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Herefordshire author John Farr tells how he visited every church and chapel in the county to research his book The Picture Postcard Heritage of Herefordshire Churches
A picture of churches past and present
Herefordshire author John Farr visited every church and chapel in the county to research his book The Picture Postcard Heritage of Herefordshire Churches. Here he tells how some scenes have changed very little down the years, while others are dramatically different and some have vanished altogether
More than 20 years ago I visited the always enjoyable antique fair at the Three Counties Showground and I found on one of the stalls an excellent collection of old Herefordshire, pre-World War One postcards and as an enthusiastic local historian, I became immediately fascinated. As Norman architecture has always been of interest to me I purchased a few cards featuring churches of that era. Following these early acquisitions I started attending specialist postcard sales fairs and as my collection expanded it occurred to me that it might be possible to collect a postcard of all of the 350-plus churches extant in the Edwardian period. The hobby of postcard collecting is followed by a huge number of people, although it evokes very little publicity or media coverage. I have been in a thousand-strong queue at the large York postcard fair, which runs for three days, all of us anxious to add to our specialist collection. Topographic, as local view shots are known, is a popular theme, but there are dozens of potential subjects such as railways, post offices, militaria, political, music hall stars, fashion and foreign cards of every nature, in fact far too many to list. I even met one person who collected postcards depicting Father Christmas... but only if Santa was dressed in a green outfit!
Historians realise that the humble postcard was often the first photographic record of many subjects. The first British postcards were available from October 1870 but required, as modern standard postcards, the full address on one side with the message on the reverse. From 1902 the rules were relaxed to allow a picture on one side with the message and address sharing the other side. The Germans had reached this stage much earlier and their printers were well-established to produce vast quantities of low priced, good quality cards for the UK market. Consequently, many quintessential Hereford views were printed in Bavaria or Saxony. Church postcards became a popular subject for the public to acquire, many cards carried the simple message: Here is another one for your collection. Photographers were equally happy to feature churches as any shots could be accomplished at leisure. Photographs of people where they were required to hold a pose, were always more problematic and although advances in photography were now rapid most photographers were still encumbered by heavy tripod cameras, slow shutter speed, awkward plates and bulky black camera hoods. A church cards shelf life seemed better than most other subjects, I have seen a postcard of Leominster Priory which was produced for sale in 1905 and was still being produced in the 1930s, using a photograph that was taken around 1860. Local shops were also happy to feature their own church and many Herefordshire stores commissioned and sold cards of their neighbourhood.
Some of our most remote churches are now, and were a century ago, quite poverty stricken and seem to lack any interest or merit, but all will have history on their side. I have never encountered a village church which did not have some aspect which would uplift ones spirits. Collectively, our churches are a great treasure and visiting one can be an unforgettable aesthetic experience.
Our Norman heritage, headed by the Hereford School architecture at Kilpeck, left us with a legacy unrivalled in most countries. The next several hundred years never saw building on this scale, but it did see countless rebuilds and alterations. Religious interpretation is an ever shifting facet; we did for example have three changes in our official religion in the 16th century.
Although often disparaged, we have the Victorians to thank for building around one in five of all our major churches. If one includes the ones which were virtually rebuilt, they left us with nearly one third of our existing church stock. Between 1850 and 1900, 35 entirely new churches were constructed with an additional 70 being either entirely or mostly rebuilt. These figures do not include the many dozens of smaller chapels and non-conformists buildings that were erected during the 19th century. This enormous burst of activity neatly coincided with the growth of photography and as the era of building drew to a close the era of recording these buildings on postcards commenced.
With such prolific output the merit of many Victorian built or altered churches met with much criticism. Experts such as Nikolaus Pevsner were often disparaging about these buildings; he has little to say about one of my favourite churches, which is the new St Giles at Downton-on-the-Rock in North Herefordshire. Built in 1851 under the inventive direction of architect Samuel Pountney Smith this is a church of unrecognised dignity. It is a quiet triumph of an improving age. The New Shell Guide feels that there is no good reason to visit here, but I greatly disagree as it has an ambience of restorative peace which we all need sometimes. My book gives details of the many architects whose work can be found in Herefordshire: Pountney Smith was a Shrewsbury man with a respectable canon of work, mainly in Shropshire. His client here was Downtons Lord of the Manor, Andrew Johnes Rouse Boughton-Knight Esq., who owned every inch of the parish. A generous 6,000 was made available to spend on a new building to replace the old Norman church. It gave the wealthy patrons greater kudos to build their own new church rather than restore a thousand-year-old building.
In what became to be known as The Golden Age for postcards, friends communicated with the nonchalance which we now associate with mobile phones. The postal service was sufficiently efficient that one could post a card to the local butcher requesting a leg of lamb for tonights tea in the knowledge that both the card, and the meat, would be delivered that day.
The sending of church cards peaked between 1905 and 1908, by which time even the smaller churches and chapels hidden deep in our countryside had been reproduced for the burgeoning trade. It was a massive business which nationally employed thousands of workers. It is estimated that by 1918 around 2.5 thousand million cards had been posted, and now, even if only one per cent of these still exist it represents huge numbers. Card collecting and posting slumbered from the 1920s to the 1970s when an exhibition by the Victoria & Albert Museum proved a turning point and regenerated interest. At the time the Sunday Times reported that: The visual art received a boost unprecedented in history. It described postcards as being miniature works of art and today around 30,000 people actively collect these little gems.
National companies such as Friths and Valentines visited many of our old buildings, but Herefordshire was blessed with numerous pioneering local companies who feature strongly in my collection of around 3,000 church cards, covering over 300 religious buildings and associated subjects. The Leominster Printing Company covered comprehensively the north of the county and was one of the first enterprises to produce coloured cards. Initially, cards were coloured by hand often using a stencil. I have found many examples of their cards where the artist looked to have a bad case of the shakes. Later, from 1907, the auto-chrome process, allowed publishers to produce colour cards, an innovation which swiftly increased sales with vivid views now available to the mesmerised public. Tilleys of Ledbury was recognised as a superb producer and retailer with massive stocks of Herefordshire and other bordering counties. Tilleys is a name which Ledbury folk will remember if only for the alleyway known as Tilleys Passage. A century ago Luke Tilley and Son ran The Ledbury Bazaar at 16, High Street and claimed it to be the largest shop of its kind in the three counties. Unlike most card producers their output is meticulously listed with a large body of items deposited at Hereford Record Office. In 1905, Picture Postcard Monthly, then, as now, the magazine for this hobby, said that: Of local publishers of postcards honourable mention should be accorded to Messrs Luke Tilley and Son. A fellow stationer is quoted that Eastbourne has only 60 different cards against, Tilleys 300, in a town ten times Ledburys size. Prices were 12 real photo post cards for 2s/6d (12p). W.A. Call of the Cambria Press in Monmouth produced cards which were recognised by the Royal Commission of Historic Monuments (R.C.H.M) as the pinnacle of architectural photography, and he or his staff visited about 80 of our churches. William Call (1878-1965) founded his business in 1916 a little after the card business had peaked. His expertise in specialising on buildings of architectural merit gave his Cambrian series a gravitas unrivalled in the area. For example a 1924 visit to Kilpeck yielded 49 images taken so that in the event of some catastrophe the building could be reproduced in an exact fashion. One of the joys in writing my book has been the task of tracing the history of these and the many other postcard producers.
Often photos taken by local characters display a sincerity, dignity and integrity missing from the full-time professionals approach. These locals were photographing a building that they used regularly for worship and they took the time and trouble that only someone who fully empathises with a building would take. I have visited over 300 churches in the dioceses to compare the postcard picture with what we see today. This encouraged me to attend university courses on architecture and local history.
Collectors of coins or postage stamps have the advantage of knowing that each series is documented and recorded, but there is no way of knowing which of our churches has been featured on a postcard. Despite attending hundreds of postcard fairs, examining Hereford Cathedral and other local library records, visiting the R.C.H.M. headquarters at Swindon, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and having had access to the collections of other deltiologists, there are around just 10 per cent of religious builds of that era not yet seen by me on cards.
A more fulsome account of my collection and the background to my hobby can be found in The Picture Postcard Heritage of Herefordshire Churches published by Password Publishers, and on sale in local bookshops. This is a book of interest to anyone who enjoys social, local, photographic, or church history.
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About the Author
Born in Herefordshire in 1946, author John Farr returned to his home county in 1979 after spending a decade in retail management in Shropshire. Educated at Ross Grammar School he pursued his love of history and the countryside by studying landscape history at the University of East Anglia, Natural History at Sheffield University and Church Architecture at the University
He has contributed articles to music publication such as Q, MOJO and Record Collectors magazine, and is a regular feature writer for Picture Postcard Monthly. Hereford Museum mounted a major exhibition of some of his rare postcards in 1998. His archive of thousands of Old Herefordshire church postcards has been collected over three decades and represents a unique record of Herefordshires history.