Tag Archives: postcards

Postcards from Portsmouth and Memories of Battle

I nearly missed this postcard in the collection.

It’s another from the city of Portsmouth, also printed in Germany with no writing on the back. It shows the Garrison Church, with a military or constabulary unit in the foreground, standing at attention. portsmouth garrison church

It made me pause and look a little more closely at Portsmouth. Harold and Walter obviously spent some time there and the place impressed Harold enough to send three postcards home about it. What made this place so fascinating for our 18 year old ancestor in mid-1914?

I’ve never been to Portsmouth and while I knew it was both a recreational destination and a port, its story is much richer than that. It has a very long and important history as a naval base and is still home to about two thirds of the Royal Navy’s fleet.  It also had a long and illustrious history as a ship-building city; once employing more than 20,000 people in the industry. Portsmouth, in 1914 was growing rapidly; its population was just under 250,000. In June 1914, It must have been a lively place — a jolly place as Harold said — with plenty of people flocking to the seaside looking for things to see and do. There must have been naval activities happening too and I want to find out more about those, but first I want to find out about the sites that inspired the postcards home.

The Church Garrison in the postcard photo is one of the oldest buildings in Portsmouth, dating back to 1212. It was a built as a hospice and shelter for overseas pilgrims on their way to Canterbury  (Domus Dei). Inside the church, there are hundreds of memorials to England’s better known naval and military figures (and other notables) such as Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Sadly, during WWII, the roof of the nave was lost and never replaced. Many of these memorials are now deteriorating. I can imagine Harold and Walter among the many tourists leaning in, looking closely, pointing at the historical names they recognised, reading up in the guides about the ones they did not.

By Rennett Stowe from USA (Royal Garrison Church) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Rennett Stowe from USA (Royal Garrison Church) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In the postcard Harold sent to his brother Percy, he mentioned the large anchor on Clarence Esplanade as being from ‘The Victory’. The HMS Victory,  was Lord Nelson’s ship from the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship itself may have been in Portsmouth when Walter and Harold were there but it would have been in very bad shape (restoration would begin in 1922). I can’t find any record of it being on show at the time. Harold didn’t include any further explanation on the card; the name of the ship and the story of the Battle would have been a well-known story taught in history books throughout the British Empire.

Clarence Esplanade, Southsea

Clarence esplanade today postcardOriginal postcard photo of the anchor of ‘RMS Victory’ on the left. (Click to enlarge)

The Esplanade as it is today, below (Google street view). 

 

*****

I intended to write about the other postcard from Portsmouth as well, but as I researched links to include about the city’s history, I experienced some personal explication I didn’t see coming. I’ll admit, it was a bombshell moment for me, but it explained a lot.

In my original post, I wrote about my discomfort with the whole notion of war. I have always had an aversion of anything to do with it; I even skipped history classes at university when the topic was to be covered. I never stopped to reflect on why I felt that way. It just seemed natural — why would anyone want to dwell on such horrible things?

As soon as I opened the National Museum’s website about the Battle of Trafalgar and saw the painting of the ships at battle, I felt shaky. I remembered something from childhood that I had completely forgotten. When I was seven, my mother, sister and I travelled to England to visit relatives. Mum took us to Madame Tussaud’s while we were in London and one of the exhibitions had been of the Battle of Trafalgar. It was (to say the least) a full-on experience. I remember the smell of gunpowder, flashes and the roar of cannons; the deck of the ship rocked and men screamed and groaned. They were covered in blood, slumped over guns, Admiral Nelson lay dying in another man’s arms. It was like walking through hell and it was terrifying.

The memories that came back were vivid and charged, but were they accurate memories or the exaggerations of a small child’s over-active imagination? My heart was racing just thinking about the experience.

I got back online wondering if the exhibition still existed or if there was any record of it at all. British Pathe had just what I was looking for and I’ll admit I had to get up from the computer the first time I watched the video. The exhibition opened in 1967, the year we visited, and the news footage shows all the preparation and work that went into making the exhibition an authentic replication. The final scenes will give you some sense of what the seven year old experienced.

(To be fair to my Mum, she  probably had no idea what to expect when we went into the exhibit.)

Their English Vacation — Part One

It doesn’t matter if there’s anything written on the back or not, postcards can fill gaps in the story if you know how to read them. The pictures on the fronts may be of significant places, events or sentiments. If there are a few words on the back, they might communicate details, a mood, a motivation for travel, mention other people or reveal the sender’s relationship to the person getting the card. The address provides details of who the card was for and where they were. The postmark can place the sender in a specific place on a day, even down to an hour — if it’s not smudged and if they didn’t have someone else post it. Even the company that produced the postcard can add to the pool of information.

So I’ve been spending a lot more time with the postcard collection, examining the messages, dates, photos, and publishers. I wanted to work out where Harold and Walter went on their tour of England.  Four of the postcards I am sure were sent during their overseas trip, two others were probably purchased at the time, but I can’t be sure.

Here they are in chronological order:

Postcard #1 

The High Altar Westminster AbbeyFront photo:  The High Altar at Westminster Abbey, London
(Printed in England, no stamp or postmark).
Addressed to: Mrs. Gillespie

Croydon, May 8th, 1914
Dear Mother,
I received your letters this morning. I was so glad to get them I didn’t expect them for a day or so yet, but I was looking for them just the same. I have seen all the pictures that I am sending you on these cards. I am having a jolly fine time. I will write you again in a day or so. We are having quite a lot of rain. Solong (sic) love to all, Harold

NOTE: Most of the postcards have ‘Croydon‘ written above the date. Walter’s family was recorded as living in Croydon in the 1911 UK census so were likely still there. It looks like they used Croydon as their homebase while they travelled around.

Harold was apparently sending postcards back in batches (‘… all the pictures that I am sending you on these cards”) which may explain why there are addresses but no stamps or postmarks on them.

Postcard #2

York MinsterFront photo: York Minster (Published by T.T. & S. ; Thomas Taylor & Son England, no stamp or postmark).
Addressed to: Mr. Gillespie

Croydon, June 12th, 1914
Dear Father,
I am sorry I didn’t tell you how much money to send. But I hope you have sent it, about a week before this reaches you. I am afraid I wont (sic) be able to see the falls on the way home. Mr Cripps has got to be back at a certain time. If I want to see the falls I will have to go alone. I have a half a notion to. It will only mean a day more from home. I am very anxious to see it. But I will be home in lots of time for the work. Solong (sic) Love to all, Harold

NOTES: This message highlights for me just how young Harold still was. When he sent this, he was financially dependent on his parents and the farm; still not confident about travelling on his own, and in need of his father’s permission even as he asserts his desire to be away a little longer. The falls he was anxious to see I imagine were Niagara Falls (I don’t know if he went on his own or not).

It also proves some things don’t change much in 100 years, I remember writing home for money when I was first travelling too.

Postcard #3

Clarence Esplanade, SouthseaFront Photo: Clarence Esplanade, Southsea (Published by  Eyre & Sportiswoodes, England. No stamp or postmark)
Addressed to: Percy Gillespie

Croydon, June 20th, 1914
Dear Brother,
The sea shore that you see on the card is very pritty (sic). I was down yesterday and walked all the way along it. The anchor that you see standing up the (sic), is off the Victory. It is an enormous size. It is a jolly fine place to be, is Portsmouth. Well solong (sic) With Love
Harold

NOTE: His youngest brother was fourteen at the time. Neither of the brothers back home would have ever seen the ocean.

Postcard #4

Portsmouth Harbour from the RampartsFront Photo: Portsmouth Harbour (Published by: B & R Ltd.; Brown & Rawcliffe Ltd., Liverpool)
Addressed to: Ray Gillespie

Portsmouth, June 28, 1914
Dear Ray,
I’ve been in the dockyards. It is a very nice place to go to see some nights. The battles ships are fine. Well I guess you will have my letter by this time I have many to write, Solong (sic) with love, H

NOTE: His brother Ray was sixteen years old when Harold sent this postcard. It’s interesting that there is one postcard to each member of the family saved in this collection – was it on purpose? It’s fascinating to compare the content and style of each message he wrote.

While nothing is written on the last two postcards, they have both been printed in Germany and so must have been purchased before the First World War started (after which time Germany obviously did not import to England). The card on the left is from London and the one on the right is from Peterborough (click on them to see larger versions).

Royal Exchange And Bank of England, London

Longthorpe Peterborough

Plotting the postcards on to a map made their trip even clearer. From Liverpool, they travelled to London and Croydon where Walter’s family lived. Based on the postcards and dates, it’s likely  they travelled north for a spell (I’ll get to Middle Herrington and Allen’s family in the next post) , returned to Croydon then travelled south to the coast before returning to Liverpool to sail back to Canada.

Tour of England map 1914

 

Now that I have a better idea of where they went, I want to know more about what they saw and what they heard. What news was available, how aware were they of what was to come as they travelled around a country on the very brink of declaring war.

 

I Don’t Know if We Can Call Them Settlers

 Image from Antoine of Oregon by James Otis from Internet Archive

Antoine of Oregon by James Otis

In school we learned  about brave pioneering folk who travelled west, put down their roots and their crops, built cabins then prairie dynasties and their families owned the land for generations. They made it sound like once settlers secured a Land Grant no one went much farther than the local church or possibly the next town ever again.

But that was generic Pioneer history taught from textbooks. We have postcards — lots of them — that tell our family’s version and it’s quite different from the ‘settled settler’ one.

While the urge to farm on their land and succeed drove them hard, there was also the urge to explore even farther when there was the chance. Walter wasn’t the only person Harold knew who adventured West and wrote back about it. In the summer of 1910 (the year before the family met Walter) Harold’s parents left the boys in charge of the farm and travelled across the mountains to visit family on the West Coast. They spent July and August there, enjoying many of the local sites.

Landing North Vancouver, sent  July 10, 1910

Landing North Vancouver, sent July 10, 1910

The following year (the same summer Walter travelled to Cardston) Harold’s mother made a second trip on her own to the West Coast. She was in her mid-forties by then, yet the backs of her post cards are filled with lively adventures.

She visited her sister Isabella and family living in Bellingham, Washington, a timber boomtown due to the reconstruction work in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. While visiting, Harold’s mum sent several postcards to Harold including one telling of their wonderful time spent on Lake Whatcom.

"Bellingham 1909" by Sandison, J. Wilbur (James Wilbur), 1873-1962 - Library Of Congress CALL NUMBER: PAN US GEOG - Washington no. 48 (E size) [P&P] http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pan.6a12756. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bellingham_1909.jpg#/media/File:Bellingham_1909.jpg

“Bellingham 1909” by Sandison, J. Wilbur, 1873-1962 – Library Of Congress  Licensed Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bellingham_1909.jpg

Once back over the border, Catherine stopped in Aldergrove to visit her sister-in-law and family then tram-hopped her way back to Vancouver. The Ringling Circus came to town that week and Catherine, and her sister-in-law took the children to watch the parade.

Even before his parents travelled to the coast, Aunt Isabell, as she spelled herself, sent Harold at least one postcard (in 1908). It showed a giant felled cedar tree on the trunk. The radius of the trunk is twice the height of the man proudly leaning against it. His auntie promised to send him more in the future, and hoped he would come to visit someday.

To Harold, From Aunt Isabell, jan 10, 1908

To Harold, From Aunt Isabell, jan 10, 1908

So many places to go and extraordinary sights to see.

*****

From: An Entangled Object by Bjarne Rogan in   Cultural Analysis 4 (2005)

From: An Entangled Object by Bjarne Rogan in Cultural Analysis 4 (2005)

For years I thought my grandfather was a deltiologist (although I didn’t know the term then); I have more than a hundred post cards from his younger life. But as I’ve become a better historian, I have learned to ask better questions. Instead of wondering — Was Harold a collector of postcards?, I set out to answer — Why are there so many postcards? After reading about the history of picture post cards — the short answer is that post cards were the emails and Instagrams of their time. They became popular after the World Fairs and Exhibitions in Paris, London and Chicago used them to commemorate their events. Soon every town and city was selling them as a way of promoting their local sights and civic accomplishments to tourists. People were collecting and sending hundreds of millions of them around the world each year. Post cards were perfect in so many ways: they had just enough space to dash off three or four lines, were cheap to post, and captured a place if you didn’t own a new-fangled Kodak camera.

******

Sent to Harold from Papa, July 04, 1910

Sent to Harold from Papa, July 04, 1910

Receiving postcards always make me restless, even if they are the kitschy ones flaunting fluffy native animals or photo-shopped sunsets. Postcards rub my nose in the fact that I’m in a small, comfortable corner of Australia – bogged down in routine — no sign of adventure in sight. I know that’s only the view from where I sit; many people would trade places with me in a shot, but postcards are a reminder that someone is out there living large while I are not. I become restless because I’ve never seen that beach, that animal, that city. Maybe I don’t even want to; it’s just a reminder of being stuck. I’m stuck and they are not.

I can’t help but think that maybe it was the same for Harold. Perhaps it’s no wonder he was able to talk his parents into letting him head overseas.