1950s Libya – British Point of View By Victoria Giraud

It always amazes me how important the few years I spent in Libya in the 1950s have been in my life. I’ve been writing a blog, Words on My Mind, for over two years and during that time I’ve reconnected with classmates from Wheelus Air Force Base High School in Tripoli and with others, like the British,  who once lived and/or worked in Tripoli. The Internet connects us all through the cyberspace world.

At the beginning of the year, I received a comment on my blog from Ron Curtis, a Brit from Blackpool, England, who’d been in Tripoli in the 1950s. Ron’s father was in the Royal Air Force and Ron attended the British Military School. Ron even sent me some photos and I’m going to use two of them here. Ron and I have since become Internet friends and I’ve enjoyed reading about his retirement, which turned into a new career as a clown–Granddaddy Trumbell–for children’s parties. He thought he was going to enjoy a long vacation in Spain but he’s been so successful, he’s had to stay in Blackpool to keep his creative balloon art going, and make sure his clown makeup is on right. Even his wife has gotten into the act.

Before his new career started, Ron wrote to say, “I lived with my family in Colina Verde, just a short ride outside the town. It was close to the Libyan Army barracks, known as the Azzia barracks-–where Gadhafi later erected the clenched fist holding the broken US plane. I often visited Wheelus with my American friends, Flip Foulds, the Neil family, and more.  Thank you for bringing back some great memories from when I was a hot-blooded 14 year old.”

British kids in 1950s on a Tripoli, Libya Beach

We all remember different things of course. I recall some kind of orange British soft drink; it sounded like squash, perhaps? Ron remembers Pepsi and the prize inside the Pepsi cap: “anything from two piasters to two Libyan pounds.” He loves couscous and still makes it! Since my dad didn’t like lamb, my mother never made it.

My observation of Libyan men drinking tea brought up Ron’s memory of the men pouring the tea from “one tiny enamel pot to another whilst at the same time roasting peanuts.”

Like so many Americans, especially in the military, the British are partygoers. “My recollections are of never-ending parties thrown by both the Brits and the Americans,” Ron wrote. “My parents had an old tin tub in the yard of our villa, which was filled with ice and cans of beer. Most parties had a theme, usually some form of fancy dress. The parties, I recall, went on until everyone fell asleep.”

Ron’s home was in a unique location—right next to a local Libyan brothel. Even though the Curtis villa was surrounded by a high wall, like all the villas in Tripoli as I recall, Ron wrote, “My friends and I would climb atop the wall to watch the antics that went on. The large courtyard was home to a number of old bathing huts, the type used in England during the middle 1800s. There was a little ladder to the door. The idea was: if the door was open, then the lady was available. If the door was closed, she was either busy or absent. We witnessed many of the ladies wandering around the courtyard in their underwear. Most of these ladies were what can only be described as plus-sized women, something the Libyan gentlemen seemed to prefer.”

 

Libyan fisherman in 1950s

 

 

 

23 Comments

  1. Thanks for the interesting personal adventure in Libya from years ago. I’ve heard from several Brits who’ve written about their adventures. I have even received photos from those days long ago plus one lady who wrote about revisiting Libya. You’ve got a good memory considering how young you were.
    Victoria

  2. Selina j nisbett says:

    We left Libya the year after the coup. I was about 5. We lived in Miani and I recall we left in haste leaving our games and furniture and our beloved cat Tiger behind. I went to nursery school with Mrs Mascall and my sister went to a school nearby. Not sure what it was called. I recall our home being near a big field and there was a round tower there, possibly Roman???? I have very very clear memories of the day of the coup and the aftermath, sailing on a cockroach ridden ship to Italy then through Europe by train until we reached the channel and over to England by ferry. Not sure how long the trip was.

  3. Mary Allen, formerly Unwin says:

    Anthea, you are right, Mr. Polly was the headmaster. He was a friend of my Uncle’s and had been asked to “keep an eye on me”. We had been evacuated from the Canal Zone (Egypt) to Tripoli, and from there we moved to Homs. We all attended the Homs All Age School, of which Mr. Frank Hugo was the headmaster, and I and 3 other’s were considered in the top class, so we had a days’ instruction with Mr. Hugo on Monday, were given our assignments and met with him again on Friday afternoons. I spent my “study time” in the old Roman City of Leptis Magna, and would seldom see anyone else there, except a passing Arab. Those were magical times.

    My uncle told me, when I was back in England, that Mr. Polly had been standing in a queue at the post office, came to the front of the line, paid for his stamps and dropped dead. My uncle was disgusted that they wouldn’t take the stamps back and put the money in his pocket!!! Apparently this happened in Taunton.

  4. Thanks, Janine for your various comments. Seems we lived only blocks away from each other. Sorry it took so long to reply. I’ve been recuperating from spinal surgery. Hope to get back to blogging soon.

    Victoria

  5. Thanks for the info about that tragedy. And thanks for reading my blog.
    Victoria

  6. If you’d care to comment more on your time in Libya, I’d love to read about it.

    Victoria

  7. Janìne SHIRLEY says:

    Enjoyed reading all the comments.

  8. Janine SHIRLEY says:

    I lived in Tripoli from 1955 to 1957 , , enjoyed reading your blog & comments

  9. JANINE McQUILLAN says:

    My Mother & I were on the plane that crashed at Black Bush airport 5th November 1956.
    7 people were killed.

  10. JANINE McQUILLAN says:

    I lived in Tripoli 1955 to 1957 ,went to Azlzla school a Mr Newhouse Mr Ladd & Mrs Adams
    Teachers. My father was civalian garision engineer ex RE .We lived in the garden city opposite the side of the kings Palace. We were on the beach at Piccoli Capri every day

  11. Thanks for writing your story, Trevor. I appreciate everyone’s contribution about our mutual adventures of long ago. I started my blog over six years ago and have since reconnected with the American high school students I went to Wheelus High School with. I also wrote a book – AN ARMY BRAT IN LIBYA, which is published in Ebook format on Amazon along with other books I’ve written.
    My parents ended up with other American couples in renting a cabana at Piccoli Capri for the summer of 1957. I hosted a big party there for my Wheelus friends and still have photos of it. Here in Los Angeles, I have connected with old Tripoli friends, some Italians who were born in Tripoli, and a former Libyan soccer star. It’s a very small world these days! Feel free to share a couple of photos if you want. Victoria Giraud, writer and editor.

  12. Your correspondent’s comments have been a trip down memory lane for me. I served with REME in Tripoli, May 1956-59. Gialo, Medenine, Gurgi and one other camp which name escapes me. Working upwards through the contributions, I had a Visitor ‘Recreation’ Pass to Sidi Mesri in January 59, signed by W E Marshall, Assistant Director General. Families were taken into Azizia and Gialo camps and I was on escort duty when the families were evacuated to Idris Airport for flights home, later sitting in an armoured vehicle outside the British Embassy. In May 57 a flight to Malta and Tripoli with returning troops crashed after take-off from Blackbushe. One person survived. My wife joined me and we lived in an apartment on the 24th December Street. Opposite, our neighbour was a Master Sergeant from Wheelus base and he was married to a Greek lady. Piccolo Capri services club was a favourite spot for relaxing on the beach. We later moved to Sciara Zavia to a much more up to date apartment. I don’t wish to take up too much space in your blog, so may I tell you that I have a web site which contains a section specifically devoted to ‘Memories of Libya 1956-59’. The link I have supplied goes direct to the opening index of the article. The site is heavy on images of Tripoli and the surrounding area which I’m sure would revive some memories of the days your contributors spent there. There are even photos of the 1957 Open Day at Wheelus base. No registration or sign in is required, it’s open to all. I hope you enjoy wandering through the images and information. It portrays a very different Libya to the one we have today.
    Trevor 52A.

  13. If you skim my blogs from the past — I’ve been writing it about 6+ years — you’ll see more about the Brits. I had a British boyfriend who lived near me in Garden City, but he was going to Winchester boarding school and came to visit his parents during vacations. victoria

  14. Anthea Libby says:

    PS I think the headmaster was a Mr Polly?

  15. Anthea Libby says:

    I was in the school from 1954 to 1957 and also remember the evacuation most vividly, probably the most traumatic time of my life. My sister, (9 years older than me worked as a secretary at the Wheelus field air base, her name was Annette Semmence. My father was Major Henry Semmence RE. My teacher at the school was George Todd, and my best frinds were Caroline Castle and Susan Maddern (niece I think of actor Victor Maddern). Anyone remember any of those people? My family and I were taken into barracks for the evacuation, put on the bottom of the list of a plane to bring us back to the UK, then moved to the next plane at the last minute. The plane we should have been on crashed on arrival at Blackbush airport and I think two children were killed? Never forgot the sight of that plane as we landed!
    I am thinking of writing a book with photos so would like some facts to fill out the story. eg What was my father’s work there? Also, I can never get over the fact that it was probably my classroom that got bombed in 1986 by the americans, and when I was there the american ambassador’s daughter would arrive at school in a stretch limousine with the american flag flying!!!! And by the way, my Mum was the school secretary! Looking forward to some feedback!

  16. Thanks for getting in touch, John. Who would have thought that years later people all over the world remembered Libya so many years later. victoria

  17. John gibson says:

    I served in the RASC in 1955 – 57 was stationed in Azizzia barracks at HQ. Tripolitania District as a clerk. Remember visiting Wheelus Field air base and going to the movies there.

  18. So nice to her from you, Susan, with all your memories. I still keep in touch with a Brit, Christopher Green, who was my boyfriend when I was 13. His father was a dentist and officer in British Army, as I recall. They lived in Garden City and he was attending Winchester in England and came back and forth. We later had a beach cabana with some friends at the beach at Piccolo Capri. I had lots of friends who lived in Georgimpopoli. You’re not too much younger than me. Love the memory of your birthday cake! Would love to read more stories.
    Victoria

  19. Susan Fleck says:

    I occasionally do a search on the web about Tripoli in the 50s and was so happy to come across your blog – I was in Tripoli 1953-59, from the age of 6 to 12; my father was a civilian teacher at the British Army Children’s School in Azizzia Barracks. The first five years we were there we lived in an apartment in Via Canova in the city; the last year we were allocated a villa in Georgimpopoli. There were many US families living there, and I became great friends with an American girl called Elaine Whitney – would love to get in contact with her! When she and her family were moved into a married quarter at Wheelus I quite frequently went for sleepovers at her house. In November 1956 during the Suez crisis most of the British Army dependents were evacuated back to the UK – on my 10th birthday my party was cancelled and my parents and I were taken in an Army truck – me with my birthday cake on my knee – into the school at Azizzia barracks for two nights until we were taken under cover of darkness in buses with armed soldiers in sandbag emplacements on the roofs to the airport to be flown back to the UK. Only able to take what we could carry, we were very glad when everything settled down and we went back to Tripoli in January 1957. When we moved to our villa in Georgimpopoli in 1958 it was just a short walk across the main road to the Officers’ Club at Piccolo Capri, right on the sea, so I went there most days after school. I have so many happy memories of a wonderful childhood in Tripoli. I always wanted to go back but left it too late – something I now bitterly regret. However, I know that such a lot has changed that I would not recognize many of my childhood haunts – and they say you should never go back!

  20. I do enjoy your site and will certainly keep checking. Your photos are wonderful!

  21. It’s wonderful to have someone comment on my blogs, especially on Tripoli, Libya. Thanks for sharing so much info. Keep checking back because I write about it often and keep in touch with lots of Tripoli folks. Just talked to a friend from Wheelus high school today. We found each other as neighbors in California–we only lived 3 blocks from each other!

  22. I enjoyed this post and wish I could remember meeting any of the British children in the photograph. My family was acquainted with two British families who lived in Libya even longer than we did (we were there 1952-1959). Don Wordsworth directed the Sidi Mesri Agricultural Experiment Station and lived there with his family, a mile north of us (we lived at what was then the Vocational Agricultural Training Center for Libyans, and what is today the University of Tripoli). George Littledale worked with my dad as interpreter on student selection trips. Mr. Littledale looked like he stepped out of an adventure movie–he was swarthy and handsome–and he could eat hot peppers and raw onions as if they were apples.

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