavis worked in a clothes shop and Peter was a textile salesman. When they married in 1955, neither of them had ever ventured far beyond the north of England, let alone traveled abroad. That photo of my grandmother disembarking the airplane marked her first time traveling by air.

“I was just relieved to be on the ground,” she laughs when asked about the snapshot.

She was traveling with my grandfather to the Isle of Man, she says, not long after they were married.

Arriving in the Isle of Man.

Located roughly equidistant between England and Ireland, the Isle of Man was a tourist hotspot in the mid-20th century thanks to its sandy beaches and seafront hotels teeming with travelers.

Although the island is a British dependency and, in many ways, similar to the mainland, its self-governing status and distinctive identity undoubtedly gave it a whiff of exoticism to little-traveled holidaymakers in the post-war period. Today it’s still popular, particularly with sailing enthusiasts.

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

“Grandad sat next to the pilot, and I sat behind him,” she says.

She remembers being thrilled. But, was it as glamorous as she made it look in that chic photograph of her disembarking?

“Well, it was a little bit more hit and miss in those days,” she says, recalling being somewhat terrified on the short and bumpy journey across the Irish sea.

The package holiday industry was in its infancy, she points out. At the time, traveling on airplanes wasn’t really commonplace.

The Johnstons honeymooning on the southwest of England in 1955.

For that reason, many of the snapshots in the Johnstons’ brown leather photo album labeled “1950s” were taken at vacation destinations across the UK. The post-war years were the heyday of the British seaside and, like many, my grandparents took their honeymoon in Bournemouth, a coastal town in the southwest of England.

There’s a snapshot of the couple, posing by a car, at Swanage Harbour, in Dorset. The photo was taken, my grandmother says, by another honeymooning couple staying at the same Bournemouth hotel.

“We hired the car between us, the four of us, to go and look at different places,” she tells me.

Mavis Johnston on her Honeymoon in Bournemouth.

Back then, the Johnstons didn’t own a car. Mavis didn’t learn to drive until a decade or so later. But Peter’s father had been a chauffeur, and he’d always been interested in automobiles.

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’d hoped when she’d picked it out of a travel brochure – a reasonable concern in a country whose reputation for dreary hotels would endure for another half century.

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

“Anywhere where you were by the sea, to me who was brought up in the city, was always very exciting.”

Arrested in Barcelona

Mavis and Peter Johnston visited Spain in 1956.

Some of the most striking shots in the Johnston photo album were taken on a 1956 trip to Spain’s Costa Brava region.

In the mid-1950s, the Mediterranean country wasn’t yet the go-to destination for Brits it was to become. The package holiday industry was in its infancy, and Spain was still under the grip of dictator Francisco Franco.

Yet in the summer of 1956, my grandparents chose Spain as the destination for their first trip abroad. They booked an excursion via now-defunct travel agency Thomas Cook, which had launched in the 1840s but come into its stride in the post-war boom.

Mavis’ shop co-workers were surprised when she said she was planning to travel abroad – and even more shocked when they found out where.

“I’d just always wanted to go,” she says. “Many years before I thought: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to go to Spain.’ I had an idea it would be an interesting place to go.”

She was proven correct, although 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 the planes flying back and forth to Spain, like there are now,” she says. “It was only a few years later that Spain really opened up for tours. In 1956, you had to book through an agency and get on a coach from the airport to wherever you were staying. Before you could get on a plane you had to prove you had accommodation at the other end. You couldn’t just drive down the coast.”

After traveling to London by train, the Johnstons boarded the plane with a few other excited British travelers, sun hats on laps and bathing suits packed away in leather suitcases in the airplane hold.

Passengers were permitted one check-in bag per passenger and another smaller bag as hand luggage, Mavis recalls.

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

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

“The airplane could only carry so much weight in people, and so much weight in luggage,” Mavis explains.

The onboard experience was vastly different to that of modern flying – although she laughs off the image of inflight martinis that we might imagine were a staple of the so-called golden age of aviation.

“You didn’t have cabin staff or anything. As far as I know they didn’t serve drinks. In those days you weren’t allowed to take alcohol on the plane. I think you could take lemonade or orange or something like that.

“There were only about 10 people on the airplane. It was all open in the sense that the pilot was sitting in the same area as you. We were right behind the pilot and the co-pilot – we could’ve touched him.”

She remembers being nervous as she climbed aboard, but this was soon replaced by excitement once takeoff was complete and the plane was in the air. She marveled at the sight of the sea glistening below.

“I was so excited to be going to the sun and going abroad,” she says.

Spain in 1956 was just on the brink of becoming a popular holiday destination.

Upon arrival at Barcelona airport, passengers were waved through security, but my grandparents were pulled to one side and prevented from passing through.

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

Mavis and Peter didn’t speak Spanish and the officials weren’t fluent in English. The situation got increasingly difficult and the couple started to worry. Getting arrested on their first day in Spain hadn’t been on the agenda.

Eventually, a representative from the nearby German embassy got involved. It turned out there was a typo on Mavis’s paperwork, and that’s what alerted suspicions. Another teething problem for a travel sector in its infancy.

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

The consequences could’ve been far worse in a country that then had a reputation for arbitrary and severe justice in response to minor misdemeanors.

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

“I wondered if we should’ve never gone,” she says.

They took photographs of the sights, including a policeman and their hotel.

But years later, they’d laugh about the experience. My grandmother’s chuckling as she tells me the story now.

“I wish I’d got the contact details of the German lady who helped us,” she says. “At the time I was too flustered, but we so appreciated it. We were so stressed, and tired, we were in the wrong clothes, I’d come right from work and was wearing a thick jumper. Among all the worry, we were overheating too.”

While everyone else in their tour party had been greeted at the airport and whisked on an organized bus straight to the nearby coastal town of Lloret de Mar, my grandparents scrambled to get there on public transport.

Kind strangers, she says, saw their beleaguered expressions and evident confusion, and helped make sure they got safely on their way.

The vacation was Mavis Johnston's first trip abroad.

Hours later than everyone else, they arrived at the hotel. They’d lost their reserved room when they failed to show up with the rest of their party, but they ended up with their own villa on the hotel’s picturesque grounds.

This was a real treat, beyond their wildest dreams.

“We didn’t have much money to spend on the trip,” my grandma says. “And much of what we’d brought with us we had to put towards the fine.”

Despite that, in every photo they look to be having a blast: laughing on the beach, sunbathing on the hotel veranda, posing in group photos with fellow travelers.

After a few days enjoying themselves in Lloret de Mar, the tour group traveled on to the island of Mallorca.

In the photos, my grandma wears polka dot skirts, crisp white shirts and bright-colored, ’50s-style swimsuits. She remembers plenty of the Brits abroad getting sunburned, it was a pre-sunscreen age, and many weren’t used to the warm Mediterranean sun.

“We genuinely couldn’t believe how hot it was,” she says. “It was unbelievable to us.”

Irish adventure

On the walls of Derry/Londonderry in 1957.

In 1957, my grandparents traveled to Ireland.

“We booked the trip through Lewis’s, the big store in Manchester, which had a travel department.” she says. “They didn’t have travel agents then. But Lewis’s had what they called a travel bureau, in the store. The department store was right opposite the shop where I worked in Manchester, so that was very handy.

I’d always wanted to go to Ireland, mainly because my father’s father, he came from Ireland.”

Photos from the vacation show her sitting atop a cannon on the city walls, sandaled feet crossed over each other. In another shot, my grandfather, in a suit, leans languidly on the walls.

In another reflection of the austerity of the period, Mavis says the highlight of the trip wasn’t the landmarks or landscapes – but obtaining several pairs of nylon stockings.

Rationing had ended a few years earlier, but there were still some shortages. In Manchester, she’d sometimes line up for hours outside department stores and come away empty handed.

In the south of Ireland, Mavis says, nylons were a little more readily available, and on a day trip from where they were staying in the north, the women on the tour stocked up.

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

“What we’d been told to do was take the nylon stockings out of the packets, leave the packets in a public toilet and wrap the stockings round your tummy, under your clothes.”

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

Trips to Scotland, where my grandfather’s family was from, also appear in the album – plus holidays in Cornwall, and a sojourn to the Scilly Isles, an archipelago off the UK’s southwestern coast reachable via another tiny propeller plane.

These photographs of my grandmother’s adventures evoke something of a sense of what travel was like for some British travelers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Shots of smiles and sun hats and airplanes suggest how it must have felt to have lived your childhood through the constraints of war and then emerge into a new world, a new decade, with opportunity and promise stretching out before you.

Writer Francesca Street and her grandmother, Mavis Johnston, today.

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

Today, my grandmother marvels at the amount of traveling I do, living in an age where budget flights and Airbnb allow me to jet-set to Mediterranean cities for weekend breaks, to land in the United States within seven hours or to plan visits to eastern Europe, Hong Kong or Australia.

“There are many places I’ve never been to,” she says. “But I’m so grateful I got to explore the destinations that I did. It was an amazing time to travel.”