Les Cloches de Corneville was a comic opera popular in the first half of the twentieth century with amateur operatic societies in Britain. I have never actually seen it performed, but as far as I can gather it had something of a Gilbert and Sullivan feel to it, and like the various comic operas of that famous pair, it features a leading comic part, in this case the bailiff (or Bailie) of the French town of Corneville. The high point of his performance will have been a song during Act 2 entitled “I have lost my head and my wig!“
It was not unusual for local operatic societies to have pictures taken of their leading actors and actresses, and issue these as postcards to publicise an upcoming performance. This card would appear to be an example of this. Someone has kindly added details of the part, the play and the date – but alas, not the place of the performance. On the reverse of the card there appears to be a signature which could be J.K. Harding – which could well be the Bailie in question.
This signed photograph of Nita Croft turned up during the garage clearance. It was something of a surprise to realise that the lovely Nita had been sitting in my garage for twenty-five years without me realising it. Born in 1902, Nita Pycroft shortened her name and took to the stage, upon which she enjoyed a lengthy career as a singer, actress and dancer. Her fortune peaked in the 1930s when she had a hit with the song “When It’s Sunset On The Nile” Nita died in 1987, aged 85: – a few years before taking up residence in our garage.
This postcard – dating back to 1913 – appears never to have been sent through the post. It was written by Andrew – who we can suppose is the man in the middle of this group – to Mary Campbell of Cowdenbeath, who fairly obviously doesn’t feature in the trio. The message is as follows:
13/3/13 Dear Mary, I wonder what you think of this, not very nice I suppose, would have been much better had you been there, perhaps it will be your turn next. With Kind Regards,Andrew.
It was a time of political chaos, when the Government of Britain was wracked by internal divisions and factions. Cabinet meetings were characterised by open hostility and serial resignations, and the Prime Minister seemed to stand back and watch the fighting so as not to alienate one faction or another. The issues being argued about were Britain’s place in the world and it’s trading relations with other countries – issues that were essentially economic but which had become lost beneath a jingoistic cloak of patriotism and colonialism. Leading politicians involved in the struggle would change positions with alarming regularity, creating confusion amongst their supporters and a degree of dismay amongst the wider electorate. It would all eventually end in political tears for many of the people involved.
Sounds familiar? It was, of course, the summer of 1903. Joseph Chamberlain – that champion of Liberal free trade who had recently become a convert to the idea of tariffs and Imperial Preference – had resigned from the Government. Whilst he was no longer a member of the cabinet, he was still a powerful political player and his son, Austen Chamberlain, remained in the cabinet to represent his cause. The Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, content to stand back and try to gauge which way the wind was blowing, was rendered useless and went on to lose the General Election in 1906.
Now, we tend to look back on the events of 1903 and ask, “What on earth was it all about?” When the country should have been concentrating on modernising its industrial structure and improving the social conditions of its population, it wasted its time with a sterile argument between politicians who were championing their own fanciful ideas. We can look at old vintage postcards of the period like the one above, and shake our twenty-first century heads and say, “what a waste“.
I am not trying to suggest that current events are an exact repeat of the ridiculous arguments of 115 years ago. After all, there is one big difference: there are no political postcards this time around.
This fine old vintage postcard dates from the first decade of the twentieth century and features photographs of Nellie and Empsie Bowman, a couple of stage and music hall stars of the era. Nellie and Empsie, along with a third sister Isa, were the daughters of Charles Andrew Bowman, a music teacher, and Helen Holmes. All three girls were actresses during the late Victorian period, and all three became friends of the writer Lewis Carroll after a young Isa Bowman played a part in a stage production of Alice In Wonderland. The relationship between Isa and Carroll has been written about and dissected at length, but there has been less focus on the lives of her two other sisters. All three sisters maintained at least a contact with acting, and together they had a small part as “eccentric old ladies” in the 1948 film “Vote For Huggett“
My card has no message, just an address and a 1904 postmark. No message is needed, however, there is a story enough for anyone in the lives of the two girls on the front of the card.
I worked in Doncaster for close on twenty years back in the 1980s, and I passed this church regularly. It was an impressive building, standing within its own grounds but surrounded by busy roads. Like so many churches, however, it was showing its age. The discovery of this postcard, prompted me to check up on the state of the church now, and it appears to be a thriving religious centre again. Looking at the website, I also discovered that one of the church elders is a chap I used to work with thirty years ago.
The thing about vintage picture postcards is that so often it is a trial of strength between the photograph on the front and the message on the back as to which can be the best source of historical interest. A perfect example is provided by a recent acquisition: a 1907 postcard of the Smith Art Gallery in Brighouse, Yorkshire. The Smith Gallery, and many of its paintings, were a gift to the town by Alderman William Smith, a local mill owner and benefactor. The gallery was built in 1906 and opened in the following year, and therefore this picture postcard must have been published to commemorate its opening. The gallery reflects a time when the northern mill town would compete with each other in terms of the grandness of their public buildings and the breadth of their provision for the arts.
The reverse of the card contains a message sent to Miss Lottie Roberts of Cleckheaton from her friend Laura in Brighouse. These were the days before holidays to the Costas or Dating Apps would provide the opportunity to meet the partner of your dreams, and young people were limited to the simple pleasures of a walk in the park.
We have arranged to go to the park on Tuesday evening. Surely we shall get off this time, it is always said the third time pays off for all. Come down with Clara.
Love from Laura.
I hope Laura was lucky in love and lucky in her third walk in the park. I was certainly lucky to find this fine old postcard and the store of social history that it contained.