1938: A Cook's Tour through Europe and the U.S.A. with the Katts Family

Guest blogger: Narelle McCoy - 2020 Letty Katts Award recipient.

Letty Katts wearing her “around the world hat”. Used by permission of Jill Mellick. 

On 1st March 1938, Anton Katts, with the help of the Thomas Cook agency, took his daughter Violet (Letty) and his wife, Lucretia, on a First-Class tour around the world. The family embarked on the first leg of the tour in Brisbane on the ship, SS Moreton Bay, and travelled through Europe, the U. K., and the U.S.A. where they were met at every point by a Thomas Cook agent. The details of this trip are recorded meticulously in Anton’s diary and provide a window onto a changing world.

Letty and her mother, Lucretia, aboard the SS “Moreton Bay”, 1938. Used by permission of Jill Mellick. 

En route, to the U.K. the ship berthed in several countries, including Sri Lanka, Yemen, Egypt, Malta and Gibraltar. It passed through the Suez Canal which Anton described as “exotic” with its palm trees and camels lining the banks. Onboard, Letty played piano accompaniment for community singing, proving popular with passengers and crew. She also performed solos which were “very well received”.

On arrival in Southampton, the family disembarked and made their way to London. Anton, Lucretia and Letty attended concerts at the Palladium and the Royal Albert Hall, the ballet at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as well as a “Theatrical Garden Party” at Regent’s Park hosted by Noel Coward.

Lucretia and Letty with her favourite music satchel, London 1938. Used by permission of Jill Mellick. 

After their sojourn, the family sailed to Calais, then on to Paris where they enjoyed Othello at the Paris Opera and attended the cabaret at the Folies Bergère. In Cologne Anton noted that he had “mixed feelings” as the family had to fill out a great deal of paperwork, including country of birth and religion. This uneasiness increased on the train to Basel which had stormtroopers in the dining car, and men in uniform wearing short daggers on their belts.

In Basel, Anton observed that there was “no sympathy for the Nazi regime” and that people were more tolerant to “the foreigner”. Letty visited Wagner’s house and museum on Lake Lucerne, then the family travelled to Venice. Anton stated that he “couldn’t imagine a decent hotel in such a place” but was ”pleasantly surprised”, though the family found the crooked streets confusing, the magnificence of Saint Mark’s Palace “bewildering”, and the presence of Blackshirts alarming.

From Venice, the family travelled through Austria to Vienna where “the swastika was displayed in nearly every window”. Anton wrote that Letty was very upset about the terrible treatment of Jewish people which the family had witnessed. They then travelled on to Budapest where they were entertained by “gypsy” orchestras featuring children playing violin with great dexterity.

Anton had intended to travel with Lucretia and Letty to Russia to visit his family who were living there but his visa was refused, and he stated in his diary that he was “bitterly disappointed”. He cancelled the Warsaw leg of the trip and organised to return to London, avoiding Germany as much as possible, though in Amsterdam he had a German officer fall asleep on his shoulder which he found very unnerving.

Back in England, Anton petitioned the Russian Consul to review his visa application but again was unsuccessful, so he posted gifts and letters to his relatives in Moscow. The family toured through Brighton, Plymouth, and the Isle of Wight where they watched warships doing manoeuvres, then on to Ilfracombe in Cornwall.

On 2nd August 1938, Lucretia, Anton and Letty sailed from South Hampton for New York on the RMS Aquitania. Anton recorded that there were many homeless people sleeping on the streets of New York and that buildings were half-empty. He could not believe that the Empire State Building had only 53% occupancy. In contrast to Europe, the Jewish “stronghold” of Orchard Street was a bustling place with produce stalls and shops. He also noted that Los Angeles was “pretty, neat and tidy” with private property reaching right to the seafront. From Los Angeles the Katts family embarked for Australia via Honolulu on the SS Monterey.

Anton recorded the following observation as the ship passed Sri Lanka on the homeward journey: “German steamers boldly float the emblem of Nazism from their masthead and the swastika on its red background is brazenly painted on the ship’s sides”. The world had changed markedly in the six months since their journey had begun.

Anton, Letty and an unidentified crew member on board the SS “Monterey”, 1938. Used by permission of Jill Mellick. 

Narelle McCoy

The Letty Katts Awards is generously supported by Dr Stanton Mellick OAM ED and Professor Jill Mellick through the Queensland Library Foundation.


Read other blogs by Narelle McCoy

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