Autobiography of James Tilbury (1881-1972)

1912. On May 12th I was offered the management of the beautiful and very nicely located “Earlscourt” Guest House on Georgia Street. I had no knowledge of the business, neither had my wife, but I thought it would be more interesting than the work I was doing and perhaps more profitable, so I accepted the offer and left the Timber Inspector’s office. Within six months, to my surprise, I found I was making a profit, as against previous losses, and I liked the work. Also it meant very pleasant and comfortable accommodation for my wife, baby and self. St. George’s church was now too far away, so resigned and joined the Georgia St. Methodist Church. I enjoyed singing there but was presently urged by friends to switch to the choir of the P. E. Christ Church which was close by Earlscourt. My wife and I joined it and became very good friends with the brilliant organist and choirmaster, a friendship which is still maintained; also with his wife. He is now C and O at the Cathedral in Victoria B.C. During these days my wife and I joined a concert party and frequently sang at open-air concerts in New Westminster B.C.

1913. At the end of November, 1913, we received what then seemed to us a very hard blow. For the past year or so property had been changing hands at very high prices. Values had become unreasonably high. Now came the crash. The bottom suddenly fell out of the market. Many heavy losers committed suicide, including the owner of our Earlscourt. I passed on the information in a letter I was just writing to my brother Ted, who was the Passenger Traffic Manager in New York City for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Two days later I received a telegram asking if I would care to join the office staff of Raymond & Whitcomb Co., Tourist and Travel Agents at 225, Fifth Avenue, New York. I wired acceptance at once and in a few days we were all on the train. That was in early December. On arrival at the Pennsylvania R.R. station, N.Y. City my brother met us and we were all soon accommodated in his spacious flat on Remsen St., Brooklyn. In three more days I was behind the counter at 225 getting acquainted with the modus operandi.

1914. My wife was expecting another child, so I now made arrangements for her and three year old Dorothy, to sail to Southampton on the American liner “Philadelphia” at the end of January. Soon after, I joined the choir of Trinity P.E. Church near Remsen St., as bass. In April I had word that my daughter Joan was born in Southampton and, in May, my wife and the two children left Southampton on the American Liner “St. Louis” for New York. Meantime I had rented and furnished a flat in “Oxford Hall”, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, so we were soon reunited and comfortably settled again (our fifth home!). On August 4th the First World War broke out. England immediately cancelled all transatlantic sailings, causing almost a panic amongst American travelers who were in Europe. Raymond and Whitcomb had a large number of clients, as usual, on conducted tours and independent itineraries in Europe. They quickly took a step for which I think they deserved very great credit. They chartered a steamer of the Southern Pacific Line to send to England to bring back those clients who were stranded and frightened and wished it. I was sent over on the White Star Liner “Olympic” to assist their London Office in making all necessary arrangements, in cooperation with Government officials, for collecting the passengers concerned, getting them aboard the steamer “Comus” and taking care of all documentary and other requirements. In this the English officials were most considerate and helpful. Many unusual problems had to be solved and “red tape” difficulties overcome but finally October saw us on our way and I had a great feeling of relief when the last passenger was safely landed in New York. Of course, there were many hundreds more wanting to get back to the USA and Canada. They were fortunate hat the British Government did such a remarkably quick and efficient job in facilitating it under the most difficult circumstances. I had worked hard during this year, to fully understand the work of a Travel office salesman. There is a lot more to it than just having traveled extensively, as I soon found out. However, I must have satisfied the management because, at the end of this my first year with them, I was sent to Philadelphia to manage their office there.

1915. As soon as possible after reaching Philadelphia I rented a flat. It was in the 4500 block on Walnut St. I then sent for the family. This was to be our sixth home in six years. I was glad I had followed my Father’s advice “Always rent, don’t buy”. In view of my great urge to travel and to see all I could of the World, that advice, so far, had proved most valuable. By the end of January we were comfortably settled in our flat. About that time I read in the evening paper of a choir “strike” at St. James’ P.E. church at 52nd and Kershaw Streets. With disgust and indignation I at once telephoned the Rector, told him a little of my background in music and volunteered my assistance in restoring normal conditions in the choir. He accepted my offer most gratefully and within a few weeks the reorganized choir was, in the Rector’s own words, giving far better service than ever before. At his urgent request I continued as choirmaster and soloist until October. I then had an opportunity to join the choir of the prominent City church of the same name, viz., St. James P.E. Church at 22nd and Walnut Sts. (since torn down)

As manager of the Philadelphia office of Raymond and Whitcomb Co., I was now requested to serve as Secretary for the Philadelphia Tourist Companies Executives’ Association. I held this office for five years. In order that I might become better acquainted with the travel business, I conducted this August, a Raymond-Whitcomb tour to the Niagara Falls, Toronto, Alexandria Bay, Montreal, Quebec, Saguenay River and back by Lakes Champlain and George (by Lake steamers then), thence via Hudson River Day Line steamer to New York City. This was a thrilling experience for me and encouraged me to look forward with much eagerness to more opportunities to see the many marvellous attractions in this wonderful Country and Canada. I was delighted when, three months later, Raymond and Whitcomb arranged for me to leave with their 6 weeks de luxe conducted tour visiting San Francisco, (1915 Exposition), Del Monte, Big Trees of San Jose, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego, Grand Canyon of Arizona, Phoenix, Apache trail, (100 miles by auto), Cliff dwellings, San Antonio, (Alamo), and New Orleans. One of the Company’s most experienced conductors was in charge. This trip proved immensely helpful to me in handling future business.

My 1915 cup of happiness was filled to the brim when, on December 30th my wife presented me with my third, and last, daughter – Betty, destined to be as strikingly beautiful as the other two had turned out to be. She was born in the Jefferson Hospital. We now had one born in Canada, one in England and one in the USA.

1916. For about six months this year I substituted as choirmaster and bass soloist at the Grace P. E. Church, Mount Airy, Philadelphia. In October we decided to move to a quiet suburb, so rented a house in Wyndmoor, Chestnut Hill. Next door to the house was the Grace Lutheran Church and a month later I became its choirmaster and bass soloist. It should, of course, be clearly understood that I allowed none of these (so far always voluntary) musical activities to interfere in any way with my Travel business, by which I earned my living. Many years later (1928) my expenses were heavy and I did change and was well paid for my choir work.

1917. We remained at Wyndmoor until October 1917 when I took over the choir of the P. E. Trinity Memorial Church, Ambler – 15 miles from Phila. We moved to a large and pleasant house belonging to the church and, for the first time, had a very fine garden. This was our eighth home! I now purchased a Ford car.

1918. This year passed uneventfully. We were all happy and contented.

1919. In September Raymond & Whitcomb Co. wished me to leave the Phila. office for the Executive Headquarters in Boston. I rented a house in Brookline and we packed up and moved again. It was extraordinary the complacent way in which my wife met these frequent changes. This would be our ninth home since our marriage in 1909 but never a single complaint or objection, although each move gave her a lot of extra work besides the care of three children, (ages 8, 5 & 3) plus a husband. In spite of the promotion I didn’t like the work. I missed the contact with clients that I had at the Phila. office where I made many good friends that way. My wife too, sadly missed the many good friends she had made in and around Philadelphia.

1920. My Company had always been very good and considerate to me and the decision to sever my connection with them was most difficult to reach but, once again, my heart was not in my work and I felt I could not do justice to them or myself so, when August came, I resigned and we returned to Ambler where I was soon reinstalled in the choirmaster’s house and, insofar as the music of the Trinity memorial Church was concerned, I took on again where I had left off in 1919. By September I had arranged with my brothers Charles, who had previously been with the R & W Co., and Ernest, who was with the Royal Mail S. P. Co. ( Ted was now their P. T. M. in Paris) to join me in starting a Travel Office in Phila. Accordingly, on Oct. 1st we began business as Tilbury Brothers Inc., Steamship Ticket and Tourist Agents in a temporary office at Chestnut and Fifth streets, Phila. I must confess that we were taking what might prove to be a serious financial risk as we were much too dependent, for the future, on our “backer” but, from the technical standpoint, we felt confident we had the necessary qualifications, so we went right ahead.

1921. As the year ended we finished most of the preliminary organizational details and were now fully ready for the real test. We opened a new office at 219 South 15th St., opposite the Thos. Cook & Sons Phila. Travel office. One of my first bookings in our new location was that of President Wilson’s chief adviser, Colonel House, who required suitable accommodation on a liner going to France for himself and suite. He was going to join the President at the League of Nations conferences. This booking gave us considerable encouragement. Unfortunately, too soon afterwards, a depression commenced and we probably felt its ill effects sooner than the long established travel companies. It is well known that wars and depressions have a serious effect on the travel business. We had insufficient capital of our own remaining to carry on for long so it was particularly disturbing when I got word from our backer that he was having a very bad time and we had better not count on him for any help for a long time to come. The depression only lasted six months but it hurt a lot of people in that time. The Frank Tourist Co. of New York and Chicago had for some time been planning to open a branch office in Philadelphia and they now made us an attractive offer, or rather, they repeated the one they had made to me two months or so earlier and which I had declined. It was still very difficult to decide what to do about it but we finally came to the conclusion that, without the certainty of more capital in the near future, it would be wise to accept the Frank Tourist Co’s offer, especially as we knew they had a splendid reputation. Of course, it was then quite impossible to forsee how short a depression this would be or we would certainly have acted otherwise. However, looking back 42 years later, after the great depression of 1929 followed years later by the second World War, I suppose we should congratulate ourselves on the deal with the F. T. Co. The name was changed to Frank Tourist Co., Tilbury Bros. Managers, and I became the actual manager, Charles left to take charge of the F. T. Co’s. London office and Ernest, although offered a good position in their N. Y. office, decided to go to Paris where he decided to join another travel company. Several years later Charles had his own prosperous travel business in Los Angeles and Ernest his own in Denver Colorado. I stayed with the Frank Tourist Co. for approximately 20 years and, I might say that throughout all of that time, they held my great admiration and respect.

1922. The Depression was now over and the F. T. Co. were very pleased with the progress their Philadelphia office was showing. At Ambler, on December 6th, picking from the many musical friends I had by this time, I put on a Pierrot show at the Opera House for the benefit of the Trinity Memorial Church. It was quite successful.

1923. On May 15th I put on a very successful Minstrel show at the same Opera House. Our Interlocutor, then a lawyer, later became a Judge. This performance was also for the benefit of Trinity Church. At a Convention of 800 engineers, in the Belle-Vue Stratford Hotel, Phila., I entertained two or three hundred of them, at request, with the recitation in costume of the ‘Parson’s Lament’ which I had written in 1916 and given many times elsewhere since. It went over very well.

1924. On January 30th I sailed from New York as Assistant Cruise Manager on the 20,000 ton Cunard Liner ‘Scythia’, chartered by my company, the Frank Tourist Co, for a pleasure cruise to the Mediterranean, visiting Madeira, Spain, Gibraltar, Algiers, Tunis, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece, Sicily, Italy, France and England. During the ten days in Cairo I went with a party by train to Luxor, where we visited the tombs of the Kings, then on by river steamer to Edfu, Esnah and Assuan. To see all of this, under such pleasant circumstances, Went far beyond my most extravagant dreams. It was wonderful. We got back to New York in April, ending the second such cruise by the F. T. Co. In August I was engaged as soloist at St. Paul’s church, Chestnut Hill during the choir holidays. In September we left Ambler and moved into the Anita Apartments, Overbrook as I wished to be nearer my business.

1925. On January 29th, for the second time, I sailed from New York as Assistant Cruise Manager for Frank’s annual Mediterranean cruise, aboard the same ship ‘Scythia’. The itinerary was similar to that of 1924 but it was even more interesting for me as I had permission to leave the ship at Naples in order to get acquainted with more places I had not visited before and which were important to me from a business standpoint. I traveled independently to Rome, Florence, Venice, Lake Como, Milan, Lucerne, Interlaken, Montreux, Geneva and Paris, subsequently returning to New York from Cherbourg on the Cunard liner Aquitania on March 26th arriving N.Y. on April 3rd. I didn’t just pass through these places but saw all the average tourist sees and I and my Company benefited accordingly. It was most enlightening. On October 9th we found a quieter residence in Lantwyn Lane, Narberth, which we rented from this date; our twelfth home since our marriage!! – and still renting.

1926. On January 26th, for the third time, I left N.Y on Frank’s annual Mediterranean cruise of the Scythia with much the same itinerary as before. This time I left the ship with some ‘side trip’ passengers at Cadiz, Spain for Seville and Granada (Alhambra), continuing to Algeciras on the coast and by ferry to Gibraltar where we rejoined the Scythia. When leaving Palestine later on, I gave the chief steward a bottle which I had filled with water from the River Jordan and he had it hermetically sealed. Later we used it at the baptism of three of our grandchildren. This time I left the Scythia at Monte Carlo and proceeded to Paris via Nice, Avignon, Vichy and Tours (for the Chateaux district). As usual, at all of such stops, I did considerable sightseeing by automobile. On arrival at Paris I went to my brother Ted’s home, he now being Manager of the Paris office of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., and for the first time met his charming wife and two adorable children. Then I crossed to London and came back on the Cunard liner Mauretania, arriving on April 2nd. In this same month I joined the P.E. Church of St. Martin in the Field, Chestnut Hill, Phila. as bass. In August I substituted, during the holiday of the quartet bass, at the Tenth Presbyterian Church, 17th and Spruce Streets, Phila. after which I joined the choir of the Calvary P. E. Church, Germantown, as bass. In October we moved from Narberth to 516 Valley View Road, Merion, Pa. – our 13th home!!

1928. (an unreadable date inserted here) On this day I conducted the first choir practice (beginning 17 years of service as choirmaster, soloist and lay-reader) at the 100 year old P. E. Church of St. Mark’s, Frankford, Philadelphia. We had the largest vested choir (75 voices) in Philadelphia. In April we moved again, this time to 206 Price Avenue, Narberth, the house standing in a few acres of ground. This, the 14th., was one of the nicest houses we had yet occupied and we were very lucky to have been able to rent it. In August I took the family to Bermuda for our vacation. On the ship I discovered that the chief steward was an old childhood playmate of mine. We were choristers together at St. Mary’s church, Southampton when we were eight years of age.

1929. In July Dorothy and Joan wished to go to Bermuda for their holidays so my wife and I took only Betty with us for a visit to England. We sailed on the White Star Lines ‘Olympic’ both ways. When we returned to Philadelphia, only Joan was there to meet us. Dorothy had stayed behind as Secretary to the manager of the Inverurie Hotel.

On October 24th. the Great Depression commenced at Wall St. N. Y. City. I was one of the many unfortunate persons who suffered financial losses.

1930. We all went to the Langton Hotel, Bermuda again for our August holiday.

[1] Source David Tilbury, Oregon


  • April Boothe 2 years ago

    Thank you so much for posting this autobiography of my great grandfather, James Tilbury (1881-1972)! My dad told me many of these amazing stories about his grandfather over the years. It was such a blessing to find them here, print them out & share them with my dad who is now 76. I have one picture of myself as an infant with my great grandfather. My dad (James Tilbury Nutter of Connecticut/Texas)has even more info on the family, but alas, he is not a big fan of modern technology.

    • linden 2 years ago

      My pleasure April, glad it's been useful. Perhaps you could digitise all your father's gems of information? Cheers, Linden

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