A Glimpse of Edwardian Wiltshire

PUBLISHED: 15:41 30 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013

Amesbury 1904

Amesbury 1904

Picture postcards were the e-mails of their day and Wiltshire's Edwardian images are great collectors' items.<br/><br/>When photography first developed, picture postcards became very popular. A visit from the publisher's photographer was an event; childre...

As Charles from Salisbury wrote to his friend in Bideford, Devon, in December 1906: 'Dear Frank, I thought my photos were going to be sent nice and early, and have been expecting them every day for a long time. Would you like to go round and punch Mr. P. for me?' The card he used showed a typical scene as the Market Square in Salisbury was being prepared for the weekly livestock and produce market.

In some respects a hundred years does not seem all that long a time, yet in other ways the way people lived at the beginning of the last century is so far removed from the lifestyle we experience today as to be almost unimaginable. That is what gives old picture postcards their nostalgic appeal, and the messages written on them are what make them an invaluable part of social history.

A century ago, in the days before every home had a telephone, and at a time when the Post Office collected and delivered mail several times a day, the picture postcard was the equivalent of today's text message. It was the quickest and most reliable way of making arrangements, contacting a friend or just simply offering best wishes for birthdays, anniversaries and so on, in the days before the widespread popularity of greetings cards.

'Many Happy Returns of the Day, with Best Wishes and Fondest Love,' wrote Alice, Jack and Peggy to Jess on 2 April 1905, using a delightfully pastoral card of a shepherd with his sheep beneath the Westbury White Horse, while three years later, on 4 November 1908, George used a card of the cavalry encamped at Bulford to wish a happy birthday to Mr J. J. Ball in Blandford, Dorset.

Postcards mailed at 10am often carried the simple message 'See you tonight at 7' or something similar. At a halfpenny for a simple black and white card (and often as little as an old penny for a coloured view) and a halfpenny to post it, the postcard was the communication medium for everyman.

Although the picture postcard was only in its infancy at that time, the range of cards available was such that collecting was already a popular hobby. Thus rival companies vied with each other to produce the most popular card at any location. Southampton publisher F.G.O. Stuart offered buyers well over a hundred cards of Wiltshire village scenes to choose from, and they were just one of many publishers offering local views. In addition to the expected range of scenic cards - and a vastly wider range than any town or city can offer today - every stationer sold humorous postcards, romantic ones, cards which told stories, included the words of songs, and dozens of other varieties.

Many of the best tinted cards were produced in Saxony and Bavaria, where colour lithographic printing was of a much higher standard and a much lower cost than could be found in most British printing establishments. German cards were, therefore, considered to be quality items. All that changed with the advent of the Great War, of course. For the duration of the war, the purchase of remaining stock of pre-1914 cards, which bore the legend 'Printed in Bavaria', was positively frowned upon as being unpatriotic - with these beautiful productions going from 'must have' to 'must not have' almost overnight. Perhaps that is why so many of them have found their way into collections today without ever having been written on or posted.

There are no reliable figures about just how many postcards were mailed annually in Britain in the early years of the last century, but it ran into hundreds of millions. And in stark contrast to the bland postcards generally available today, the Edwardians could choose from a varied and interesting range of lively and contemporary cards in just about every town and village. Of course, there were a lot of bland ones as well, but there was sufficient choice to ensure that if you were contacting a friend several times a month, then the chances of duplicating a card could be minimised.

A visit from the postcard company's photographer was a village event; children came out in their droves and posed for the camera. And how many parents could have resisted the temptation to send their friends the cards on which their little darlings appeared? It was an obvious aid to sales, and one which the publishers encouraged by updating the cards from time to time. They also updated street scenes with uncanny regularity, again underlining the huge numbers of cards which were sold every week. The huge range of cards of Salisbury High Street which were produced during the Edwardian era chronicle the changes taking place in society. Until 1906, there is nothing in the pictures to imply the growing importance of the motor car, but after that, garage signs start to appear, and by the time of the 1909 view reproduced here, motor cars are starting to appear on the streets.

Postcards also commemorated local tragedies. It seems odd today, but disaster postcards were quite common - many of them sold to raise small sums of money for the victims, but others simply because the pictures were newsworthy and likely to arouse public interest. Train crashes were no exception, and most of the major accidents of the Edwardian era were the subject of series of cards - a significant example being the Boat Train crash at Salisbury on Sunday 1 July, 1906 when the overnight train from Plymouth to Waterloo left the rails just after speeding through the station, tipped over on to its side and crashed into a milk train on the adjacent track. Twenty-eight people died, including two of the crew from the milk train, and dozens more were seriously injured. By dawn that Sunday morning, the first of many photographers were already on the scene, and postcards of the carnage were on sale in local shops before the end of the week.

This was the golden age of the picture postcard, but one which did not last long. The increasing popularity of illustrated newspapers and then illustrated magazines - and the onset of a devastating World War - impacted considerably on the postcard market, and after peace returned, the range of cards available never again achieved the rich variety available to the Edwardians.

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