Postcards From the Past

One of the best pieces of advice I have received in recent years was given to me at the Royal Institution in 2017. I had chosen to attend a one-day workshop about “The Magic Lantern and Science” and whilst the recreation of a Victorian illustrated lecture in that legendary venue was delightful, my main purpose was to reconnect with some experts in pre-cinema and early cinema, to pick their brains.

Jeremy Brooker, master of the lantern

I had recently returned to my research into William Friese-Greene after a dozen years away and was feeling somewhat lost as to how to proceed, in terms of making sure it got out into the world this time. A couple of academics were very clear as to the answer: start blogging. Start blogging, they said, and you will find that all sorts of people with a shared interest will come out of the woodwork and contact you. You will make connections you never expected.

Well, they were dead right, and the surprising messages that drop in my inbox are a delight: whether it be an enquiry from a film museum, or a relative of Will Day taking me to task for my depiction of his ancestor, or hearing about a surprise discovery in a Welsh antique shop, or finding that an academic whose work I greatly admire is a regular reader of mine. Or something like this…

I was contacted by Paul Fenwick, a cereal pathologist based in Lincolnshire (yes, I didn’t know cereal pathology was a thing either, but you can look it up). In his spare time, however, he had been creating the Grimsby and Cleethorpes (Virtual) Museum, a site where he shares his own historical artefacts related to the area and invites others to. Bit by bit, he had purchased four postcards on eBay that related to William Friese-Greene’s children and Cleethorpes, and wanted to better understand the context and meaning of them. Well, I can’t resist a niche inside a niche inside a niche, especially when it reveals things you had no other way of knowing.

First of all, I must explain that these are not postcards as you would normally imagine them. A century ago, it was a pretty simple matter to have your own photographs made into postcards so your friends and family could get a very personalised message from your travels. And whilst today we may be able to Whatsapp an image of ourselves from anywhere to our friends in just an instant, this story demonstrates that the old-fashioned method was more enduring and – let’s face it – way cooler.

Paul asked me to write something for his website, which I was happy to do, in thanks for bringing them to my attention. I’d like to share an illustrated version of it here, as these seemingly trivial items actually speak volumes.

The Friese-Greene Cleethorpes Postcards

These four postcards are both a charming window onto the Edwardian seaside and a poignant snapshot of a difficult time in the lives of the sons of William Friese-Greene (1855-1921), the moving picture pioneer and obsessive inventor.

The three eldest – in descending order – Claude, Kenneth and Graham, signed up to fight in the Great War, the latter two when underage. Fortunately, they all came back alive, but by then William and Edith, their father and mother, were financially ruined and had separated. Their father died of heart failure whilst attending a meeting of film distributors, having just given an appeal for unity, on 6th May 1921, at the age of 65. Ethel, twenty years his junior, followed close behind, taken by cancer on the 20th July.

The two youngest – Vincent and Maurice, 10 and 14 years old – were still in school. A friend in the film industry, Will Day, organised an appeal to support them but that didn’t go very far.

The first two chronologically, from August and September 1921, show us what Kenneth is doing to make ends meet during the summer, depicting “the staff the ‘Boss’ standing next to me“. He’s part of a team doing beach photography – he’s the one second from the right. These photographers would shoot groups of people on the beach and then display the images, which holidaymakers could order a copy of. His father, of course, began his career as a photographer and would fall back on it when times were tough.

You can see Kenneth in the act in the second picture, up a ladder, organising a group shot. The number on the photo, which would have been written on the negative, shows it was up for sale. The first picture shows two boards of photos – Monday’s and Saturday’s – and people checking them out. The woman behind the counter is dealing with orders and above their heads it states “PHOTOGRAPHED By Appointment  3/ [shillings] per ½ doz”.

The postcards are to his older brother Claude and childhood sweetheart wife, Chrissie who now had a toddler, Peter. Both father and son would have careers behind the camera – Claude in the cinema, Peter in television. They are living down in Hove where the family had spent the majority of their time after 1904. The third card, from the end of September, shows a smiling and dapper Kenneth, who says he is looking forward to going down to visit them.

The final card, from August 1922, shows a man in uniform and two women in driving gear, leaning against a vehicle with French signage and a Union Jack, perhaps indicating some kind of road race, with the pier as backdrop.

This time, the card is from Vincent – ten years’ junior to Kenneth – writing to Claude and Chrissie, who have now moved up to London. He’s recounting going up in an aeroplane, which would have particular significance for Claude, who was with the Royal Flying Corps in the war and had since been earning money doing aerial photography and filming. Presumably, Vincent is spending some time with his older brother during the summer months.

Kenneth would later settle in Sheffield, running a business designing and fitting out cinemas. Vincent would follow his oldest brother into the air force, dying in action in 1944. At this moment, they are just trying to find their way in the world without the support of their parents. And have some fun.

Peter Domankiewicz

2 thoughts on “Postcards From the Past

  1. Hi Peter- Thanks for the honourable mention and congratulations on an excellent piece of detective work. Really enjoyed that, and beautifully written as always. (Just a thought but the two girls in the final image could be pilots rather than motorists?)

    I am researching the Photo-Drama of Creation at present. Fascinating stuff, but maddening not to be able to visit archives (especially in the US). Patience!

    Best wishes Jeremy


    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting thought, given Vincent’s comments about flying. Maybe they took him up…
    I feel your pain about researching. For the moment we must be content to trawl the internet.


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