Postcard Whisperers

When I was a teenager, in the days before mobile phones (or at least before anyone normal had one) and emails and social media, I started filling a postcard album. 

To start with, I added postcards from schoolfriends, relations and my penfriend in Germany, who sent them from holidays taken in places as exotically distant from each other as the Isle of Wight to the Island of Zakynthos. Later, as a student, I added arty postcards bought from the likes of the shop called Athena (anyone remember Athena?).

And then, of course, I left university and left home and left the postcard album behind with my parents with the majority of the books I’d loved as a child and teenager. 

Eventually, my parents downsized from a fair-sized three-bedroomed semi-detached house to a small two-bedroomed bungalow. Even Dad realised that taking everything would be like trying to pour a jeroboam of champagne into a sherry glass. He asked if I’d mind him getting rid of my old books and like a fool I said no. Somehow though, the long-forgotten postcard album survived and went off with my parents in a large box along with some photographs going back to at least 1910 where my grandmother sat with her sisters, resplendent in auburn ringlets and starched pinafores.

My father only got rid of a fraction of the stuff he needed to before they’d moved and originally shoved what he could into the attic of the little bungalow. When the loft was insulated however, there wasn’t room and the contents were scattered in true hoarder fashion around the place. Inexplicably, various things which didn’t matter were inside the bungalow, while some irreplaceable things were put in an outside shed. I have no idea why. But that’s where they went. 

I didn’t realise this until 2013, my mother, now widowed, moved from the bungalow to an even smaller place near me and I had to go through the agonising process of reducing her belongings.

At some point in the time they’d lived in the bungalow, a hole formed in the roof of the shed. This is not something you want in South Wales, unless you want things to be rain-damaged.

The cine film my grandfather had taken of my father as a child (for example looking at planes on what was then a little airfield called Heathrow) and later films my father had taken of me and my sister as children, were destroyed by water. Maybe something could have been salvaged, but my mother had thrown them out before I knew anything about it. However there I was, on the last day before she had to move, trying to clear out what was left in the shed feeling despair. Among all the water-damaged things that should have been kept safe and dry, I found photographs that could not be salvaged and my old, forgotten postcard album with its pages all stuck together. They had to go.

Fast forward to 2018, by which time I’d forgotten the album if not the photographs, when I was researching for the Caster and Fleet series, in which Katherine Demeray is an 1890s Victorian typist. 

Procrastinating, I looked at a lovely old desk I have and thought how nice it would look with an old typewriter on top, even if I’d be too feeble to actually use it. I did an online search and found exactly what I was looking for… only it was well outside my budget for impulse buys. 

Well within my budget, however, was a sweet postcard with a female typist on it. 

It felt serendipitous and inspiring, so I bought it and later asked a local writer friend Helen Baggott (author of ‘Posted in the Past’ and ‘Second Delivery’) who researches old postcards, if she had any tips. (To find out the fascinating stories Helen has unearthed and about her books, visit her blog here.) It might be hard, she told me, since the date was obscured and the recipient had been at a ‘care of’ address. So… I propped the postcard up on the bookshelf and decided it was a project for another day .

Fast forward once more to this year. I was trying to visualise the sort of postcard which might have been sent in 1912 to Katherine’s younger sister Margaret by her friend Maude during the third book in the series, so I did another search. A lovely postcard of an Edwardian woman with a horse tempted me, but coming from the US, with shipping trebling the overall cost, it was well outside my budget. Then I found something similar in the UK, originally posted to someone living in the next county to where I live now. This time, I decided not only would I purchase it, but discovering that you can still get postcard albums, I bought one of those too.

A few evenings later, I put the postcard of the typist with the missing year and the postcard of the horsewoman from 1910 into their new album. Then, I decided to do a little digging just to see whether I could glean anything about the recipients of the postcards at all. Since I subscribe to both an ancestry site and the British Newspaper Archives, I thought that between them, I might find something out. And I sort of did!

I anticipated that the one with the Edwardian horsewoman and clear postmark of 1910 might be easiest, but it has so far proved hard to get very far. From the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I could work out who the recipient was likely to have been, but I haven’t so far established what might have happened to her before or after it was sent. She was, I think, either Lilian or Florence Stone (the writing makes it hard to know if it’s an L or an F), one of two sisters then in their early twenties, but after that I drew a blank except for a possible date of death many many years later of someone with the same name. 

But the one with the typist and obscured date has proved unexpectedly more serendipitous than I’d imagined it could do. 

After some squinting at the writing to work out what both the recipient and the person she was staying with were called, followed by a lot of rooting in censuses, birth and marriage records of people with the unusual to me (but apparently not in Yorkshire) name Dungworth, I worked that the recipient of the postcard was likely to be a Dorothy Dungworth born in Yorkshire who, at whatever date the card was sent, was staying with her maternal aunt in Kent. 

A little more rooting in the 1939 register, revealed someone with the right name and of the right age (then 40), living in Cardiff and registered as a journalist. Was it the same person? In the 1901 census, Dorothy’s father was recorded as a cycle maker (?). In 1911, her widowed mother was recorded as head of the household, earning her living as a stay maker. Could a girl from a humble background in Yorkshire really end up as a journalist in Cardiff? 

This is where the British Newspaper Archives came into their own. It seemed as if Dorothy had started her writing career by having a fairy story printed in a Yorkshire paper while still in her teens during the First World War. Was this perhaps how she helped her widowed mother with the household finances? Perhaps she was already out of school and working for the paper.

Ultimately, it seemed she did indeed settle in South Wales and wrote for various papers from the late 1920s, throughout World War II and beyond, winning awards and writing about subjects from women’s and workers’ rights to archaeology. 

That evening digging about in records was a good deal more fun than watching the TV or scrolling through social media. But it was exhausting. I haven’t managed to find time or energy to do any more digging since, but I will. 

However, the really curious coincidence is this. In the second Margaret Demeray book Death in the Last Reel, which I wrote after buying the postcard, but before I even thought about finding out about it, one of the characters is a girl from a humble background who wants to be a writer and starts by having a fairy story printed in the local newspaper

I don’t know why that particular character came into being (she came fully formed and remains very vivid to me), any more than I really know why any of my characters do. I don’t know why she wanted to be a writer (although it helped with the plot of course), and I certainly don’t know why it was a fairy story that she had published. 

The postcard to Dorothy Dungworth was watching over me while I pondered, plotted and wrote that book. Did something of her, whose story I didn’t even know then, filter through some creative ether?

It seems unlikely of course, but I do know something – I intend to find out more about Dorothy. And one way or another, I think she’ll end up the inspiration for a new character. 

I think she might even deserve a book of her own. What do you think?

(Oh and if you know anything about either Lilian/Florence Stone or Dorothy Dungworth – let me know!)

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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