The Foxearth and District Local History Society
Cavendish Through the Lens

This article introduces the presentation about Cavendish in old postcards, Cavendish Through the Lens, made by Keith Slater, a local historian who specialises in collecting postcards and photographs of the local area in East Anglia. It is available as a PDF file and as a PowerPoint presentation. Keith has demonstrated a dogged determination to hunt out local postcards to provide a coherent image of what life was like up to a hundred and forty years ago in the Suffolk-Essex border regions. Unlike many collectors, his primary aim is to make these images as widely-available as possible. Keith has revived and galvanised our mission at the F&DLHS to communicate local history as widely and freely as we can.

It is possible to find out a great deal about our villages and towns, particularly about what the people and places looked like, just by looking at old postcards, and photos. Postcards, which resulted in great shift in the way that people communicated about ephemeral things from 1890 onwards, are essential because they were taken by professional photographers with expensive equipment. These people often travelled by push-bike, with panniers for their equipment. They took photos of ‘beauty-spots’ for the tourist trade, but also photos of communities, with their cottages and children. The resulting postcards, displayed in the local post offices, were eagerly purchased by families to send to distant relatives and friends, often annotated with names and arrows. Because they were made with skill, postcards are full of detail, and are essential to local historians, Family historians, artists, architects, and planners.

Cavendish is typical. From the start of the railway link, Cavendish had a regular weekend tourist traffic. After walking to the church, lunch in one of the inns, a walk to the Watermills or the nearby ancient woodland, they would have tea on the green and buy a postcard, usually of the church cottages, before catching the train back to the ‘smoke’. Postcards created a false history of the quiet, contented, and timeless rural idyll.

If that was the only purpose of postcards, we would be worse-off. However, that’s not the case. Postcards were, of course, sometimes represented the only photographs ever taken of some children. They often appear in front of their cottages, almost always dressed in their ‘Sunday best’s, and staring hard at the photographer. Photographers were constrained by the exposure-time, so they had to stand still. An experienced photographer would have his own tricks to achieve this. The best involved holding coins aloft and making the children stand in a line motionless until he threw the coins on the ground after the shutter closed. These photographs were planned: the street would be warned of the visit on the photographer in sufficient time to dress the children smartly. There are also postcards of outings to the seaside, cricket teams, amateur dramatics, and a host of other activities.

Other photographs were more melancholy. Many of the war memorial and the cemetery were purchased by the grieving members of what was a tight community where everyone knew each other. Many sights were chosen because it gave the postcard sender a chance to show off the village as a grand and prosperous spot, with Country Houses, vast rectories, modern villas and splendid hotels.

Postcards were a revolutionary way of communicating because it coincided with a radical re-organisation of the Post Office. The new science of ‘operational Research’ persuaded managers to look for the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in speeding the postal process. The obvious one was to filter out all the local post and deliver it immediately, within a few hours. Postcards could be used in the morning for negotiating the evening events, settle meeting-places, and discuss the current weather (‘Ugh, the weather is cold innit!’ declaims one). The number of ‘social’ postcards sent is difficult for a generation to imagine that regards handwriting as an archaic habit. I can remember in the ‘fifties, my aged grandmother still spending two hours daily on her ‘social media’, reading and writing to a huge number of friends who could, and would, be only rarely seen or visited. It was a paper ‘Facebook’ even with the images.

When I first became aware of the huge collections of local postcards, I thought it would be a permanent part of our culture, and that we would always have that resource to dip into. The reason that our group of local historians scanned them in and put them on a website was just to allow people living abroad with East Anglian ancestors to see what the old country looked like when their ancestors were alive. Now, I’m very happy that we did so, because postcards have disappeared from the local community. Throughout Britain, persuasive local historians were given many family’s collections with the idea of ensuring their permanence as a community resource. Unfortunately, the postcards increased in value enormously, and it was too much of a temptation to the heirs of these well-meaning local historians to dispose of these collections to dealers. As a result, these collections are fast disappearing and many rare postcards have gone abroad or appear on offer at prices that are completely out of the reach of locals.

We very seldom get feedback about the photo galleries on the website. Some people think it is ‘Google’ who provides them, rather than hard-pressed local historians. However, when feedback comes, it is very pleasant. I get some visits from people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and America who make a special visit to give thanks for the resource. With the collection of postcards of each village, they can, they explain, walk in their imagination through the village as it was in 1900.

Since we started scanning photographs, the technology has improved greatly and is far less tiresome to do. Not only that, but the technology for restoring photos, even those that are torn, stained, faded or blurred has increased beyond imagining. Details, previously unnoticed, now jump out of photos. We can now store them in much higher resolution. This means that we have to re-scan from the original photos or negatives to get good results. It is important to maintain a collection by having access to postcard collections.