The digitisation of tens of thousands of political cartoons continues to dominate the routine work of the CARD project, but the 1950s seaside postcards continue to shape people’s perceptions of it. That is hardly surprising, as the DPP’s collection seems to have a life of its own. We are currently working with Thanet District Council and the Dreamland Trust on a postcard exhibition opening at the Pie Factory gallery in Margate on 22 July 2011, under the title “I do wish I could see my little Willy.” That exhibition will be preceded by a showing of “Carry On” films at the local Carlton Cinema, enabling the BCA to continue its historic mission of giving smut back to the people.
The title of the Margate exhibition comes from the caption of a classic seaside postcard – www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0438 – which was condemed in the Margate Magistrates’ Court (very close to the Pie Factory gallery) in January 1954, with the destruction order being confirmed on appeal three months later. But the peculiar thing is that in October 1953 the Margate Magistrates had considered and passed an almost identical card, captioned “I do wish I could see my little Willie” – www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0767 Why did they condemn one of these cards but not the other?
That question in fact goes a long way to explaining why the Director of Public Prosecutions created his archive. Not only could different benches of Magistrates deal differently with the same postcard design, but the same benches could be inconsistent in their decisions. When the DPP launched his index of prosecuted postcards in 1951, it was an attempt both to direct the national campaign, and to impose an element of uniformity at the local level.
But cataloguing the DPP’s archive doesn’t just reveal inconsistencies in the Magistrates’ decisions, it shows how strange was the police campaign which underpinned it. The DPP’s office recorded all of the postcard prosecutions, but did not receive file copies of all the offending postcards, and part of the CARD project involves locating and scanning the missing cards. We have had help with this from Ian Wallace, who owns the copyright to the Bamforth postcards – www.bamforthpostcards.co.uk; James Bissell-Thomas, who owns the Donald McGill copyright – www.donaldmcgill.info; from collectors of Donald McGill cards, including John Wilton and Bernard Crossley; and from the late Russell Ash.
Filling the gaps has revealed some rather strange things. For example, why did the Folkestone police seize D.Constance card No.1436 in 1953? This is a pub joke with the caption “ ‘Do you serve ladies in this bar?’ ‘No, you’ll have to bring your own.’” The Folkestone Magistrates quite rightly refused to declare it obscene, but why did the police think they might? In the same raid they also seized D.Constance No.856, showing a family of four sitting at home in gas masks, with the caption “We had Harricot [sic] beans for dinner to-day”. This fart joke was so innocent that even the Folkestone police thought twice, and decided not to present it in court.
Indeed, filling the gaps in the DPP’s collection has revealed some designs so innocuous that we have to ask ourselves, can this postcard be the right one? Are we adding the wrong card? For example, the DPP’s index cards record the prosecution of D.Constance design No.1772, drawn by Donald McGill, the doyen of seaside postcard artists. But this was an entirely innocent card involving a child and a puppy – www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0371C It seems impossible that police on the Isle of Wight should have seized this card in 1953, but the identification is certain. McGill first drew this card over thirty years earlier, and it had never been out of print. McGill called it “a little goldmine”, and at the time No.1772 was seized in 1953 it was estimated that 2,000,000 copies had been sold, with McGill having to redraw it twice as the printing blocks wore out.
The Magistrates in Ryde refused to condemn this card when it was put before them in 1953 – the DPP’s card noting that “N[o] O[rder]” for destruction was made (www.cartoons.ac.uk/record/CP0371B). But, once again, did the police really think that they might? It seems that they did, as the police could have changed their minds after seizing the card, and not put it up in evidence. We have identified the right design, and it was the police who made the mistake. It is another example of just how far opinions of what is offensive have changed in only sixty years.