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Day the 'Thought Police' banned the saucy Victorian seaside postcard

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: September 02, 2014

  • Donald McGill working in his studio

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AS summer draws to a close, cast your minds back to those seaside jaunts back in the 1950s.

Having run the gauntlet of traffic jams, you've booked yourself into your digs. The battleaxe landlady has tipped you out for the day and it's blowing a gale. So, what do you do?

Brave the elements for a stroll along the prom and huddle inside a bus shelter to scoff some fish and chips. If the weather doesn't let up, you might as well mooch around the shops for some postcards. Wish you were here and all that!

But, just as you set foot in the newsagents, a couple of burly constables are having words with the proprietor. It seems your plan of finding a funny card for Uncle Bert may be thwarted. Surely not, have the powers that be lost their sense of humour?

Sad to say, 60 odd years ago this little scenario was played out in holiday resorts across the land. All because saucy seaside postcards fell foul of moral watchdogs. Yes, while we strolled along the windy pier, police raided newsagents, confiscating any racy cards they found.

Thousands of postcards were seized and banned under Victorian obscenity laws – and some of the artists prosecuted.

Until well after World War Two, saucy seaside postcards were incredibly popular. British holidaymakers bought around 16 million of them each year. Mining the rich vein of bawdy humour found in Music Hall tradition, the jokes relied on double entendres and popular stereotypes.

Like a scene from a Carry On movie, the saucy postcard was nudge and wink type humour laced with double meaning. With the best ones you can almost hear Sid James' filthy laugh – or a Kenneth Williams style "Ooh Matron!" cry of mock offence.

Few adults were offended by this stylised and long standing type of traditional British humour. After all, as the postcard vendors argued in their defence, any rude inference was down to the viewer. Yet, that didn't stop the Director of Public Prosecutions seizing what they deemed the most scandalous examples.

Had the 1950s "thought police" possessed any sense of history – let alone a sense of humour – they would have realised that racy cartoons have a long and cherished history in Britain. The great satirical cartoonists of the 18th century, such as Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson, used humour to criticise political and social figures and conventions of the day. And, the ruder they were, the more the viewers loved it. Back then, the cartoons were so popular they attracted huge crowds of viewers whenever they appeared in publishers' windows.

The leap from satirical cartoon to comic strip came in the 1870s. By the late Victorian period, the public still had a healthy appetite for irreverent and bawdy humour. But, their so-called betters felt the need to improve morals – not their own of course, but those of the working classes! Failing to appreciate the irony of this, they tried to force working people to shun alcohol and traditional, often bloodthirsty, games and sports they enjoyed during their brief leisure time. In reality, as the working classes were demanding more equality, the Government feared large crowds of working folk could lead to trouble. So, they tried to control and sanitise traditional working class leisure pursuits. It's no coincidence that football was regulated during this period. Racy cartoons also went the same way, to a degree.

It was during the 1870s that the first comic strips appeared in the press, with weekly black and white tabloid publications such as Funny Folks (1874) and Ally Sloper's Half Day Holiday (1884). These were aimed at adults, being a mix of social comment and slapstick humour. Ally Sloper was one of a long line of British comedy heroes, a ne'er do well clown, whose very name suggested furtive dealings in back alleys. It was also common slang for anyone who was habitually short of rent money or did a moonlight flit, without paying.

Comics for younger readers did not appear until the 20th century. And, when they did, the comic format was much the same, involving custard pies, juvenile pranks and bullies getting their come-uppance.

Indisputably, the king of the comic postcard was Donald McGill. Born in 1875, he grew up in London, pursuing an early career as a naval draughtsman. He stumbled into postcard design by chance, having made a funny get well card for a sick nephew. The artwork impressed a relative who encouraged McGill to pursue his artistic talent. Within a year, postcard design had become his main job.

During the Great War, McGill produced anti German propaganda in the form of postcards. These comment on the war were from the point of view of the serving soldier and anxious loved ones at home. He also covered issues like rationing, spy scares, war profiteers and interned foreign nationals.

He also produced romantic cards featuring couples. Some of his cards also showed women involved in the war effort, with images of nurses and munition workers. Most of these wartime cards were light hearted or humorous.

But, there were exceptions, such as one showing a British Red Cross medic caring for a German soldier.

McGill spent almost his whole career creating the distinctive colour washed drawings that are so familiar to us as postcards. His saucy seaside cards feature the stock characters from Music Hall comedy routines of popular stars of the era.

In later years, "cheeky chappies" like Max Miller and Frankie Howerd kept the flag flying for the old innuendoes and double entendres.

A sea change occurred in 1951, the same year as the prestigious Festival of Britain. The nation had endured long years of wartime austerity. It was time to have fun and look forward to a brighter future. Instead, the government of the day decided to crack down on public morality.

Like the Victorians before them, they believed British morals were in decline and had been sliding since the war. Soon, committees to judge taste and decency in art and literature reared their ugly heads. Around 167,000 books were censored. Before long, saucy postcards – and Donald McGill fell under the spotlight.

Seaside resorts now had "Watch Committees" comprising magistrates and other "upstanding" figures to determine which cards the public would be allowed to buy. There were also plenty of busybodies willing to report any shopkeepers selling racier cards. From the outset, it was an utter shambles, as individuals differed as to what was deemed obscene or not. So, some cards might be on sale in Blackpool, but banned in Bournemouth!

Police raids resulted in publishers and artists being arrested and prosecuted, with McGill one of the main targets. On July 15, 1954, aged nearly 80, the artist was tried in Lincoln, under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Despite a spirited defence, he was found guilty and fined.

It was severe blow to McGill, as well as a financial burden. Between 1904 until his death in 1962 he produced 12,000 designs, 200 million of which were printed and sold. Yet he never made much money or earned any royalties. The saucy postcard industry also suffered. Many of the cards were destroyed, and fearing raids, retailers began cancelling orders. Some of the smaller companies went bankrupt.

By the late 1950s the establishment began to ease the censorship. And, in 1957, a frail McGill gave evidence before a House Select Committee, set up to amend the 1857 Act.

Today the offending postcards seem pretty tame. Yet, back then, designs – like one featuring a bookish man asking a pretty woman "Do you like Kipling?" With the reply: "I don't know, you naughty boy, I've never Kippled!" – got McGill into trouble. This card holds the record for selling most copies. As six million were sold, the British public must have enjoyed the joke.

Sadly, as the more liberated 1960s kicked in, McGill died, designing cards to the end. His designs were brilliantly executed and made millions smile. As George Orwell wrote, McGill's saucy postcards filled a place: "The corner of the human heart that they speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish."

What are your memories of the saucy postcards era? Write to us at The Black Country Bugle, Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email editor@blackcountry bugle.co.uk or log on to www.blackcountry bugle.co.uk

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