Saturday, October 22, 2016

Postcard from another time

A cousin recently sent me a postcard he'd come across, showing a section of the Gordon Bennett Race course, near Kilcullen, writes Brian Byrne. It triggered a memory of finding a whole set of those postcards in my grandfather's things after he died.

The set of 17 was pristine, unused. We placed them in a picture frame, laid around a map of the 1903 race, and for many years that was on display in the family pub, The Hideout. Those who recall the original Hideout will know that the frame was hung in the 'Head Room', where there were also prints of other old maps of the area. The set disappeared subsequent to the sale of the premises by my late brother Des

The interesting thing about the one sent to be recently was that it had been posted on the day of the race, from Sallins to an address in Dublin. The sender makes reference to a ‘glorious day for the race' and ‘immense crowds’ out for it. "Will not know the result until evening,” he or she finished, signing off with initials that look like ’N F’.

What intrigues me is the existence of such postcards on the day of the race itself. And that shows the entrepreneurship of the publisher, William Lawrence of Dublin. Lawrence was a publisher of postcards from around the end of the 19th century into the early years of the 20th. He hired a photographer named Robert French to travel the country, taking pictures in every town and village. We're all familiar with the results, copies of which adorn walls of pubs and other premises around the country, reprints from what's known in the National Library as The Lawrence Collection. In Kilcullen, there’s a fine representative collection in Bardons Pub.

As an aside, the only reason that Collection is still here is because some caring civil servant soon after the formation of the state spotted an ad in a Dublin newspaper, offering many thousands of 'dirty' sheets of glass for sale, which could be useful after cleaning for a purpose such as a glasshouse. They were, of course, photographer French's glass negatives ... and instead of being scraped for a glasshouse, they were rescued for the nation.

Anyhow, back to the Gordon Bennett course set. They depict, as I remember, various parts of the course, then dirt roads. Typically there was a car in the picture, and a few people. In the one I reproduce above, the 'spectators' are a few young boys.

So here’s the thing. Obviously, there was no 'instant print' technology around then, so postcards couldn't be produced on the day. Lawrence, clearly a man with a nose for profit, had his photographer take the pictures well in advance of the race days, so he could have stocks to sell to the many thousands who came to enjoy the big event.

According to my cousin, he used to collect postcards and he says that Gordon Bennett ones were very rare. Interestingly, a set of 17 went for auction at a collector’s sale in 2007, with a listed price of £40-60. The British auction house is named, by concidence, Lawrences, based in Somerset.

I wonder ….