How postcard club that meets in Bury St Edmunds, with members from all over Suffolk, is helping to keep history in the picture
Ask any collector of postcards how many they have and chances are the answer will be the same … thousands! Such is their passion for the tiny snapshots of history that they have long since lost count.
The pocket-sized windows on a bygone world prove so addictive that once they start they can’t stop, and the members of East Anglia’s only postcard club are no exception.
Their collections roll back the years more than 100 years to when the fashion began for sending loved ones a message with a picture attached.
Capturing moments in history - fascinating, intriguing, often beautiful, and occasionally surprisingly grim - they are irresistible to members of Bury St Edmunds Postcard Club.
Today we think of postcards as views of holiday destinations - or maybe something saucy from the seaside - and our instant sharing of news and photos has all but made them redundant. But in the early 1900s it was very different.
As the Edwardian age began their popularity soared. At first they cost an old halfpenny (less than ¼ of a penny today) to send. It went up to one old penny in 1918, and a price increase in 1922 was reversed after public protests.
Picture postcards first appeared in the 1890s and had their absolute heyday - sometimes called the “golden age” - from around 1905 until the First World War.
They were a favourite way for troops fighting in France to send messages home, and while never quite reaching the earlier heights they remained popular for decades afterwards.
Almost anything could feature on a postcard. Some were funny, with gentle humour often tailored to the town where they were sold.
One from more than 100 years ago titled ‘things we see on a wet day in Bury’ shows ladies lifting their skirts to avoid the sodden pavements … revealing their ankles to the delight of passing lads.
A real classic features a clueless gardener perched on the end of the tree branch he is sawing off.
And some were useful, printed with, for instance, a recipe for rhubarb charlotte and Birds custard.
Collectors love the intricacy and beauty of hand-embroidered postcards. Reproductions of paintings were also widely used.
And then there were the endless photographs. The fascination of seeing your town or village in the early 1900s is often what hooks collectors in.
But some cards recorded bleaker views like the inside a WW1 hospital ward lined with beds of injured veterans, bomb sites, or flooding. And postcards were printed as a memorial to three policemen shot dead trying to prevent a robbery in London in 1910.
Topics sought out by Bury club members - who come from a wide area of Suffolk and Norfolk - run to around 30 different categories from disasters to Donald McGill, the king of the saucy postcard.
Sue Rawle, chairman of the club since 2019 and one of the first members, stresses the cards are not just collectors’ items but an important record of history.
It hurts them to think how many get dumped when homes of older relatives are cleared.
“If you find a box of postcards when you’re clearing out granny’s attic please don’t throw them away. Give us a ring and we will sort them out. And you might have something that’s worth some money,” says Sue.
The club began in 1998 when a handful of stamp collectors from Bury Philatelic Society succumbed to the allure of postcards.
Its founders were Richard Everett, his wife Anne, and Sue, and all three are all still keenly involved.
Richard became a driving force in the club, held every position on the committee, organised postcard fairs, produced newsletters, and has been made an honorary member as a thank you for his years of service. But it was Anne who first caught the postcard bug.
“My husband was a stamp collector and one day at a fair while he was looking at stamps I found a postcard of the Bury abbey ruins, and that was what started my interest,” she said.
“Richard was initially reluctant, then I found some of the Scottish highland regiments - he did his national service in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders - which got him involved. That was about four or five years before we started the club.”
Eighteen people went to the inaugural meeting at the WVS tearooms in Looms Lane, Bury and the club quickly grew.
It moved to various venues before relocating to The Crypt at St Edmunds Church, Bury in 2021, where it holds club nights with a mixed programme of speakers, members’ displays, themed “show and tell” nights, quizzes, and an occasional postcard dealer with their stock.
Programme secretary Steve Kentford initially visited to give talks, and joined when he moved to Suffolk in 2005.
“Now we have 32 members but we’re always looking for more,” says secretary Maureen Barker. “We are very lucky to have a friendly and supportive group where new members are always given a warm welcome.”
“We all started off with one or two cards,” says Anne. “Now Richard and I must have thousands between us. We keep our collections separate. He is meticulous about keeping records of his - I’m not so much.
“I started with Bury, then went to the silk cards. A lot of them were sent from France in World War One, and a lot are hand embroidered.
“Often they have a poignant message. When you read the messages you don’t know if they made it home.”
Sometimes more mundane details creep in. One of her cards reads:”Dear Mum and Dad, having a storm, thought we were being torpedoed … eggs are eight for a shilling.”
In January 1999, the club held its first auction, where members entered their duplicate postcards. Commission on the sales resulted in a net profit of £26.15.
The first Bury St Edmunds Annual Postcard Fair took place in 2000. It developed to become one of the largest in the country, continued until 2019, and was resurrected in a smaller form last year.
From 2000 to 2013 the club held an annual competition and revived it last year to mark its 25th anniversary. Members entered up to four postcards anonymously and the top three were decided by a secret ballot.
The club kept going through Covid through the efforts of Maureen and Sue, by Zoom meetings, emails and encouraging people to write articles.
Chairman Sue tries tirelessly to attract new members and has put on displays in Moyse’s Hall Museum. She also does various “back office” jobs.
“It’s a good job we do collect, because it’s history,” she says. “If it wasn’t for us these cards could have been in rubbish bins.
“I started when I went to a postcard fair in Ipswich and bought a couple of cards of Bury. Then at stamp club Richard said there is enough interest in this to think about maybe putting a club together.
“If people give us cards, we have them to pick from and have a donation box. We sometimes get dealers in if there are valuable ones.
“I collect Bury and Horringer, also comical ones of Bury. My mother Marjorie, who is nearly 90, is our oldest member, and got involved when I put my back out and I needed a driver to come to the club.
“She collects all sorts including comical cards, dahlias, chrysanthemums, flowers, oranges and polar bears. The cards that are over 100 years old have colours as fresh as when they were printed.”
Maureen lives in Wilby near Eye with husband Colin, the group’s treasurer. “We went to Long Melford book fair and Colin was looking for his postcards and I was getting a bit bored, so I looked and found two of Thorndon, where we lived at the time, and I was hooked.
Her collection includes all villages and towns in Suffolk, places they have holidayed, and Derby where they used to live. “I have a collection of Framlingham floods in 1912, and the same places got flooded in the recent storms,” she said.
“Now Ebay is the best place to buy cards, and postcard fairs. Sometimes antique shops have a shoe box full.
“I also collect horses and carriages, and royalty. How many do I have? Thousands, You get so interested and want to find something really good, We all learn from each other.”
Colin, former manufacturing director of Qualcast, and Suffolk Lawnmowers at Stowmarket, says: “I was writing a book on Derby Corporation trams. I needed pictures and the only place I could find them was postcards. Then I widened it to all road transport.
“That was maybe 50 years ago. Transport is still my favourite subject. It all started from a schoolboy interest - especially in buses,” said Colin who has now written 13 books including two on Ipswich tramway and trolley bus system.
Club member David Addy is a former council finance director, also runs the St Edmundsbury Chronicle.com local history website. “I was always on the lookout for illustrations and I heard of the postcard club and went along. I have thousands now,” he says.
“My collection includes a lot from the Bury Pageant in 1907, it was such a big thing they put on trains from London.” Another of his cards shows baptisms in the River Lark in 1917.
“Now I tend to try and concentrate on one particular publisher. Walton Burrell, who lived in Fornham St Martin, was deaf from birth. The Record Office believe he is the first deaf photographer they have identified in the whole country.
“He came into his own during WW1 and spent the war years going round the military hospitals in the area and taking pictures of the patients.”
The photos were made into postcards the troops could buy to send to their families, and include patients and nurses at Ampton Hall, a grand country house just outside Bury.
Even in hospital the soldiers had to wear uniforms and in the cards the white lapels of 'hospital blues' can be clearly seen.
In those days a photographer was still enough of a novelty that whenever one appeared everyone came out and wanted to be in the picture.
“A lot of people are surprised to know that Bury was bombed during the First World War,” David adds. “There were postcards produced of the damage, including locals standing in bomb craters.”
Anyone who would like to know more about the club can call Sue Rawles on 01284 769480,
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find Bury St Edmunds Postcard Club on Facebook.