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The 1950s Passenger Lists discover Celebrity Voyages

International actors, a backbench MP before he led the country and a comic favourite of the nation...


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Britain in the 1950s was still recovering from the shadow of the Second World War. While there was peace, the country still showed signs of conflict with some bomb sites remaining unrepaired or filled in. Rationing was still a reality on butter, meat, tea and coal. Around the country people relied on their back gardens and allotments to grow extra food. Income tax was higher than it is today, and so the population had little spare cash to use on travel.

For the rich, glitzy transatlantic steamers were not as appealing a conveyance as they had once been in the previous decades. Now jet-powered aircraft had begun to carry passengers across the ocean in less and less time, and speed became more important than the style of crossing the ocean. Despite this, the ships still remained important as a means of transport and a search of the 1950s decade passenger lists on TheGenealogist reveals a number of famous celebrities.

The Actors

On the 10th October 1950 the Cunard White Star Line's Caronia set sail from Southampton to New York. On board was the 24-year-old actor Richard Burton and his 21-year-old first wife Sybil. The Welsh actress had married Burton just the year before this crossing having met while filming The Last Days of Dolwyn in 1949. Famously she would divorce him in 1963, when he began an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, but she is also known for being a theatre director, and the founder of popular celebrity New York nightclub named "Arthur".

Richard Burton

Sybil Burton neé Williams

Richard and Sybil Burton sailing to New York 10th October 1950

The M.P.

In 1953 a humble backbencher Member of Parliament, who would one day rise to become Prime Minister, can be found on the American ship "United States" sailing to New York on the 30th July of that year. Edward Heath, having served as an officer in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War, had worked briefly in the Civil Service before putting himself up for election. Despite being of lower middle class origins he had been a leader in student politics at the University of Oxford. Ted Heath, as he was known, was first elected as M.P. for Bexley in the 1950 general election on Thursday 23rd February. At the time of the trip, the records show that he was still only three years into his parliamentary career as a Conservative M.P. which would last until 2001.

Sir Edward Heath M.P.

Edward Heath M.P. on the "United States" to New York 30th July 1953

The Comic

In this decade the British public were being entertained by Norman Wisdom. Best known as an English actor, comedian, and singer-songwriter, he became famous for a series of comedy films produced between 1953 and 1966 featuring his hapless onscreen character that was often called Norman Pitkin. Wisdom and his second wife, Freda, can be found in the passenger lists towards the end of this decade travelling to South Africa on the "Pendennis Castle". On 26th February 1959 they sailed from Southampton to Cape Town on the Union Castle Lines ship.

Norman Wisdom

Norman Wisdom and his wife Freda traveled to Cape Town on 26th February 1959 on "Pendennis Castle"

The Union Castle Lines' "Pendennis Castle"

The latest batch of Outgoing Passenger Lists that are released on TheGenealogist can be used to find ancestors travelling from Britain to far away places including Australia, South Africa and the USA. These records can also reveal their occupation and provide an address in the United Kingdom connected with an ancestor - even if it was not their actual home. The Burtons, as actors and probably wanting their privacy, are a bit coy; only recording that their address was "London, NW3". Edward Heath furnished the shipping line with what was presumably his London flat which he used while attending parliament: 7a Westminster Palace Gardens. His occupation was, unsurprisingly, listed as an MP. Norman and Freda Wisdom supplied an address at Phillimore Court on High Street Kensington which seems to be a block of 1930s flats and Norman's occupation is listed as 'Theatrical Artist' which nicely encompasses his many talents.


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