The Overseas Visitors Club began in Cape Town, South Africa in the late 1950s. Max Wilson chartered one of the Union Castle Line ships and took the first ‘load’ of young colonials to London for £30 – with one week’s accommodation at the OVC headquarters at 180 Earls Court Road, SW5. And it grew – and grew – from there…
By the time I arrived in 1965, Max Wilson had sold to a London syndicate headed by Nick Tarsh, Neil Herman and David Lawson – and they had extended their operations to include the Chandris Shipping Lines (and several others) and five other hotel properties.
The sea fare from New Zealand to Southampton – including transfers to London and one week’s accommodation had risen to £160.
A Fascinating Place…
It comprised 5 hotels – 600 rooms – 5 restaurants – 7 bars – a night-club (where Gerry Dorsey worked for £15 – before he became Engelbert Humperdinck) – a TV lounge – an employment agency – a Poste Restante office – a theatre booking desk and a travel agency, which gave birth to – Trafalgar Tours.
Top Row L-R: 1. OVC Front Entrance – on Nevern Place. 2. House Manager, Lance Schroeder (SA) 3. Entertainment Directors, Ian Crawford (UK) and Frank Delfos (Pretoria). 4. Derek Symonds (Cape Town) and Lee (Charles) Hogan (Durban) at Loch Lomond.
Bottom Row L-R: 1. Annie Summers (Bermuda). 2. General Manager – Lester Jolly (Durban). 3. Cocktail Bar scene, staff unknown. 4. Restaurant Managers – Maxine and Jon.
There was the very famous notice board…
Cars were bought and sold – flatmates found – tour parties formed – relationships started, and tour companies formed. It was here that John Anderson posted his famous “2 places available” sign (which started Contiki Tours) – and where David Hodges found me! Ah… well, it worked most of the time! I once bought a 1963 E-Type Jaguar from that notice board. It was bright red (what other colour could it be?) – had only 5 owners – and cost me £200. £200! I owned it for just 6 weeks. Not to make a long story of it – it had been used in a murder, the body had been stored in the boot – for a very long time – and when one turned on the heater… well – not nice. So I sold it – on the same notice board – for the same price, and years later read a magazine article about that E-Type. It had been acid-dipped and resprayed – re-upholstered (re-everythinged) and had over 200 owners – mostly young visitors to London! I’ve had several Jaguars since – but never another E-Type.
Wide-eyed innocents – all of us…
Our members came from all over the world – but mainly South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The new arrivals were no match for the seasoned veterans who had been in London for a year or more – or those who had already ‘done the Continent’ – at least once. Our membership was also open to service personnel and members of the Kensington Police Force – a volatile mix – but they all added to the ‘rich tapestry of life’ in Earls Court.
A few local identities…
would also drift in and out of the OVC – including one well known set of Twins who used to visit when we had new musical groups, just like an audition for their Club. Frank Delfos was our Entertainment Director – used to book groups into the Astor Club in Mayfair as well – and he knew them well. By this time I had been promoted to Bars Manager and was always the last to leave after closing, when Frank would take me for a few drinks and the late show at the Astor. They were gracious hosts, and if we had ladies with us, absolute gentlemen. It was there that this wide-eyed young Kiwi came of age (literally!) – and it continued for months, until the boys from Kensington told us that it might not enhance our careers if we were seen (too often) being delivered home in ‘that’ large green Bentley! Some time later, the Twins disappeared from London’s club scene.
The Zambesi Club…
was just down the road – and it was between there and the OVC that Mike Hoare recruited both 5 and 6 Commando (for the Congo) – there was no shortage of young men (and some women) who really felt that they were bullet proof! At about the same time, there was a very interesting chap recruiting pilots for the Sultan of one of the Trucial States’ airforce. £1,000 per week, and they paid for jet conversion! It took him about 10 days to find his 15 pilots, and I must admit that I had more than one conversation with him (my hearing problems were not an issue!) – but – at the end of the day – common sense prevailed – and I went off to do something REALLY dangerous – like cross the Sahara with Hodges and Percy!
But most of our members…
were just ordinary youngsters – heading out on their first adventure in life – collecting stamps in their passports – and worrying the hell out of their parents. Our staff members were from the same group and we became a close knit little bunch – living together, growing together… Some of us have stayed in touch – and some have drifted apart. With luck – this page may help to bring us back together again. I will put a (starter) list at the bottom of this page (Where are they Now?) and encourage anyone with update information to contact me… John Anderson already has!
It ended in 1973…
The 1960s saw the OVC reach a peak. London was on the crest of a wave, with the swinging sixties hosting Rock ‘n Roll , the Twist and the Beatles ruling the charts – year after year. While many Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians settled in the UK – the political situation changed – and South Africans’ chances of becoming a “Rooinek” stalled. The OVC – sadly had to close its doors in 1973 when South Africa was expelled from the Commonwealth – ending a wonderful and exciting era of travel for youngsters…
Pictures – Top Row: 1. Reception Desk – R to L Dennis Fisher (Rotorua NZ). Derek Symonds (Cape Town SA). Margaret Ellis (Melbourne AUS). 2. Reservations Desk – 600 rooms on a manual system on electric rollers! Margaret Ellis and Martin Blakeway (Jersey CI).
Second Row: 1. Cocktail Bar – R to L: Unknown liquor rep. Hazel Acutt (JHB SA). Lofty ? (SA). Lester Jolly. 2. The Grotto Bar – and Lofty.
Bottom Row: 1. Lee (Charles) Hogan (Durban SA) and Brian Duffin (JHB SA) at Brands Hatch. 2. Talk of the Town – London 1967.
Hazel’s big fight…
I’ve put this clipping here because it may feature in another story I hope to write – one day.
Although it’s a rather extreme example – it also indicates the sort of stuff that some of us got up to in those pre September 11 days. It also illustrates what I meant when I said “worrying the hell out of their parents” above!
Despite what this clipping says – Hazel Acutt (Johannesburg SA) met her husband – Tony Dunn (UK Royal Marine Commando) – at the OVC – and they married in Aden. Tony was an NCO in a single men’s unit so Hazel was forced to live in private civilian quarters – in Crater – a district of the old port city of Aden.
The ‘car crash’ which killed Tony was, in fact, an armed ambush – and Hazel sustained severe injuries.
It transpired that Lester Jolly and I were registered in her papers as ‘next of kin’ – and the two of us spent the next few days in very tense communications with Royal Marine HQ – until we located her mother in SA, and get her flown to Hazel’s bedside. Some weeks later Hazel and her Mother were repatriated to South Africa.
Her recovery was long and frightful – understandably the family closed ranks around her…
Finding Hazel again – for both Lester and me – became quite a saga – and culminated with meetings in Johannesburg (with her family) and in Durban (with her) – in 1968.
Where Are They Now?
No addresses or emails here – but where I can, I will assist in your contacts… Please contact me with any update information. Click here…
Acutt-Dunn, Hazel: I visited her in 1968 – recuperating and working in Durban – last heard that she had returned to JHB and was working in a university library.
Anderson, John: Founded Contiki Tours – sold in 1989 to Trafalgar Tours. Currently lives with his family in Marlborough in the South Island of NZ – and has written a book on the Contiki story. He contacted me just a few days after this site launched – and ‘threatened’ a contribution to this page. I hope he does…
Blakeway, Martin: Lost him in 1968 soon after he visited my parents in Rotorua NZ. Found him again (actually he found me) in 1981 during the publicity following my daughter’s birth. Who else would write to a 3 day old infant? He lectured at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan for 25 years – and played a huge part in my Japanese tourism activities. He now lives in California.
Delfos, Frank: Continued in the entertainment industry for some years – working with Charles Mather out of Las Vegas – and booking acts at Chevron Hotel in Surfers Paradise – and around Australia. Married – divorced – with a delightful daughter (Vonni) making a name as an international model. Frank still lives on the Gold Coast, Australia.
Duffin, Brian: Returned to Johannesburg and married Krisa (Grace) Malliaros (OVC Reception) – last saw him in JHB in 1967.
UPDATE 1: 18 May 2006: Brian’s son (Jason) found this site – forwarded it to Brian – and I’ve just received an email… We now have some catching up to do! He’s still in JHB, still married to Grace (Krisa) – has 2 children (Jason & Simone) and 2 grand children… He also has news of Margaret Ellis (below) and I expect to hear more soon.
UPDATE 2: Brian died in March 2008, just weeks after he and Krisa spent a week with me on the Gold Coast. Rest peacfully old friend.
Ellis, Margaret: No contact since OVC days.
UPDATE 1: 18 May 2006: Brian Duffin tells me that she is still in London – and I’m now hoping to hear from her soon!
UPDATE 2: Lester Jolly is in contact with her – there’s a photo of her (with Lester and David Lawson) on the Blog postings – dated September 6, 2009 – Blog Page (and scroll back).
Fisher, Dennis: No contact since OVC days.
Gyde, Ron: Joined Qantas and became a Senior Purser – was a regular visitor to our place on the Gold Coast for years – and was the last person in contact with Lester Jolly. Last saw Ron in Sydney in the 1980s.
UPDATE: May 2, 2008 – Ron has just signed in – Still in SYD and now a regular contributor here.
Herman, Neil: No contact since late 60s – letter from him – at OVC.
Hogan, Lee (Charles): Left OVC for Canada in 1966 – to study computers – no contact since then.
UPDATE: 11 June 2009 – He’s just signed in – from Toronto Canada! We’re waiting for photographs!
Jolly, Lester:- As General Manager of the OVC he was the one most responsible for our early professional development – on and off duty – and surrogate ‘Dad’ to many of us. Ron Gyde was instrumental in tracking LSJ down to an hotel in (from memory) the West Country in the late 80s. We found the number and Frank Delfos and I called him – Lester came to phone – heard his voice – and the line dropped out… no contact since.
UPDATE 1: March 8, 2008 – We’ve found him! Live and well – and living in Chelsea. His voice hasn’t changed a bit!
UPDATE 2: April 15, 2011 – I’ve just returned from a visit with him – pictures on Blog posting – April 8, 2011. And again August 17, 2012.
Lawson, David: No contact since late 60s – letter from him – at OVC.
UPDATE 1: 15 September 2009, David features in a photo from Lester – he’s looking good and I’m going to try and entice him into an update…
Marks, Gina & Sydney: They handled my ‘placement’ for several years – several hotels – several countries – until I ‘settled’ at Chevron Hotel on the Gold Coast – no contact since mid/late 1970s.
Polson, John: I’m here!
Schroeder, Lance: No contact since OVC days.
Summers, Annie: We’ve stayed in touch – but not nearly enough – she was at my 40th – but not the recent one. Married to David Guest and living (in splendor) in Windsor UK. Last saw them in 2012. They feature in some Blog photos on April 8, 2011.
Sylvester, Peter: GM of the Salisbury Court Hotel in 1966. We re-met in 1967 while he was at the President Hotel in Cape Town, and I was at the President Hotel in Johannesburg. Married Del New in Southport, Australia in 1970 – and I was their best man – they were desperate! Now retired and living on the Gold Coast, Aust – and we meet every month at SKAL Club lunches.
Symonds, Derek: Left OVC for Canada in 1966 – to study computers – no contact since then.
Tarsh, Nick: Lost touch with him after the OVC closed down – but heard that he had started Insight Tours and was giving Trafalgar some stiff competition. Met him again in the 1990s when we were both guest speakers at a tourism industry convention in Singapore – and again at the ABTA Conference on the Gold Coast. Since then – lost him again…