Flying across the Atlantic in 1952 (and Spurs beat Chelsea in 1950)

My cousin Wick Hoffmann has done a lovely write-up of the life of his grandfather, my great-great-uncle Morris Shallcross Wickersham (1872-1962). A lot of it is just family detail of interest only to us relatives, but there was one point that jumped out at me from Morris’s diary for 1952, when at the age of 80 he flew across the Atlantic for the second time, to visit his sister Lily in London and his niece, my grandmother Dorothy Whyte, in Northern Ireland. (The image is of Wick’s transcript of his grandfather’s notes.)

The first thing that jumped out at me was the price of an air ticket from New York to London – $395 single, $711 return. Today’s dollar prices are generally a bit more, but it’s only a couple of years ago since those numbers were comfortably within the lower end of the cost of a transatlantic flight. But for 1952, those prices are massive; the inflation calculator tells me that the $395 single is $4,650 in 2024 prices, and the $711 return is $8,300. Luckily Morris’s sister Lily was very rich and could cover the cost.

The fare for a flight from Morris’s local airport in Erie, Pennsylvania, to New York was initially quoted to him as $17.42, which equates to $204 in 2024. It would be impossible to do that flight now. At present, Erie is serviced only by American Airlines, and the only flights out of the airport go to Charlotte, North Carolina, so if you want to fly from Erie to New York you have to detour 900 km to the south. Prices start at $220.

In fact he ended up going to New York by train, paying $32.83, which is $384 today. The trip took nine and a half hours (and presumably he had a sleeper or equivalent). Today you’d pay $65, but the trip takes 11 hours and there is no overnight option.

The transatlantic flight experience sounds pretty gruelling. His first flight was cancelled after he had arrived in New York, so he went home again. On his second flight, the first leg took him from New York to “Labrador” (which must mean Gander, Newfoundland), leaving at 5pm and arriving at 10pm, a three and a half hour journey allowing for time differences. That would be even worse today – there are no direct flights from New York these days, and you have to change in Montreal.

Then the passengers were stuck in a military barracks in Newfoundland, sleeping in dormitories, for two days when their plane had to turn back after it developed engine trouble. Morris is surprisingly positive about this experience – I guess that the Canadian ground staff made a special effort for the stranded octogenarian.

Finally the flight took off at 9.15pm Labrador time, two days late, and landed in London at 6.15pm the next evening. That’s fourteen and a half hours, though that surely includes time taken for refuelling at Shannon Airport. The Pan Am ticket he had originally booked would have been quicker, leaving New York at 3pm and landing in London at 11.05am the next day, just over fifteen hours in total. I guess it skipped either Gander or Shannon.

You’ll note that amidst the travel detail, Morris notes on 21 May that he had given up smoking. This was neither the first nor the last time that he made such a note in his diary!

One other point of wider interest: during Morris’s previous trip to England and Ireland, in 1950, he notes the following for October 14th:

John Whyte and I went to Stamford bridge stadium to a football game between Chelsea (the home team) and Tottenham Hotspurs, Tottenham won 2 to 0. about 70,000 people attended. We got home at 5 P.M. This stadium seats 65,000 people we with thousands of others had to stand.

I was fascinated by this because I have never thought of my father (Morris’s great-nephew, then aged 22 and an Oxford postgraduate student) as much of a football fan. In fact it was a rather significant match. The win at Stamford Bridge on 14 October was Spurs’ third win in a row, and their first away win in London of the season, an important proof of concept of manager Arthur Rowe’s “push-and-run” strategy. Spurs had only just been promoted from the Second Division, after winning it in 1949-50. They went on to win the First Division for the first time in 1950-51, also the first time that any club had won the two divisions in successive years, and in retrospect the Chelsea match was the turning point in their fortunes after a shaky start to the season.

The total attendance is recorded as 65,992, so I suspect that if the capacity of the stadium was really 65,000, there were hundreds rather than thousands standing. (But they included 78-year-old Morris!)

One thought on “Flying across the Atlantic in 1952 (and Spurs beat Chelsea in 1950)

  1. There’s a fantastic little museum for the old transatlantic terminus in Ireland. Will see if I can dig out the details (with apols. if you already know of it)

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