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Thursday 5 February 2015


Postcards of Edwardians at play
“The English are not happy unless they are miserable.”
George Orwell

 Barely a week goes by without the BBC trotting out some sentimental panegyric to the Edwardian era; documentaries about the grotesque excesses of the royal family or the precarious health and hygiene of the working class, soap operas about life at Carbuncle Manor and dramatisations of classic novels, where actual drama was often in short supply. The crusty old stereotypes are rarely disturbed. Upstairs, there will be one sexually repressed woman and one cad, usually her brother. Downstairs, a scullery maid will have to leave paid employment on account of getting pregnant to person unacknowledged, while a footman regularly spends his half day off getting plastered with one of a dozen girls down in the village. But the most predictable element is that the middle classes will scarcely get a walk on part. Office clerks, schoolteachers, nurses etc aren’t considered to have anything interesting to contribute to our knowledge of that period between the death of Queen Victoria and the First World War. It seems their lives were monotonous but neither sufficiently horrid nor indulgent to hold our attention. Fortunately, we have thousands, possibly even millions of postcards that tell us otherwise. The Kodak was a social machine. Dressing up suddenly became a lot more fun with a camera on hand, but wherever there was a party, an outing or anything more interesting than the day job, the Edwardians were diligent about recording themselves.

 During the 1900s photographic companies and department stores regularly held competitions for amateur photographic postcards. It isn’t unusual to read of organizers overwhelmed by several thousand submissions. Kodak was after sales, the department store wanted customers, and the photographers wanted to see their work on a wall. Call that ‘everyone goes home a winner’: high art was never the point. Cute kittens, flower arrangements and what we think of as human interest were more likely to catch the judges’ eyes. They would have jumped at a scene like this; People sitting outside of a bandstand at a seaside resort: the young, the old and the in-between. Several people dozing, one woman knitting, another reading, a boy looking bored as, like everyone else, he waits for something to happen; it’s a snapshot of English society. The curious thing here is how everybody has turned up to hear the band. It seems that taste in entertainment had little to do with age back then, but maybe the music didn’t matter. Heading off to the bandstand after lunch was one of those things you did as a matter of ritual.

  Every town and village had its amateur dramatic society. In the popular imagination the local ADS was a beehive of eccentrics and misfits, any one of them mad enough to kill, and consequently a staple for writers of stolid whodunits. This was taken by Arthur Burgess of Folkestone. An Arthur Burgess worked as a wood engraver for John Ruskin in Folkestone during the late 1880s and it could be the same, but we are more interested in the result rather than the photographer. It looks like a dramatisation of Kipling’s Kim or another of his stories set in India. At the time this was taken Kipling was probably the best known writer in Britain and adaptations of his stories a natural choice for dramatic societies. The Indian tales were colourful and exotic and he was the unofficial voice of Empire, which in the first decade of last century was widely predicted to go on long into the future. Later scholars would realize Kipling was one of the few who foresaw that cruelty and ignorance would hasten the demise of the British Raj but such nuanced thinking was probably lost on the Folkestone Amateur Dramatic Society when a stirring tale of spies in far off India guaranteed an audience.

  The girls look to be in their final year at a ladies college, with a headmistress very proud of her charges, and her terrier. One of the persistent clichés of contemporary cinema is that during the Edwardian era ladies colleges produced just that; girls whose education was dedicated to French, poetry and the cello and who wandered about the schoolyard in a haze of ethereal loveliness. Crass behaviour of any description never reared its ugly head. Look at the student wearing the kimono in the middle. She has applied tape to her eyes to orientalize them. This was acceptable in an age when the British were told they owned half the world.

Another cliché of the era is that work was all drudgery and employers were nasty and uncompromising. All the evidence describes a much more complex society but social complexity rarely makes for good television, or more likely there aren’t that many in the business with imaginations sophisticated enough to pull it off. We can’t say for certain that either of the two women front and centre are employers, but clearly the female staff in this household were expected to have fun now and then, even if a couple look like they’d rather be scrubbing the floor with caustic. The back of the card has a stamp for Polden and Hogben, 16 Tontine St Folkestone. Research indicates that Polden and Hogben did not call itself a studio but a ‘postcard gallery’, whatever that was.

Let’s leave dressing up and head to transport, and one of the great romances of the age: the love affair between the bicycle and the camera. The development of the safety bicycle occurred as the Kodak was coming on to the market, a coincidence our ancestors were not slow to pick up on. On weekends during the 1910s groups of bicyclists swarmed across the countryside in search of picturesque views to photograph. The ruin of a Norman church outside a small village – snap! A creek slowly meandering through the marshes – snap! The chaps having breakfast before packing up and pedalling off in search of that day’s discovery – snap! To think of amateur photography back then without the bicycle is to think of, well, the cowboy without his horse. You’ll notice that everyone is wearing ties. They really were a different species back then.

What was Edwardian leisure without the charabanc, the most bombastic road vehicle ever built? From the beginning the intention behind the charabanc was recreational. People piled on – there are nineteen on this one, which was not overcrowding – and head off to the seaside or the village inn, not to church. Postcards of people in charabancs are common enough, and all of them tend to suggest a journey undertaken in great disorder. If you wanted a quiet ride admiring the spring flowers you bought a bike. The name Barrington’s indicates this one operated out of Southport Lancashire. Though a seaside town – it has the second longest pier in Britain – apparently one of the big attractions in Southport was the Leeds to Liverpool Canal that passed through Scarisbrick, about five miles distance inland. That was probably where this was taken. Why would the Edwardians be interested in a canal? They were all over the place by then. More likely it was a useful distance from Southport for a day trip. Canals were great because you got to make a lot of noise on the way out to see them and a lot more on the way back when you’d stopped by the local for a couple of hours.

Another fun activity at the seaside was the ferry trip. Along with the concert at the bandstand and the obligatory walk along the promenade, this made for a full day of action. The pier in the background is long enough to also be at Southport though Southend Pier in Essex (one and three quarters of a mile long) would be another candidate. Everyone is looking at the camera. The photographer has it mounted on a tripod and when they return a batch of postcards will be ready to buy for a penny a piece. Ferries always went to a place, not simply out to sea and back, and this one could be going out to the end of the pier. The piers were long because the water was shallow. Still, you read of ferry disasters in the 1910s and dozens drowning, you look at this photo and you can see why. Fortunately the pilot and his young son look like nothing much would bother them. 

  During the first decade of the twentieth long rambles were as popular as cycling. Some rambling clubs could have a hundred members wandering across the countryside on a weekend. In this card, postmarked October 6, 1906 and sent to a Miss K Fernie of Jerusalem Cottage in Falkland, Fifeshire, a J Page identifies the man second from the bottom as her brother, the bottom one a friend she stayed with in Glasgow and the other two “belong to Glasgow”. It is postmarked Menstrie, a village just outside of Stirling. They are out on a walk in the country, and the fact that they are wearing three-piece suits and watch-chains should not persuade us otherwise. It seems a lot of men during that era did everything in a three piece, from ploughing fields to entering accounts in ledgers to wandering along muddy paths and climbing rickety stiles. What makes the image is that none of them are smiling. Fun is always best when taken seriously. Ms Page writes upside down, a common trick to deter postal workers from reading cards. 

Finally, one of those photos where nothing special is happening yet it hints at a lot. The woman in the middle has her coat, scarf, hat and gloves on: she is leaving, not coming, and her long coat was the fashionable wear for driving long distances in the 1900s. The woman at the right, let’s call her Mother, will go back inside once she has said her goodbyes. The woman at the left also has her hat and scarf on, which would suggests she is also leaving except that she is sitting. Before we read too much into that, it’s important to remember the other person in the picture: the photographer. The photograph was taken for his or her benefit, not ours, but knowing who it was could change the whole reading. There’s a difference between a photo taken by someone who is staying and one who is leaving. There are other things to think about. It’s doubtful the two younger women woke up one morning and thought, “Victoria is dead, Edward is King and it is the beginning of a new century”. If anything it was: “I shall turn on the electric light, call Mother on the telephone and drive down to see her in my motor car. Tonight we may go into town and watch a moving picture, and thank God we have a cure for smallpox.” They are well off and the problems that bothered them were largely in the abstract, and in a real way distant: Germany was a danger, anarchists were about in London’s East End and the economy was weak but not crippled, but these were all troubles that a good government could sort out. They have cause to relax, or more accurately, they don’t have cause not to. To be comfortably well off and living in the south of England in the 1910s was sufficient to be convinced you were among the luckiest alive in the world at that time.