CONFESSION OF A DELTIOLOGIST

by

Bob Cairns

Half of you can start by taking a cold shower because a deltiologist is nothing more exciting than a collector of old picture postcards – we all have to be called something! Probably the remaining half of you are wondering what the dickens this has got to do with local history anyway.  Well, this particular deltiologist collects old postcards of Lewes and villages within a 10 mile radius of it including Ringmer, of course, Barcombe, Firle, Glynde and Laughton.  Old in my terms, 1900-1920, is young compared with the villages’ history and some local historians don’t even consider that the period since the 18th century has actually happened.

With many villages though, and Ringmer is no exception, the greatest development and change in lifestyles has taken place during the last century.  Old postcards offer a fascinating glimpse of life 80 years ago before private transport and the various communication systems overcame distance and ended communities’ isolation.  My cards offer the vehicle by which I can step back to those quiet times although no doubt older readers will say that the hustle and bustle of activity existed even then.  It is easy to get a rose tinted view of life in the “good old days” as most cards show the better views of towns and villages, rarely the slums and it was difficult given the photographic technicalities faced to obtain unposed action shots.  Even so, postcards offer a unique pictorial record of our recent history.

I leave Ringmer for a short while to give you a potted history of the picture postcard (1).  It all seems to have begun in 1865 when Dr Von Stephen, the virtual founder of the Universal Postal Union, proposed the introduction of an open letter sheet, the size of an envelope, at an Austro-German postal conference.  They were eventually introduced in Europe in 1869 and were followed in Great Britain from 1 October 1870.  At this time the cards were plain and did not carry any picture or illustration.  Odd advertisements and monograms began to appear on them and in the 1880’s and 1890’s sketches were added of foreign resorts.  In Britain no such illustration was allowed until 1894.

New regulations given the full backing of a Treasury warrant were published in the London Gazette allowing the printing of picture postcards from 1 September 1894.  Still no message was allowed with the reverse side used solely for the recipient’s name and address.  In 1897 though the GPO relented and allowed the following instruction to be placed on cards:

“Nothing may be written or printed on the address side of any postal packet which either

by tending to prevent the easy and quick reading of the address or in any other way

is likely to embarrass the officers of the Department in dealing with the packet”.

From 1902 this restriction was removed and half of the address side was given over to a message and no doubt sorting office staff have been offended ever since.

The heyday of the picture postcard was a period of 20 years between 1895 and 1915.  The number of postcards mailed during 1895 in this country was 314 million and in 1900 it was up to 419 million, about 10 cards for every man, woman and child in the country and by 1914 this in turn had more than doubled to 880 million.  I have got about 2000 cards so will the rest of you please stop hoarding the remaining 12,000 million and let me have some of them!  What must be remembered of course is that at the turn of the century there was a reliable and efficient postal system and a writer could have complete confidence in their picture postcard reaching its destination within 24 hours.  The Post Office delivered up to six times a day and a card posted to any destination in the United Kingdom was guaranteed to arrive within 24 hours.  What price first class mail?

Picture postcards covered all facets of life.  Some cards of, for example, royalty were printed literally by the million by national companies such as Raphael Tuck and Valentines both of whom still produce cards today.  At the other end of the market local publishers were quickly on the scene to cover local news and events.  Most towns and villages during the golden 20 years period would have been much visited by photographers and their visits with the paraphernalia of their trade would always arouse much local interest.  You only have to look at the odd postcard to see how children in particular were attracted to the camera’s lens.

In themselves postcards are no more than pleasant to a casual observer although obviously to collectors they offer far more.  To an historian they provide clues to events long forgotten and the buildings which have disappeared or been substantially altered and hint at that quiet pace of life which I earlier alluded to.

I know of about 160 different cards published of Ringmer.  110 of them are in my collection and 40-50 have been shown to me by other collectors and residents in the village but I have not so far been persuasive enough for them to hand them over.  Even so, that small number still manages to show most views of the village, major events and its well known characters.  My Ringmer cards cover a number of significant local events and I have chosen to highlight two of these, mainly because they were the first two that I was able to unearth details about.

I have six or seven cards which provide a fine photographic record of a military funeral held in Ringmer on 27 January 1909.  The cards are produced by two different publishers.  The deceased was an old soldier, William Kingsborough, who was buried with full military honours (2).  A Crimean veteran, he had lived with his daughter Mrs Charles Clarke at Bradford Cottage, Green Lane, Ringmer for the last three or four years of his life.  On 1 March 1854 he enlisted in the Fourth Royal Irish Dragoons at Crumlin in County Antrim, and saw service with them at Balaclava and the Siege of Sebastapol and it seems he was always ready to give his own vivid account of these famous battles.  He received the Crimean and Turkish medals and also seems to have served in India.  In 1884 while serving in the Second Dragoon Guards he was in the escort which provided ceremonial cover for the Shah of Persia when he travelled from Woolwich to London.  Mr Kingsborough was discharged in 1876 and became an out-pensioner of the famous Chelsea Hospital.  He appears to have stayed there only for a few years because my next note is that he retired at the age of 70 due to failing eyesight after 20 years of working for a Brighton Corporation contractor, Mr Wooley.  He moved this time to live with his daughter and regularly walked into Ringmer from Green Lane up until his death.

Under the recently introduced National Insurance Act he was entitled to a pension of three shillings a week from January 1909 but lived long enough to draw it three times only.  He had been receiving a small allowance from the Lord Roberts’ Veterans Relief Fund.  The funeral was a major event and drew crowds from Lewes and the surrounding district.  The Fourth Royal Irish Dragoons were at that time based at the Preston Barracks and they and their band led the cortege.  Twelve men and two no-commissioned officers comprised the firing party who let off three volleys whilst the Last Post was played.  A grey pony drew the hearse but unfortunately the only card in which it appears shows only a very small portion of its back.  The road to the church was thickly lined with people, young and old, and school children lined up with their teachers, the boys saluting as the hearse passed by.  It is noted that there were two wreaths on the coffin, one from his daughter and another from a Mr and Mrs Jackson of Ringmer.  The Reverends Gribbell and Furnival officiated at the funerial.

My second event is illustrated by three cards published by Bliss and Co, County Studios, Lewes and is the unveiling of the war memorial on 15th August 1920 (3).  The task was performed by Brigadier General Gore-Anley, CBE, DSO whose association with Ringmer, if any, is unknown to me.  He was thanked by Mr J Moffatt-Smith JP on behalf of the parishioners and short addresses were given by the Reverend E Griffiths (the Head of Lewes Grammar School) and the Reverend W E Bremner of the Lewes Tabarnacle Church.  The Vicar of Ringmer, the Reverend G R Leefe and the Rural Dean, the Reverend K J Poole, were also in attendance.  A military guard was provided by the Royal Engineers from the Maresfield Camp and they fired three volleys which were followed by the rolling of muffled drums and two trumpeters played the Last Post.  Numbers in attendance were boosted by scout troops from the village, Hove, Uckfield and Lewes and numerous ex-servicemen.  The choir from the Parish church was also there but quite what their role was I have not been able to find out.  The memorial was designed by a Mr Dudley Kibbler, an artist and sculptor who lived at Ashcroft, and was present at the unveiling.  The memorial was made by Norman and Burt of Burgess Hill in Portland Stone.  The fine work of the Ringmer Branch of the Royal British Legion has kept the memorial in its original state.

Most Ringmer cards appear to have been published locally and mainly for sale by local shopkeepers.  A particularly fine photographic series was published by Mr G F Burtt, a photographer who lived in Ringmer.  A couple of other cards which carry no publisher’s name give the photographer’s initials as GFB and these were probably also published by Mr Burtt. Another prolific local publisher was the Metzotint Company of York Place, Brighton.  The site of their premises is now occupied by the multi-storey car park at the rear of London Road.  Their fine photographic cards are always inscribed in a distinctive italic script.  This firm must have covered virtually every village and town in Sussex between 1900 and 1910 and one can imagine the excitement that their photographer must have generated when he arrived to set up his equipment.  In fact given the equipment of the time and particularly the need to expose photographs for such a long time I can only marvel at their crisp results.

Another fine series was produced for Mr H G Bradford who owned the shop that subsequently passed into the hands of Messrs Moores before the lovely building was demolished to be replaced by the Ringmer service station.  Miss Moores kindly gave me a photographic card of the store showing it in 1905 with the windows displaying goods of every description.  One shows all manner of clothing and is predominated by straw bonnets whilst the other window has an appetising array of foods including Camp Coffee and Cream Custard, whilst in complete contrast an advertising sign over the door encourages villagers to buy Sankeys Food for Cattle.  Other cards were produced in large numbers for Messrs W J Crowhurst and W Wilmshurst, both of whom seem to have occupied the Post Office at various times.

Equally interesting to historians can be the messages on the reverse of the cards for these very much reflect the social order of the day.  Many were in fact sent by the working classes and particularly by servants.  One sent in August 1905, for example, from Ashcroft, from one servant to another at Upper Stoneham, mentions a recent visit to the Ringmer Flower Show.  Another card of Ringmer found its way to New Zealand.  It was addressed to Fred Jarvis and reads:

“How do you like New Zealand?  Do you want to come back? I wish you were

here  sometimes.  Are you still in the foundry trade?”

My favourite card has the message:

“I saw this poor old man, he looks as if he might live for some time”.

and is on the reverse of a fine card by the Metzotint Company showing Henry Waller aged 88 who in 1904 was a Ringmer postman.  The card boasts that in 40 years he walked 160,000 miles.  The message is rivalled by that appearing on a card of the Lower Clayhill area which reads:

“People all very excited here today over the polling….I shall be on the Parson’s side.

Three of my favourite are L----S.  I want to know if a few more then I am one. J is one

already.  I get teased about it” (sic).

On the card’s picture side the contradictory, “My wife’s a rank Tory” appears.  Nothing appears to have changed with politics!  Other cards were used to seek the purchase of linnets from a dealer in London, refer to a holiday spent at the Anchor Inn and to chickens being available at various prices from two shillings to eight shillings.  So the local historian who wishes to put together a picture of the community as it was would do well to look at both the front and back of postcards.  The East Sussex County Records office at Pelham House in Lewes has a fine and diverse collection and the Sussex Archaeological Society also has a good number, as do many branch libraries, in particular Brighton Central Library.

Without the obvious date of a postmark, postcards can sometimes be difficult to date.  The following however gives some general clues:

1.      Cards had divided backs from 1902 onwards

2.      Look at the style of dress and be alert for signs or motor vehicles and other transport.

3.      Look at the notices in shop windows and on billboards which under a magnifying glass can throw up dates of auctions , shows etc.

4.      “Affix ½d stamp” will appear on unused cards up until 1918.

5.      Notice the publisher of the cards.  With local shopkeepers these can be dated to his/her occupation of the shop with the help of local directories.

6.      Ask somebody like myself who knows more about cards than local history but who in return will expect to ask you about your Ringmer knowledge.

The Ringmer History Study Group has, I think, shown that history study does not have to be stuffy.  Certainly it demands discipline, methodology and the nose and ears of a detective but it should also be fun.  I am using my postcards to concentrate on Ringmer’s recent history and hope that they have offered something to the readers of this magazine as well.  But whatever you do with old postcards don’t collect them!   I hate competition!

(1)   C.W. Hill ‘Discovering Picture Postcards’ (Sale Publications, Tring)

T & V Holt, ‘Picture Postcards of the Golden Age’ (MacGibbon and Kee, London

A Byatt, ‘Picture Postcards and their Publishers’ (Golden Age Postcard Books, Malvern).

(2)   Sussex Express 1909.

(3)   Sussex Express 1920.