A spot of bother

In the early 1980s Geoff received a postcard of Tunbridge Wells from a friend.dear-geoff_1 The message on the reverse of the card read:

Dear Geoff,

Just had a weekend with my friends in Hartfield. Had coffee here Sat morning, 74p for two! As you have not phoned I hope it means that all is well with you. Have had a spot of bother with car and flat is freezing so have not been in touch. On Friday we were told the office would close end of August – well at least they have decided on a date. If you have no other plans, perhaps you’d like to spend your Birthday weekend at Sidcup. Let’s hope it will have warmed up. Please let us know when you can.

Love S.

 

“The Best Years of Our Lives”

In August 1947 George received a postcard from his mother, sent from New York City.

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The message on the postcard read:

Monday Night.

Dear George,

How are things going with you? Edna and I went to see “The Best Years of Our Lives” this afternoon at the Astor and enjoyed it very much. Going to the eye doctor for the last time tomorrow as he is going away for a vacation next week and will be gone until 15th of September. Hope you are all well.

Mother.

The Ramsgate Rock Crowd

In June 1949 Winnie sent a postcard from Ramsgate in Kent to friends in London.

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On the back of the postcard Winnie wrote:

“Hello Everyone”

Thank you for the card. The weather here is very cold. We are wearing big coats. We both look well, in fact sights. Sheila’s face is the colour of her hair and mine is about the same as when I left. We will be home early on Sunday. I have a nice Rock for you. They had the police to control the “Rock Crowd”. My love to you all. Winnie

Latest Word in Social Clubs

Last term I ran a short course for adult learners called ‘Tourist London Since 1800’ at Bishopsgate Institute. As with all the courses I deliver, I selected a range of original sources from the Institute’s library and archive collections to direct the learning process and each week students explored a different theme using tourist guidebooks, restaurant guides, and so on.

The final week’s theme was ‘Nights Out in London’. As I gathered materials for the session, I stumbled upon this slim pamphlet.

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This was an item I hadn’t seen before. Attracted by the cute jester on the front cover, and overlooking the rather dog-eared appearance otherwise, I popped the pamphlet on to the top of a set of materials on pubs, clubs and dining out at the very last minute – and started to deliver the class without having looked inside this one item. Honestly, this is not how I usually plan my sessions.

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The notes read: “You don’t shay sho” “glad eye” “Oh how I wish Mother was here”.

As the group started to explore the sets of archive materials laid out for them, one student called me over to share an incredible find. On every page of ‘Tabarin Club’ someone had annotated the illustrations with droll remarks. With the kind permission of Bishopsgate Institute, I’ve reproduced this fabulously acerbic set of marginalia here for your enjoyment over the bank holiday weekend.

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These notes read: “smug faces” “ought to know better” “new method of shaking hands”

 

These scribbled lines smartly undermine the formal, almost pompous, tone of the printed content that outlines the facilities offered at the Tabarin Club (‘special care has been given to the proper ventilation to ensure a refreshing and invigorating atmosphere…’). They also offer insight into popular catchphrases and comic conventions of the 1920s.

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Here we have: “Someone has pushed him in the neck” “Booking up Vacant Dates” “I don’t care for you!!” “Frank with Bird and headache”.

 

I would like to thank my eagle-eyed student Jacqui Ross for bringing these previously overlooked notes to my attention – and now also to yours. As is often the case with original historical sources, this item asks more questions than it answers. Most obviously, who wrote the comments? Were they based on personal experience of nights out at the Tabarin Club (“why do we do this?” “you’re not going home yet sweetie…”)?

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The notes here read: “Some dance” “why do we do this?” “liar” “ha ha” “You’re not going home yet sweetie” “last train for Balham”

 

And what else can we discover about the Tabarin Club? Street directories from the 1920s give the club’s stated address of 31 Tottenham Court Road as the Rector’s Club rather than the Tabarin. Yet the production of a high quality brochure of this type suggests a degree of permanence or longevity as opposed to a short-lived residency. This useful website mentions the Tabarin in the body of a longer piece of writing on London’s interwar jazz clubs but otherwise I’ve been unable to find out more about the club. Anyone able to provide fresh insight is invited to comment below. Similarly, anyone wishing to get their hands on this and dozens of other original sources on the history of ‘London at Play’ is encouraged to sign up for my next archives-based course at Bishopsgate Institute, starting on Monday 9 May. This annotated pamphlet will also be featured in a session delivered as part of Duckie’s Quite a Lot of Balls weekender on 7-8 May.

I usually sit on the left of the entrance

Most regular users at the British Library have a favourite seat. It appears that this has always been the case. In 1928 the mysterious ‘W’ sent a postcard from the British Museum in London to a female friend or relative in Ireland, in which he explained where he usually sat to carry out his research. The front of the card shows the Reading Room with its distinctive circular layout. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the British Library had been located in the great court at the British Museum but it 1997 it moved to purpose-built library premises near Kings Cross.

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The rear of the postcard is covered in cramped handwriting and signed Y.E.L. W; that is, your ever loving ‘W’ (William? Walter? Wilfred?).

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The message is dated 23 January 1928. It includes a description of the British Museum reading room (‘a beautiful, large, roomy place, well-warmed…’) as well as some incomplete data on ‘W’s research topics and processes. In full, the message reads:

Monday morning.

Many thanks for sending the Gazette, which I was glad to receive; the report of Mr Hammond’s Dublin Anniversary address has raised one or two interesting new lines to me. I shall be glad of any help, and thank you for thinking of it. I have most of the literature now; but if any old magazines (July 1927; or before October 1926) are available (without trouble), I should be happy to receive them. I see in the leaflet “Who is sufficient…” the snap of nine of the Lisburne family. Olive seems quite happy with her companions!

Liley [?] says, in a note, that, if I write to you before she does, I have to say thank you very much for the photo. They are evidently very pleased.

Thank you for your letter of Saturday. The “idea” you raise is just the very thing, and I hope that it will be possible. HBR returns this week – he is away in the South – and perhaps we can get things fixed up more definitely soon. The weekend or so will be to me much more than “restful”! I am really glad, too, to come and see the works.

We had rather a quiet Sunday evening, with 14 in; but it was nice to have it quieter and less crowded.

This is P.P.C. [picture postcard] no.7 (I think!). The Reading Room is a beautiful, large, roomy place, well-warmed and well provided with splendid desks. It holds about 400 or 500 seats. The picture is taken from the entrance (the passage under the clock is the Inner Library). I usually sit on the left of the entrance. The round shelves in the centre hold the Catalogue. The room is usually crowded. I am hoping (despite 2 or 3 meetings this afternoon and evening) to write a short letter and to post it tomorrow. D. sends her love (and W.D., too!). Y.E.L.  W.

The postcard recipient is a Miss Dodwell. Her address is given as Manor House Home, a children’s home in Lisburn near Belfast in Ireland. Manor House Home opened in 1927, the year before this postcard was written. ‘W’ expresses an interest in coming to ‘see the works’ a hope that suggests Miss Dodwell is involved in managing the home in some way. But there is no way of knowing this for sure from the message, just as there is no way of discovering, without further research, whether ‘W’ and Miss Dodwell were sisters, cousins, comrades, friends or sweethearts.

Disappointed Borrowers at East Ham Public Library

East Ham Public Library opened in east London on 2 January 1899. More than 1,400 borrowers’ tickets were issued within a fortnight of the opening date. By the end of the month, chief librarian William Bridle (1868-1927) was growing concerned about the dwindling numbers of books remaining on his library’s shelves.

Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900
Passmore Edwards Library East Ham c.1900

On 27 January 1899, he submitted a report to his library committee managers that included the following urgent appeal for more stock:

The result of starting with an insufficient supply of books is that within a month I have had to refuse further admittance, and practically close the Library to all but the fortunate 1,500 readers who were able to make early application [for tickets], thereby causing disappointment, even disgust, among the large numbers of people who are now patiently awaiting their turn to become members [of the lending library]. To meet our pressing needs, the stock of books should be doubled at once. We cannot do less than this and keep faith with the public. We are, by our action in opening the library, inviting them here, and we must be prepared to keep pace with their increasing demands.

This story of immediate, almost unmanageable, demand for reading matter was repeated in new public libraries across London at the turn of the twentieth century. From Hither Green in south-east London to Chiswick in west London to Willesden in north-west London to Lambeth in south London, chief librarians struggled to keep pace with borrowers’ needs. Many became resourceful in their efforts to secure additional stock. Some librarians circulated begging letters to local businesses or authors for books and others got up fund-raising events to secure money to buy additional stock – all to ‘keep faith’ with a reading public whose appetite for literature appeared limitless.