Dead Letter

…..She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.

– John 20:15

Bobo, Going Postal

This is a small possession of mine, a curio.

It is, as you can see, an Edwardian picture postcard of the humorous variety.  The joke is quite straightforward. There are two pictures, side by side, of a young man and woman. In the first, the man sits at a desk and reads from some papers while the woman operates a keyboard; in the second the man is cringingly washing dishes at a kitchen sink whilst the woman, now magnificently attired, wields an umbrella threateningly in his direction. The pictures are helpfully labelled Before and After, and the entire composition is titled Dictation. The obvious implication is that you first meet her at the office, demurely tapping away at her newfangled Typerwritering Machine. But afterwards, and marriage is the event that we can assume divides the two stages, she turns into a feather boa-wearing termagant who’ll give you a poke with the ferrule of her parasol at the slightest provocation. There’s a timeless wisdom there that we can all contemplate to our benefit. Am I right, chaps?

Present also is a certain muted eroticism. ‘Cor! Look at the picture hat and ankle length skirt on that! Phwoarr, eh? Phwoarr!’ It also happily brings to mind the story about how I first met the wife at work. Oh yes, it all began when she asked if she could borrow my Dictaphone. I told her that on this occasion she might, but the rest of the time she’d have to dial with her finger like everybody else. Oh, ho ho ho! The old ones are always the best!

But I digress.

The first thing to notice is that these are not drawings, but photographs. Two separate shots were taken, the photographic plates were hand tinted and then copied onto a single plate which was then used for printing the postcard. Although not apparent in the above image, the resolution in the original is startling. You can, with a magnifying glass, clearly make out the tin of Coleman’s mustard on the shelf above the sink. It sits next to what looks very much like a tin of Ambrosia creamed rice; although the people at Ambrosia Ltd are adamant that their first rice puddings did not roll off the conveyor belt until 1917, six years after this postcard entered circulation. Nevertheless, and we must assume the people at Ambrosia know what they’re talking about, there is something hauntingly domestic and familiar about the tin with its blue and green label. It is something you might see when you open your own kitchen cupboard.

As to the date the photos were taken, you can verify this by having a squint at the calendar on the wall above the man’s head in the office shot. It reads 19 November, 1910. Less than four years to the start of WW1, and eight years less eight days to the end. They can have had no idea, the young chap and woman, of what was waiting for them around the corner. He looks about the right age to have seen military service, and she young enough to have had boyfriends ditto. Pictured here at the apogee of the Edwardian Twilight, their world orderly and sane, a cataclysm loomed above them all unknowing. I hope that time was kind to them both.

You can also see the maker’s name in the bottom right hand corner. James Bamforth was clearly a man who new how to ride a technological wave. The son of a local painter and decorator, Bamforth opened a photographic portrait studio in Holmfirth in 1870. He branched out into magic lantern slides, reprographics and printing, and in 1890 into the cutting-edge technique of cinematography. Before shortages of materials during WW1 curtailed production, Bamforth produced over a hundred black and white silent short films, mostly comedies, of which perhaps a dozen survive intact or in part. These films were immensely popular, and for a while West Yorkshire was the site of a motion picture industry which rivaled Hollywood in terms of output and creativity, and financial return.

Bamforth was also an innovator in his field, being credited with the technique of film splicing amongst other innovations. Up until then, a cameraman would load his roll of acetate film and shoot the movie in the order in which the audience would later view it.  The simple act of cutting and joining together sections of cine film in a sequence different from that in which they were shot allowed producers a greater degree of flexibility in the way in which a film shoot could be scheduled, therefore arguably creating the modern feature film. It was also a perfect example of lateral thinking.  But it was with the production of postcards that Bamforth found his greatest success. At the peak Bamforth printed over twenty million postcards per year, and accrued a catalogue of over fifty thousand designs.

In an age when most areas would have at least four (and as many as six in urban areas) postal deliveries and collections a day, the postcard was a quick and cheap method of communication. Postcards had been in use on the continent since the 1850’s, but in Britain it was not until 1870 that the authorities allowed the sending of  postcards with the address and stamp on one side and the message on the other; and it was not until 1902 that the ‘divided  back’ style of card with message, address and stamp on one side, and a picture on the other were allowed by the GPO. Initial enthusiasm was slow to build, but by 1910 over eight hundred and thirty million picture postcards were being delivered in the UK each year.

Part of the charm of collecting postcards is reading the messages on the back. An intimate insight into a world long forgotten, they inform us of holidays enjoyed, gatherings planned and romances incipient or, sometimes, thwarted. They run the gamut from hurried and to the point, to exuberantly loquacious with PS’s and PPS’s jammed in on every spare inch of space. In general, though, they are chirpy, good-natured little screeds, neatly written in ink and prefaced with ‘Dear ___’ and signed off with at least a ‘yours sincerely’.

Not this one, though.

Bobo, Going Postal
‘is this any thing like you don’t hurt him’

The writer knew Miss Armstrong’s name and address and was also, we can assume, aware of Miss Armstrong’s romantic situation; and was quite clearly drawing a parallel with the situation depicted on the front of the postcard. The writer furthermore declined to salute Miss Armstrong, or to give his or her own name.

It is interesting to note that the writer knew that Miss Armstrong lived in Hough-on-the-Hill (and also knew that sticklers prefer the toponym to be hyphenated, but had given it up after the first one), but did not apparently know where in the village she lived. We can reasonably infer from this that the writer and the intended recipient were not close confidants. We can also express our admiration for a postal system which could deliver an item based on such scanty information. In 1910 Hough-on-the-Hill had a population of 550 souls, perhaps 110 households. Communities were closer knit in those days, and families more rooted. If the postman did not know the Armstrongs, it would have only taken an enquiry or two to find them.

The postmark, deciphered, reads ‘Carlton Scroop Ju 19 11 Grantham’. This means that it was posted at the first location, and sorted on the date given at the second location.  ‘Ju’ could mean either June or July, which is surprisingly vague given that it would only have taken the addition of an extra letter to clarify matters. The date format is, of course, MM/DD/YY. Carlton Scroop, as well as having a wonderful name, is situated only a couple of miles at most from Miss Armstrong’s home in Hough-on-the-Hill. Assuming that the writer used the nearest post box to their own home, their ignorance of Miss Armstrong’s address seems surprising.

As to the identity of the writer, there are a few things we can deduce. The stamp used to mail the postcard is a ha’penny stamp, not a penny one. This, combined with the use of pencil rather than pen, suggests at least frugality and straitened circumstances if not outright poverty. The handwriting is clear, a standard Victorian Copperplate as was taught in every school in the land, but it is not elegant or practiced. Rather, it is the script of somebody who was learned it at a basic stage of education, and who thereafter only used it sporadically in adult life. The letters are well-formed with no sign of a tremor in the hand, but they are oversized which may indicate weakened eyesight. Punctuation is almost entirely absent, apart from the one hyphen in Hough-on-the-Hill, and a full stop after Lincs, although the writer did know that ‘do not’ requires an apostrophe if abbreviated. The writer is similarly haphazard with capitalisation. The message contains no capital letters whatsoever, but the address has its full and correct complement, even down to abstaining from putting one at the start of the abbreviation for ‘near’ in the penultimate line. My belief is that the address was written first, and the lack of punctuation in the message was a belated and unsophisticated attempt at disguise.

Let us take a minute to review the dramatis personae of this case. We have Miss Armstrong, the recipient of the postcard, who we may reasonably assume to have been in the burgeoning phase of a relationship with the unnamed He. We know nothing else about the young man other than that somebody was concerned enough about him to write anonymously to Miss Armstrong, of whom it seems likely that the writer took a dim view. Perhaps Miss Armstrong had the reputation as the sort of gal who might break a chap’s heart.

The relationship of the writer to the young chap is also of interest. If the writer were a close family member of the young man’s, their identity would have become apparent when Miss A trawled through the likely candidates for the origin of this missive amongst the denizens of Carlton Scroop, then as now a small village. A sibling, parent or grandparent would have topped the list of suspects. Even a maiden aunt would have stood out like a sore thumb, as maiden aunts are wont to do. But if the writer was not a close relative, then why the interest in the young man’s well-being?

The subtext of the message is also ambiguous. Is it a plea or a threat? It is impossible to say. I also make absolutely nothing of the fact that the alignment of the message at ninety degrees to the address inclines a right handed person, when reading it, to turn the card in an anticlockwise direction, or widdershins as it is known in some circles.

The most puzzling thing about this little item is that it was kept. As the veteran recipient of many a poison pen letter, I am frankly surprised that Miss A did not chuck the thing in the circular filing cabinet along with all the court orders, bailiffs’ duns and similar trash that the postman will insist on sticking through my letterbox, even though I keep telling him it will do nobody an ounce of bloody good.

But keep it she did. Or at least somebody did. For this fragile communication, written on that summer’s day over a century ago, survived. Paper is not a durable substance. Supremely vulnerable to fire and water, and no less to the ravages of time, this evanescent little scrap still exists. The mind that impelled, the hand that laboriously traced the thought and the eyes that read, with anger or amusement we cannot say, are all long gone. Their world has gone too. But yet this remains, whether it be curse, touchstone or talisman. I keep it safe in a picture frame of similar vintage, out of direct sunlight and at a height where questing little fingers cannot easily reach. I have also made clear provision for its preservation in my will. I have guaranteed its future for at least a generation or two, which is the most one can reasonably do under the circumstances.

As I say, today it lives in a picture frame on the top shelf of one of the bookcases downstairs where it forms something of a conversation piece. I do not mean that I brandish it wildly in the face of every guest who strolls into the joint but, when I do take it out of its frame and pass it around, people are generally polite enough to examine it for themselves and make engaged and appreciative noises at appropriate intervals whilst I chunter on. I hope it has been of some interest to you, too.

© bobo 2017