Why saucy seaside postcards were rebellious – so had to be censored | Becky Fury celebrates their vulgarity

Why saucy seaside postcards were rebellious – so had to be censored

Becky Fury celebrates their vulgarity

To contemporary observers, the humour of saucy seaside postcards is almost as unfathomable as the desire to go on the type of donkey-riding, pier-promenading, rock-sucking, British seaside holiday whose heyday they epitomised. 

The caricatures of henpecked husbands and miserable, plus-sized wives captioned with barely intelligible double entendres seem at best unsophisticated and at worst sexist but, these dated cartoon were once the progressive cultural vanguard of their time. 

George Orwell said ‘every joke is a tiny revolution’ and the buxom secretaries and  drunk, balding middle managers that disgraced themselves in postcard racks the length and girth of Britain, were revolutionary. By saying naughty things you weren’t meant to say, by not saying them, they stuck two fingers up at the conservative orthodoxy, Victorian prudishness and heralded in a new age of sexual liberation. 

However, as is demonstrated time and time again, people do not like other people sticking two fingers up at their orthodoxy and in 1954 the clampdown on saucy postcards began.

Postcards that were decreed  ‘too saucy’ included 

  • A cartoon of an attractive woman speaking to a bookie, with the caption: ‘I’ll back the favourite please, my sweetheart gave me a pound to do it both ways.’
  • A cartoon of two women gossiping, with the caption ‘Did she marry him?’ / ‘No, he had a bad accident and it was broken off’
  • And a cartoon of a man looking up the skirt of a woman up a ladder in a reference, with the woman saying: ‘Is there anything would like to look up, sir?'

One of the main artists responsible for the production of these Harbingers of moral and social collapse was Douglas McGill

McGill has been referred to as the  'The king of the saucy postcard’. He was born in was born in 1875 and spent his whole career creating bawdy artworks which were reproduced as postcards. He ranked his output according to their vulgarity; mild, medium and strong, with strong being the bestsellers.

Following the crackdown in 1953, five shops in Ryde were raided by the police following a magistrate’s order.  In Brighton much of McGill's work was seized and destroyed in a bonfire of the vanities and in Eastbourne the artist was banned entirely 

McGill postcard

McGill who created 12,000 published designs was prosecuted under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. In court, he wanted to claim he had no idea of the cartoons having a double meaning, but pleaded guilty after taking legal advice. He was fined £50 and ordered to pay costs of £25.

Interestingly, the renowned anti-censorship advocate George Orwell wrote a rather dismissive essay on the subject of Donald McGill which is available here.

It’s not his finest hour but was written in 1941 long before the censorship furore and Orwell closes the article with a perceptive comment that foreshadows their downfall.   

‘A whole category of humour, integral to our literature till 1800 or thereabouts, has dwindled down to these ill-drawn post cards, leading a Barely Legal existence in cheap stationers’ windows… and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.’

Prior to this almost gracious well wishing, Orwell is rather more  snotty and impenetrable about the artist and his oeuvre. He   writes: ‘What they [the saucy postcards] are doing is to give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life…. The Don Quixote-Sancho Panza combination, is of course simply the ancient dualism of body and soul in fiction form…. 

‘[Saucy postcards] represent the Sancho Panza aspect… whose tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with "voluptuous" figures… and urges to look after Number One.’

It’s difficult to say quite what Orwell is trying to articulate here but it seems he is admonishing the working-class for lacking his own quixotic utopian vision for the future.  He seems to be belittling them for shirking socialist sympathies and instead being satisfied with sending saucy postcards from Skegness. For building sandcastles when they could be building a new Jerusalem. 

Orwell seems angry that the working class were not thinking big enough but – like many Marxist academics – he was not steeped in the world of manual labour, and possibly not really aware that ‘the workers’ might sometimes just need some time off.  

As journalist Cyril Connor observed: ‘George Orwell couldn’t blow his nose without sermonising on working conditions in a handkerchief factory.’

In his quixotic revolutionary idealism Orwell possibly missed the point of the postcards and forgot his own observation, although he possibly hasn’t got round to making it yet. 

 ‘Every joke is a tiny revolution’.

So saucy postcards were a tiny manageable protest against the stifling puritanical values that were prevalent at the time.  A little memento of the relaxation in social rigidity, that we still experience today on holiday, that people wanted to share with their friends and family. 

The art of Donald McGill et al was likely in hindsight part of the first wave of a very British tide of change that heralded among other things, the sexual revolution and the 1960s counter-cultural revolution and the phrase ‘stick it to the man’.

Which is basically what Orwell spent 4,092 words berating the British working class for failing to do…

And remember folks, if you are, in the finest tradition of innuendo laden saucy postcards, going to ‘stick it to the man’, make sure you stuck it in the shower first.

* Becky Fury is doing a work-in-progress show at Brighton Fringe, Great British C*nts, at the Caroline Of Brunswick on May 16, 23 and 30

Published: 14 May 2024

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