London Statues of Medical Women

Episode 14: Postcards from London's Past

Helen shares the true stories revealed through postcards sent more than a hundred years ago.

Helen Baggott is a writer and editor from Dorset. She began researching postcards almost 20 years ago and so far has researched more than 300 – with more in the wings.

Helen Baggott: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Website

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Full Transcript

Hazel Baker: Hello, and welcome to our London history podcast, where we share our love of London. It's people, places in history in 20-minute espresso shot episodes served with a dash of personality. I am Hazel Baker, CEO of London Guided Walks, providing private tours, treasure hunts and Live London Quizzes to Londoners and visitors alike

To accompany this podcast, we also have hundreds of London history related blog posts for you to enjoy at londonguidedwalks.co.uk/blog.

Now we have some exciting news this week. But we don't have one piece of news. Oh no, we actually have two. The first one was that this week I was a guest on BBC radio London with Robert Elms, talking about the King's wardrobe. A wonderful, very quiet, historic area within the city of London. And it's somewhere that we visit also on our tours of Blackfriars; The Best of Blackfriars tour. And I'll pop the link to that in the show notes. Hear me on Robert Elms: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08gg03s 11 mins 28 secs in.

The second piece of news is from Saturday, the 4th of July, we will be back, offering private tours and treasure hunts, all COVID-19 secure.As we prepare to reopen, we are offering a £15 discount for all private tours booked online from now until the 4th of July. No promo code is required. We've done all the hard work for you. Simply go to londonguidedwalks.co.uk, choose a private London tour and book securely online. Tours with this offer can be booked for up until December 2020. You just need to book before the 4th of July to benefit from the £15 discount. And for the regulars amongst you, you already know we don't normally offer discounts. So make sure you don't miss out. And now on with the show.


I don't know about you, but I feel a flurry of excitement when sorting through the post and I received something non bill related.

When was the last time you received a postcard? I do love the idea that someone has taken the time, money, and effort to choose, right and post a postcard, to me. I suppose, social media and its ability to post photos and connect multiple people at the click of a button for free has helped, diminish this once seemingly compulsory vacation ritual.

And if receiving personal posts feels so good, why do we not send more to. Joining me today is author Helen Baggott who has written a rather intriguing book, called Posted in the Past. And it's revealing the true stories written on a postcard. She meticulously collects these stories and researches them, showing us the real lives of real people.

And today she's going to be sharing some of the stories and the research behind those stories of some London related postcards. So, Helen, welcome and thank you very much for joining us today.

Hazel Baker: How did you start going down this rabbit hole?

Helen Baggott: Well, it's one of those situations where you're not looking for a hobby, but something actually finds you. It began 20 or so years ago with a couple of postcards that my father bought and one of them was sent to a soldier in 1913. And I just decided to try and discover some more about his life and very sadly, he was killed during the first world war. And I just felt that as important as it is. And in fact, it's essential to remember that someone has given their life in a war. It's also important to remember the life they lost and also perhaps the life that was never going to follow on for them.

And so just researching one postcard, a soldier's short life, it just led me on to researching more because it was such a satisfying project, which connected me with his family in America and in this country and is still revealing more information I never expected to hear about. So that's what started me off on the project.

Hazel Baker: I think it's brilliant. And you've got some stories that you're wanting to share with us today.

Helen Baggott: Yes. I have, the postcards that I've researched, I've probably researched possibly 300 by now, but they were all sent from around the world to addresses in this country. But the ones I've chosen to talk about have a London connection. And the first one was sent to an address in Clapham Common, sent to a Winnie Penel who lived in Burlington Road. And the postcard was sent in 1909. And it was sent from a friend named Gladys. When he was celebrating her birthday and Gladys had been invited by Winnie's mother to come along and have a slice of cake with Sue.

But unfortunately Gladys had to decline because her parents needed her at home. And I think this offers an insight into the lives of young women in the early years of the 20th century. As much as Gladys wanted to go and help her friend celebrate her birthday at an informal afternoon tea with her friends house, Gladys' parents didn't want her to go and so she was unable to go, which I think offers something of a sad tint to a celebration, perhaps. So when I've researched, Winnie who received the postcard, I looked at the census returns and that shows me the employment and where people lived at that time. And in Winnie's case, she lived, as we know in Clapham Common, but her father's employment shows us how job descriptions have changed over the times.

He was at various times involved in the fitting of sanitary appliances. Someone we today would call a plumber and it just demonstrates how the terminology has changed. Though Winnie lived in London, her mother was from wheelchair and of course we never know why someone has moved around the country, but they settled in London anyway.

And that's where Winnie and her siblings grew up. Later I found the family in Merton Park. And by this time when he had married Charles Smith, and he sent her a birthday card, which I also have, and this was sent in the 1930s. And accessing the 1939 register, I was able to discover information about the neighbours and it's quite interesting what jobs these people had in Merton park.

This was quite a nice area and it's still a nice area today. We had a senior sanitary inspector working for the borough of Chelsea. An executive officer we've HM customs, and excise, a retired police Sergeant, a publisher with the daily mirror, chief inspector, as a metropolitan police. It's also interesting that the young women who were living with their families at this time at these addresses, if they were in employment, they rule secretarial work.

All of the other employment jobs that I've listed are for the fathers, for the husbands in households.

Hazel Baker: Yeah, it's funny. Isn't it? You were saying about sanitary fitter and...

Helen Baggott: Yeah. Yeah. Sanitary appliances. And of course you can imagine that this time in the early 19 hundreds, you know, people still had outside toilets. I mean, they would have for quite a long time after this date, but these modern conveniences that we take for granted today, this was all starting to happen for people.

Hazel Baker: [00:07:58] Yeah. Also like the terminology, the language used in these postcards as well. I mean, it's evident that someone didn't write it today. "With love from your affectionate friend, Gladys."

Helen Baggott: [00:08:10] Yes, absolutely. And in fact, the postcard that her husband sends to her, even though they're living at the same address and it wasn't posted. And I, can imagine him leaving it for her on the mantle piece, perhaps. You know, "My dearest Winifred, wishing you very many happy returns of your birthday with fondest love from Charlie."

It's so sweet is that I think that's one of my favourite postcard stories that I've researched. And I have to admit that in my mind's eye, Winnifred is a character from one of those films. You know, the peak the era of the 1930s in London, Celia Johnson, perhaps in This Happy Breed. That's who I see as Winnie.

Hazel Baker: [00:08:53] And I love the handwriting.

Helen Baggott: [00:08:55] Oh, absolutely. I mean, some of it you can hardly read. But others, it's absolutely beautiful. And I mean, one postcard I had researched, which was sent from a young man to the lady I later discovered he married, his handwriting is beautiful and the message was written in red ink.

So passionate and it finished with six kisses.

Hazel Baker: [00:09:20] Oh, I say how extravagant. Yeah, I was going to say, I don't think my husband leaves me notes. Maybe this episode will prompt him into a bit of action. So you have a lovely one of Clapham Common and Merton Park together. And you've got one for a bottom, I believe.

Helen Baggott: [00:09:39] Yes. I have Lynn Street in Balham, which was sent to Doris, Doris Wilson, who was a young girl this time. And the postcard was sent from someone who has just signed their name H Grant. And I don't know whether that's a child, although the handwriting suggests that it would be. This time Doris was, I think 10 or 11. And so perhaps this person who sent the card was perhaps a little bit older, but not much older than her. And this is a lovely card. Well, the message tells us that they were both postcard collectors and the person who sent the card has said that they thank Doris for sending the card and that they would very much like the set.

So they were obviously sending each other postcards that would go into a collection. The message goes on to say that I came to London with father a fortnight ago and went to the exhibition. So. We know that the postcard, because of the date on it was sent in October, 1910 and looking at what exhibitions were on in London at this time, we have the Japanese British exhibition, which was held in white city in London.

Now that ran from may to October in 1910, and the postcard was sent in the early days of October. So that's likely to be the exhibition that this person, this child had been taken to. This idea of the exhibitions in London comes through in several postcards where people have visited and they covered a vast area acres and acres of exhibition space.

And in this particular one in white city, one book reference that more than 8 million people have visited. And, that's a vast, vast area and a huge audience. When you think today that perhaps you, if you had an exhibition in the, perhaps the O two arena, I don't know. I think it would have to be endorsed these days, 8 million.

I think that's a fantastic, fantastic amount of the people to attend. And the idea of the exhibitions actually carries on into another card, which was sent to Jersey channel islands, but it was sent from the recipient sister. It was sent to somebody called Annie. The message just says, "Can you fancy us here at the exhibition in London, we are staying with friends and our address for the week is in the strand Grove park road. Chizik." And this card actually has quite a nice story attached to it. That happened after the book I've written was published because I had a contact from somebody who was descended from another sister and she was the granddaughter of another sister.

There were three sisters. Of course it was fascinating for her to see what her great aunts were up to at this time. The exhibition they'd gone to was the festival of the empire, which was held at crystal palace in London. And that celebrated the coronation of George the fifth. Now that opened in May, 1911. And of course these people have gone along in June of 1911 to see it. So there were people traveling all around to go and see the spectacles. And when I was chatting with the niece of the two sisters who sent him received the postcards, you know, we both agreed that it just offered a glimmer into their lives because you would never know that these people had attended the exhibition, but you have the evidence in the message on the postcard.

Very often, if you've got the handwriting on another document, you can match the people off. It helps if in 1911, They were the head of a household because they would have completed the census return in their own handwriting. And I've actually matched the handwriting to people. And then being able to say with a hundred percent certainty that they are the person who sent the postcard in one instance, it was very clear from a message that the person lived relatively close by and they'd gone away and they suggested to the person, they sent the card that they could go and pick the beans if they, if they were looking right in the garden.

And that suggested to me that they couldn't have lived that far apart. And so I walked down the road using the census return. And thankfully this person who sent the postcard was the head of the household. And so I was able to match the handwriting. Then I was able to say with certainty that this is the person that sent the postcard, even though there was nothing on the postcard, which would actually tell me who they were.

Hazel Baker: Oh, you miss marble.

Helen Baggott: That is an aspect that I have enjoyed and I've done it more than once.

Hazel Baker: I mean, looking at this postcard to miss Marcus, to answer Annie, the photo itself is very brown. Isn't it? And on the back of it, it says that it's actually the official postcard of the coronation exhibition. And then looking at the actual stamp, the mail stamp, that's the coronation exhibition mail stamp as well.

So I can imagine this are very similar to what I did when I was 11 at Disney World is buying the postcard, very excited being, writing it, sticking this stump on, and then queuing up to, you know, to get it stamped properly. And it has Mickey mouse's head on it, you know, and this is what you've got here. And so that spirit you haven't bought it and then written it later on. This was bought, written, and posted right there as she was experiencing it.

Helen Baggott: Yeah. Isn't that a lovely touch? I think that's another aspect of that particular story, which makes it so special. Very often the postcards don't connect with the view on the card of people were buying packs of postcards because they were using them so often they were sending perhaps several a day, they bought a pack and you would find that there is no connection with the image on the card to where the person is at that time.

I have a postcard that was sent by somebody in Wells and it's of Sterling in Scotland. And the only reason that kind of happened is because they had it with them and they just wanted to send a message home to say they arrived safely. So they'd obviously carried this pack of postcards with them.

Hazel Baker: I must admit Helen. I have a drawer, absolutely packed full of emergency birthday cards and blank cards. And whenever I go to dinner or stay at the Prince for a weekend or whatever, when I get home, I then write a little thank you card. Or if someone's been a well, and I write them a little note and you know, it might be of a peacock, not nothing you would expect to, you know, pop it into Clintons and people say how old fashioned I am for sending a thank you card.

Helen Baggott: I think it's lovely. And if you think today, when we go on holiday, when we're allowed to go on holiday, you cannot load your photographs onto one of the platforms. And within seconds, people at home can see what you're doing on your holiday. There's no need to send a postcard. Why would you? But if you think about it, you're missing out on the ephemera, the piece of card that you can hold that connects you with whatever's happened in the past and how that has reached into somebody else's hands a hundred years later, you're not going to get quite that sense of excitement with a Facebook memory coming up.

Hazel Baker: That is very good point. And of course this postcard is as close as you're going to get, not just with it being bought, written and posted there, but even when she says, "Can you fancy us here at the exhibition in London?" It's as close as she got to sending a selfie?

Helen Baggott: Absolutely. Absolutely. And don't you just love the words she's used? You can hear the excitement. It comes through in that.

Hazel Baker: Yeah, no, I think it's wonderful. And I thank you so much for taking the time out with us today. I mean, it's been an absolute pleasure getting to know you and also Winnie and Edith and Ethel and Freddy and all these wonderful names.

Helen Baggott: Aren't they lovely? In my mind's eye, they're all looking at us and smiling.

Hazel Baker:  And I appreciate it Helen. Thanks so much.

Helen Baggott: You're welcome, Hazel.

Hazel Baker: I hope you've all enjoyed today's episode. And if you have, then please do take a few minutes to leave a review. This not only helps me making sure that I'm on the right tracks and delivering what you want, but also for those who haven't listened to the podcast before and want to know whether it's worth their time as with every episode that we do, you can check out the show notes, which has links to recommended reading, including Helen's book Posted in the Past, but also, the transcripts so if you prefer to read things rather than listen to them,

Don't forget. We have hundreds of blog posts writing about places in London. Very often that we visit or discuss in our Private London Tours.

And don't forget that we are now offering £15  off all private tours booked until the 4th of July. And you can book your private tour all the way up to December, 2020. So no promo code required. Just check londonguidedwalks.co.uk/private-tours and book securely online. We are COVID-19 secure. And we also have a statement on the website, sharing what we're going to do to make sure that not only you, but also our staff, are as safe as possible as well.

So thanks very much for listening and I'll catch you next week.

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