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Return to Sender: How We Managed to Track Down the Author of a Postcard from 1908

7 March 20 words: Emily Thursfield

Postcards were the “u ok hun?” texts of their day. Used by past generations to check in on their distant siblings, and by more recent ones to boast about exotic holidays to their friends, they’ve never really been blessed with messages worth a third or forth glance. Which is why our Assistant Editor, Emily, was shocked to discover cards dating back to 1908 sitting on the shelf of Hopkinson Vintage, Antiques and Art Centre. She decided to track down the families of their senders, to ask them why… 

People pick up all sorts when they go travelling – pebbles, tea towels, keyrings. I’m no exception. I’ve never been one for fridge magnets, and I stopped buying shot glasses after I reached legal drinking age and realised they have no real use. The collection of mine which probably lasted the longest was postcards. I never wrote on them; they all sat in a box until I went to university, where I plastered them on my bedroom walls as a reminder of better times. I’m a bit of a handwriting fanatic too. As someone whose penmanship is regularly likened to a computer font, I think it’s such a shame that physical writing is becoming such a rarity these days. Combine all this with the fact that I’m a big history buff, and you have an explanation as to why I picked up a collection of old postcards on a visit to Hopkinson Vintage, Antiques and Arts Centre.

They were stored in a small box on the ground floor. Labelled something like “Postcards. All early 1900s,” I was first drawn to them because of how creepy they are. Apart from the odd few which feature an illustrated landscape or a festive poem, the majority show the face of a small child – either dressed up in an extravagant outfit or staring blankly at the viewer. I was surprised to find that a lot of these cards had been written on – names, addresses and postage stamps all there. For a modern-history geek like me, this stuff is mind-bending; it’s hard to comprehend that these were real postcards sent by real people, not some historical prop created for a period drama. 

I looked at the names – Mabel, Joyce, Wilfred, Edie – and my interest was spiked. Who were these people? What happened to them? And how on earth did their postcards end up in a vintage store in Nottingham over a century later? £2.25 later, I set about finding out. 

First things first, I wanted to know more about their lives. I started with three cards  – from 1908, 1918 and 1932. Our Editor Ash gave me his login for ancestry.com, and I began researching away – typing in every detail I could find about the person on that card. After a few days of scrolling, obsessive note-taking and feeling like a detective, the bug hit hard; I headed back to Hopkinson and bought five more. 

Who were these people? What happened to them? And how on earth did their postcards end up in a vintage store in Nottingham over a century later?

I soon realised I’d only be able to successfully trace the people who had some sort of familial connection to the sender of the card. It was all well and good searching for an Evelyn Rollinson who once lived in Netherfield, but that search brings up hundreds of options. At least if they were family, I had one way of confirming. Luckily, I had a few cards in my collection I could work with: there was Wilfred Ainsworth, sending greetings to his sister, a Miss L Ainsworth; a card for Joyce West from her Auntie Vinnie; and a scrawled letter for Gladys Bennett from her brother Percy. As the hours ticked by, I began to uncover their identities. 

The postcard was first introduced into the UK in 1870, inspired by incarnations already available in Austria, Germany and the US. The cards were plain with a pre-printed stamp, all issued by the Post Office – it wasn’t until fourteen years later that picture postcards gained popularity, and other printers were allowed to produce them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a card would cost a halfpenny (about 15p in today’s money) to send, and they were used as a short form of communication. Want to meet your mate for a pint tomorrow? Scrawl a quick message, pop it in the post and hope you hear back by the second postal delivery of the day. It’s a bit like Whatsapp, just without the blue ticks. 

One thought I couldn't get out of my mind was why used, century-old postcards were sitting in a box in a vintage store. Clothes, jewellery and furniture I understand. But postcards with seemingly-mundane messages on? I needed an answer. I arranged to meet with Brian Lund who, alongside his wife, has spent the past forty years collecting, trading and archiving old postcards as part of their business, Reflections of a Bygone Age. They host the Nottingham Card Fair multiple times a year and have written over 200 books on the subject. 

I arrive at Costa and thank Brian for taking the time to come and meet me. “No worries,” he says. “Thank you for buying my postcards from Hopkinson.” 

Postcard trading is no joke. Find a hidden gem and you could be looking at a three-figure sum, and join the hundreds of people doing the same – from the Postcard Traders Association to the amateur trading thread on Reddit. Turns out, the small box of creepy cards used to belong to Brian, who trades regularly with the vintage store. “I’ve had about eight boxes in Hopkinson over the years,” he says. “I personally buy them from fairs and other dealers, or sometimes at auction. We tend to run our fair around five times a year, and we have dealers and collectors come from all over the country, sometimes even abroad.” 

Brian believes there’s many reasons people collect postcards. Some like them due to nostalgia, or to aid their research on a famous actress or sportsperson. Others see them as miniature pieces of art, and there’s a solid argument as to why they are such important historical artefacts too. “A lot of postcards are the only reference for a particular event – in the days before newspapers were illustrated, they used to photograph events and put them on postcards,” Brian tells me. “I’ve got one of a train crash that happened in Croydon, where the photograph was taken in the morning, and put on a card by the afternoon, and sent in the evening. Postcards were texts, emails and social media incorporated into one.” 

I laid out my collection on the table, and it was impossible not to address the sea of eerie faces staring back at us. I was hoping Brian could tell me a little bit about the artefacts, and his knowledge did not disappoint – picking up the cards one by one, he identified exactly which decade they all were made. “These two probably cost a penny when they were made,” he says, picking up the purple embossed cards from 1909. “The Edwardians were fascinated by children, they were pedestalled because of the mortality rate being so high. Kids were frequently used on postcards to represent adults, so you'd get a little boy and a girl on a date or having something to eat. They actually had lots of photographs of children in the bath, photos which you'd get locked up for having today. Every subject under the sun is on the front of a postcard – some collectors go after certain places or subjects, others aren’t so specific.” 

Brian stumbled into this world back when he was a teacher over four decades ago, and came across a selection of WWI cards in a stamp shop on Arkwright Street. He incorporated them into his lessons and the kids were fascinated. After buying a thousand card-strong collection from an advert in a newspaper, he began to trade them himself.  

I’m not alone when it comes to finding the old messages fascinating, either. “Very often the messages are quite mundane, but it just makes the card more interesting. I’ve got one here from the Goose Fair in the Market Square, it was sent to Belgium in 1904. With postcards, you could get away with a brief greeting, six or eight words – it was just a way of recognising that the person you're sending it to is still a friend. It was almost an excuse for not sitting down and writing a full letter,” says Brian.

Wilfred Ainsworth’s message to his sister certainly reads like a message he was forced to write to his sibling by a pushy mother. In 1908, he wrote: “Dear Sister. I hope you are having a jolly time at Bburn. You must help Aunt Emma to wash and be good whatever you do. Your brother, Wilfred.” The card was sent to Accrington Road, Lancashire. 

My search for Wilfred Ainsworth brought up two potential people. The first was born in 1897 in Rishton, Lancashire, with a younger sister named Lydia. I contacted his ancestor, Anne, and she told me that, although they were very distant relatives, she knew that Wilfred had passed away in 1918 during the war, and Lydia went on to marry and settle in Nelson, just outside of Blackburn. Both Anne and I had doubts about her Wilfred being the author of the postcard – at the time of sending, this would have made the siblings eleven and seven respectively, and the language seemed a bit too complex. 

This left me with the second Wilfred – born in Bolton in 1898, with a sister named Lily. Hours of scouring the internet provided me with some winsome details about his life. After serving for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers from 1914-1920, Wilfred sailed aboard the New Zealand Shipping Line ship to Hororata with his wife Beatrice on 16 July 1925, then settled down in Auckland. He continued his career as a gunner in the military, and sadly his death was reported in 1941 in Egypt, with his burial in Libya. I was convinced I had found our man. 

To get more information, I spoke to Alan Spree, another local author with an interest in postcards that was sparked by the discovery of a family artist. “I was browsing through books in WH Smith when I came across a booklet about Wollaton in the Yesterday’s Nottingham series,” he says. “I was born in that area so I flicked through it and was surprised to find some postcards with the name J Spree on them. Being an unusual surname, I assumed it could have been my great grandfather, which turned out to be true.” 

I laid out my collection on the table, and it was impossible not to address the sea of creepy faces staring back at us

Alan’s discovery brought back childhood memories of his own grandad teaching him basic photography in the darkroom of John Henry Spree. “I remember boxes of my great-grandfather’s photographs and negatives stored away in the corner of that room. Many years later I found that those boxes and their contents had been destroyed after my grandfather’s second wife died a few years after he did.” 

This began Alan’s journey of rebuilding J Spree’s postcard collection, sourcing them from websites and contacting individual collectors with his story. After an article regarding J Spree was published in Picture Postcard Monthly, it gave Alan the desire to become a collector himself. Last year, he published John Spree’s Nottingham, a homage to his ancestor’s work. In 2020, he released Nottingham: The Postcard Collection. 

These books require a lot of research, especially when, like J Spree’s, the cards feature photographs of locations that have evolved over time. “I tend to use Google Earth to ‘walk’ the street or area to try and find any identifying features such as buildings or other prominent points on the image,” says Alan. “I also use side by side modern day and historical maps on some occasions to determine roads that have changed name or disappeared in time.”  

Unsurprisingly, the number of sent postcards has depleted drastically over the past decade, thanks to the development of mobiles, text messages and social media almost rendering them obsolete. It’s not totally the end yet – you can still find a healthy amount of cards for sale, and the past few years has seen the development of apps and websites that allow you to physically print and send your own pictures with messages to your loved ones. “Regrettably I think postcards will become a thing of the past,” says Alan. “But I do hold on to hope that they won’t. I do see them in shops still, which means at the moment they’re still marketable, but perhaps they will be used for historical keepsakes rather than sending as correspondence.” Brian is slightly more optimistic, though: “People thought we’d see the end of books after the invention of e-books, but more are being published now than ever,” he argues. “People are starting to get fed up with social media too – a lot of emails are spam and Facebook is losing ground. In the end people will think 'it'd be great to have a picture of that up on the wall', or a souvenir of something they might not be able to capture themselves.” 

I waited for a few months for a response from Wilfred’s ancestors, but I had no luck. Same for Joyce and Gladys – I’d gathered tibits of information about their lives, but it seems they’re set to remain a mystery. I’d hoped to reunite the cards with their distant family, but instead I guess I’ll keep them as a little token of the past, and feel comforted knowing Wilfred’s memory didn’t die with him in Egypt. And who knows – maybe in the future, there’ll be someone scrolling through terabytes worth of digital footprints who will come across my texts to my mother asking for cooking advice, and find them endearing too.

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