An American Abroad, Part 2

Another extract from the journal of my grandmother’s cousin, Ohio businessman John D Lewis, during his extended visit to the UK in May and June 1952. He’s now moved on to Birmingham, where he spends one night at the Midland Hotel and two at the Grand. But the weather is a lot cooler than he anticipated for the time of year – 62 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16 to 18 Celsius – leading to some sartorial difficulties…


Owing to the cool weather, I was only able to wear one of the three suits I had with me. The two light summer suits were not appropriate for this climate, so consequently, my blue gaberdine suit was taking the beating. So upon my arrival, I was elated in the thought that I could now have a suit pressed. So about 8.30 the next morning, I called for valet service. They said that he would come right up. The man was a small, elderly gentleman who was hard of hearing. You may be interested in the conversation that ensued:

Me: Could I have a suit pressed this morning?

Valet: What time do you want it?

Me: At ten o’clock.

Valet: That’s impossible, the best I could do would be twelve o’clock.

Me: Why so long?

Valet: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s like this. First, I have to clean the toilets, and then do the pressing.

Me: Now, my good man, if you will press my suit right away, I will give you a nice tip.

Valet (putting his trumpet to his ear): What did you say?

Me: You heard me the first time, you old rascal.

Valet: Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll press the suit first, and clean the toilet last.

The charge for the pressing was two shillings (28 cents) and I gave him a two shilling tip, so therefore we were both happy. Next, I visited the barber shop for a haircut, and the price was one shilling and sixpence (20 cents). That was my cheapest haircut.

The next day, I checked in at the Grand Hotel, and the modern conveniences were welcomed. I again found the food good, although the variety was very limited, but tea, tea and more tea. Pie, cookies and fruit cakes are called sweets, and dessert consists of cheese and crackers. It was with some difficulty that I became accustomed to using hot milk for my tea and coffee.

(His next stop is Hanley, in the Potteries)

At every pottery we visited, the first thing, after introductions, was tea and sweets. It’s a nice custom, but I was amused to learn that all the factories shut down each day at 10.30 in the morning and 3.30 in the afternoon for tea and sweets. With all the tea, I began to wonder if I should add another initial to my name, appropriate to the beverage.

I should mention before leaving, the Hotel dining room, where we dined each day. The food was excellent, in spite of the fact that the variety was limited due to rationing. [Note: rationing in the UK didn’t end until July 1954.] The service was really outstanding. Two of the girls were especially nice, and did everything to add to our enjoyment. The main breakfast dish was fish, either kippers or haddock. I recall one morning I decided that I would enjoy a change of diet, so ordered a fresh boiled egg. I had forgotten that eggs were also rationed. The waitress sorrowfully reminded me, but in a few moments, she returned and said that she had two eggs on her rations, and that she desired to share them with me. I refused to accept of her generous offering, but she insisted. However, as I partook of the egg, I was so forcefully impressed with the privations of these good people. Again let me say that this was the spirit in England. It did not seem like a regular hotel dining room, but rather a home away from home.

[I’ll post another part of John D’s journal next week]


  1. Rosanne Moore says:

    I’ve been following this account with some interest because during that time I was born in the United States. I thought about emigrating in the 1980s, and the British Isles were on my short list. The past year I have had to re-examine everything that I believed or was taught about my country. So I’ve been reading Travels in North America by Captain Basil Hall and A Diary in America by Captain Frederick Marryat to give me some perspective. I can’t disagree very much with their observations of this still young country.

    PS I did not realize that there was post-WWII rationing in Britain until I read 84, Charing Cross Road.

    PPS It wasn’t until I found your website that I realized I’d seen you on the documentary Broadside: Emerging Empires Collide, which I stayed up watching until 4 a.m. on Amazon. Thanks for writing this blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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