Page from old photo album
History,  People,  Travel in general

Travelling in the 1930s: a flea market find

In the mid 1930s a young couple set sail on the SS Moldavia with a group of friends, cruising to Lisbon, Madeira and the coast of north Africa on what they termed a ‘real holiday’. They captured their adventures in photographs which they carefully stuck into an album and labelled. Later they added to the album: photos of a walking holiday in Germany, camping in Devon and more.

Rummaging among the antique stalls at Greenwich Market about eighty years later I came across their album. As I scanned the pages I knew that I had to buy it. Their evident love of travel mirrored my own and I felt I wanted to get to know them better.

The travellers

Their photos naturally demonstrate some significant differences between travelling in the 1930s and today, but also more intriguingly, some similarities. They explored historic sites; visited markets and wineries; took photos of the locals going about their daily lives as well as of each other; captured their own lives on board ship, staying in hostels and camping. I am pretty sure that were they alive today at least one of them would be a travel blogger!

I know almost nothing about these people, only what I can glean from the captions on the photos. They were clearly gregarious, travelling mostly with a group of friends. The group seem quite young, possibly their late twenties or early thirties; although an older man labelled as ‘Uncle Bill’ is included in one group photo on the cruise.

Old photo of people on a ship
Introducing the Gang

They were open to new experiences, curious about the places they visited. They were fit and active, enjoying walking and swimming. And they were not at all insular, making friends with people of all nationalities in an international camp, including it seems German (despite the impending threat of war) and Indian.

Beyond that, their lives are a mystery. I’m not even sure of their names, although Esme features prominently in the photos and is probably one half of the album-owning pair. My guess is that Cyril, who stands next to her in the group photo and looks as if he could be her partner in some shots, is her husband. But that’s only a guess. Despite sharing the photos via a Facebook page and a dedicated website, I have never been able to find out more about them.

The holidays

A real holiday

These photos show our travellers cruising the Mediterranean on the SS Moldavia, calling at Lisbon, Madeira and various places in Morocco. The date isn’t given but appears to be the early/mid 1930s – possibly 1935 as the next holiday is dated 1936.

Although I haven’t been able to find out anything about the travellers, I had a bit more luck researching the ship that they sailed in. The SS Moldovia was a passenger liner in the P&O fleet. She was built in Birkenhead and in service from 1922-1937. So the cruise our couple took must have been one of her later ones. In the 30s she was mainly used on voyages between the UK and Australia, with passage to the latter costing as little as £38. But she also did some Mediterranean cruises, of which this must have been one.

By an interesting coincidence I was reading a book last year by the BBC’s news correspondent John Simpson (whose writing I highly recommend by the way), ‘Days from a different world’. In it he describes how his father ran away to sea at the age of sixteen, in 1930. He ended up as assistant steward on the SS Moldavia and would almost certainly have been working on her at the time of this cruise. In his book Simpson says of her:

‘The Moldavia was a small and not particularly sought-after liner which plied the Australia route, and carried 840 passengers. There was only one class: tourist. For my father, that meant relatively few tips and inferior food. Being an assistant steward on the Moldavia was not regarded as a particularly good job. Nor was she a good or particularly comfortable sailer, only 573 feet long and weighing 16,543 tons.’

John Simpson, ‘Days from a different world’

I shared some of the photos with John Simpson via Twitter; he was very interested to see them, but I don’t believe he spotted his father in any of them! However in his reply he did say: ‘I can imagine my father, aged 16, walking those decks after he’d run away to sea.

The albums below show just a sample of the photos our travellers took in each destination. All captions are taken from the album. I have included a few scans of complete album pages so you can see what the photos look like ‘in situ’.

In Lisbon a visit to the bullring appears to have been a highlight.

They took lots of photos in Madeira, where they visited a wine factory and the market-place. It seems they may also have enjoyed the famous toboggan run.

And even more photos in Casablanca, which probably seemed very exotic to them. Of course I cannot know whether they had travelled extensively before this cruise, but the album title of ‘A real holiday’ would suggest not.

After Casablanca the order of the photos in the album is a bit muddled. It’s not clear in what order they visited their two final ports of call, Ceuta and Tetouan, but they seem to have travelled overland between them.

They then seem to have sailed for home; but a few random photos of Casablanca and Lisbon on these pages may mean either that they stopped off in those cities again on the way home. Or, perhaps more likely, they realised that they had been omitted from earlier pages and stuck them in here rather than pull loads out in order to insert them at the right point.

Old photo of people on a ship
Homeward Bound: The last day in the channel

Rucksack tour

In 1936 we find our friends on a walking holiday in Germany, in the Alps and Black Forest. They stay in youth hostels and visit Freiburg. The scenery is beautiful; but there are signs of impending doom (for the modern-day observer) in the swastikas hung in city streets and on alpine guest-houses.

Here and there

A few pages of the album show a variety of trips from 1938. These include some labelled as Whitley Bay in north east England, although from my own knowledge of the area I think they were actually in neighbouring Tynemouth. This may have been a day trip as Esme is wearing the same dress in all the photos. It is striking to look at the way men dressed back then for a trip to the seaside; they could have been working in an office or bank rather than relaxing on the rocks!

There is also what appears to be a short cruise to Malta, although this isn’t completely clear. Esme must have liked that dress as she’s wearing it again here; but then, I suspect she had a much smaller wardrobe than is the norm these days!

International Youth Camp

The final pages of the album document an ‘International Camp’ in Devon. Throughout this section of the album initials under the photos seem to relate to the nationalities of those captured in them. From these I gather that camp participants came from all over Europe as well as India and New Zealand.

It’s especially interesting given that just a year later many of those countries would be at war with each other. There seems little sense of impending hostilities in these images of shared fun by the sea.

I have tried and failed to find any record of such a camp in Devon in 1938. I’d love to know more about it. This coming together of people from all over the world reminds me a little of my own experiences at Virtual Tourist meets and I like to think that ‘my’ couple enjoyed the experience as much as I do!

I wonder if anyone reading this can shed any light on these photos? Do you know anything about the international camp? Or about cruises on the SS Moldavia? It’s a long shot, but perhaps you even recognise one of the people in the photos? Do leave me a comment if you can help!

And if you’re interested to see the complete album of photos they are all on the website I created at the time of the find, in the hopes of getting some clues to their identity.


    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for popping over Anabel 🙂 I wondered the same thing. I always thought it would be cool if someone would come across my online shares of the album and recognise one of the people – ‘oh, that’s my granny / great aunt etc’! I’d love to be able to reunite the album with the family but I can’t see that actually happening 🙁

  • starship VT

    Great post, Sarah! I do remember your earlier FB post about finding this album. It does raise all sorts of questions about the people in the photos and how the album ended up where you found it. I like how it captures a “snapshot” of the times. I quite like reading the journals of early intrepid travelers and have a few. As far as the persons in the album visit to Germany, I think many people briefly thought that what was going on there wasn’t necessarily worrisome until real Hitler’s real ambitions were known AND “… six hundred miles away from London there’s this nasty little chap called Hitler who wants to engulf Europe in tyranny.”

  • Ulrike

    What a great story! It is truly a treasure! When I see the photos there come some questions: How could they afford their travel? Normal people did not have so much time and money for such holidays in the thirties. It would be really great to find out more!
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Ulrike 🙂 I agree – I think they must have been fairly well-off for those times, but not rich. The Moldavia only had third class cabins so would have been cheap compared to many cruises – certainly not luxurious. And in Germany they seem to have stayed in hostels and the occasional Gasthof, and walked carrying all their gear in rucksacks, so again not a luxury trip. I guess that like many of us today they prioritised finding the money for travel over other things, and maybe that’s what makes them unusual for their times?

  • Fergy.

    Hello Sarah,

    for some reason I still cannot reply here via WordPress, I have no idea what the problem is.

    What a wonderful find, it is literally a snapshot of a bygone age. It would indeed be wonderful to find out who these people were.

    I agree that with the benefit of hindsight that the swastikas in some of the German photos is a little unnerving but, as you rightly say, there appears to be little apprehension. I believe I am right in saying that when war was declared there were still Britons in Germany who, for whatever reason, had either not seen war coming or were ignoring the danger for some reason.

    This is a totally absorbing post, great read.


    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Fergy 😀 Yes, I think you’re right that some people didn’t see war coming or were in denial about it. And perhaps these young people, who had met and got on with ordinary Germans, would find it harder to believe than others? Or maybe they saw it coming and wanted to squeeze one last trip in before it arrived? We’ll never know 🤔

      And at least you are now showing up as being Fergy, rather than anonymous – progress of a sort!!

  • Nemorino

    I remember seeing some of these photos from an earlier post of yours (perhaps on Travellers’ Point?). The late-Thirties international camp photos remind me of the euphoric youth movement in France in the late Thirties — which I know about mainly from interviews with Dina Vierny and the photos of Pierre Jamet — which quickly crumbled with the end of the Popular Front and the beginning of the war.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Don – you’re probably remembering them from Facebook as I shared some there back at the time of my find 🙂 I wonder if there were links between this camp and that French movement, as certainly several of the group in Devon were French?

  • VO

    What a treasure!!! Please, let us know if you ever get in contact with someone who knows more and help you with your research.

  • Ingrid

    How interesting and what a fun find. It goes to show as much as we may think the world has changed, in some ways, it hasn’t. Totally agree … one of those people would definitely be a travel influencer if they were alive today.

  • margaret21

    How fascinating. I have – admittedly much more mundane – family albums from that time with not a single label anywhere. It’s so frustrating and everyone is well and truly dead who might have been able to help. One suggestion. The U3A. I’m sure you know this is an organisation catering to the interests of lively and curious older people. It has a magazine which circulates to all its members. I wonder if a slightly shortened version of this post might be of interest to them, and solicit some replies? The address (TAM stands for Third Age Matters), I know the actual voyagers will be long dead, but they may have had children in due course?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m glad you enjoyed this Margaret. I’ll have a think about your U3A suggestion. I have a friend who is involved with them so she might advise. Thanks for thinking of it 🙂

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