Postcards from Southampton

The first picture postcard

22 February 2017

The very first picture postcard was posted in Fulham, London to the writer Theodore Hooke in 1840. It’s thought he hand painted the picture of postal workers and posted it to himself as a practical joke on the postal service. In 2002 the card sold for £31,750, making it a very expensive post card indeed. The first commercially printed postcards were lithograph prints produced in France by Léon Besnardeau in 1870. Over the next ten years sending postcards with pictures of holiday destinations became popular and so began the golden age of the picture postcard. Of course those days are long gone and Facebook posts have largely taken the place of sending postcards. 

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth most ordinary people didn’t own cameras. If they travelled, postcards took the place of snapshots and thanks to them a lot of history has been preserved in photographic form. Often, when I’m researching a place or a building, old postcards are the only available pictorial records. Some of the best I’ve found of Southampton were taken by F.G.O Stuart, a Scottish photographer who came to live in the city in the late 1800’s. He issued around two thousand five hundred different cards showing images from Southampton, Hampshire and other southern counties, along with many photographs of ships.

For a while I’ve thought it would be an interesting project to try to recreate some of his images to see how much the city and his subjects have changed. Today I finally got round to starting. Armed with pictures of the relevant postcards downloaded to my phone, my camera and CJ to help me find just the right spot I set out in high hopes. Our first objective was the Station Hotel, the postcard closest to my home.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be quite as simple as I’d hoped. The pub is still there. The roads are still much as they were, if more congested and more built up. It was even fairly simple to work out where F.G.O Stuart had been standing when the original photograph was taken. What wasn’t so simple was actually taking the shot. Firstly, the blue hoardings around the burnt out firework factory meant I couldn’t see the whole of the pub or stand quite far enough back without it disappearing altogether. Then someone has put a whacking great set of traffic lights and a load of big signs right in my line of sight. Still, I did my best.

As first attempts go it wasn’t entirely successful but it did show just how much things have changed. Stuart’s picture shows a very rural scene with horses and carts, a dirt road and people strolling about on it. Today it is anything but rural. In fact this is one of the busiest roads leading into the city. Some things have remained the same though. The railway bridge on the left of the original picture is still there. It even looks much as it did then apart from modern railings and a mass of traffic hiding the view. The railway station and footbridge are still much as they were behind the signs and poles, as is the pub and some of the buildings along MacNaughten Road by the station.

When Stuart took his photograph the pub and the railway station were relatively new. The Station Hotel opened in 1880 and originally belonged to Cobden Bridge Brewery. In May 1866 the railway station at Bitterne opened as a single track between St Denys and Fareham. Bitterne acted as a crossing station where trains going in opposite directions could pass each other. These days it carries the line between Portsmouth, Southampton and Brighton.

Before we left I took a couple more photographs of the newly refurbished pub from a better vantage point given all the modern obstructions. With one final picture of the ruins of the fireworks factory and the hoardings around it, a grassy field in Stuart’s day, we carried on towards the scene of the next postcard.

Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart, to give him his proper name, was born in 1843 in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, the son of a gamekeeper. He worked there at Andrew Adams Photographic Rooms as a photographer. In 1872 he left Aberdeen and set up his own photographic business in London. By 1880 he had become a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and exhibited his work in their annual exhibitions. He moved to Southampton in 1882, originally setting up a studio on Bedford Place. He regularly took team photographs of the newly formed Southampton Football Club and acted as official port photographer during World War I, recording the damage to the docks and shipping. He took countless pictures for guidebooks and other publications but it is the postcards he began to produce in 1901 that have lived on and are still in demand today.

The next picture was taken on Whitworth Road, or as it’s now known, Whitworth Crescent, the road that leads to Bitterne Park Triangle. The Bitterne Park Hotel was easily recognisable so I knew, more or less, where the photo had been taken. The angle proved to be a little trickier than expected however. Stuart travelled around in a horse and cart, in fact it can be seen, along with Stuart himself, in many of his pictures. When we got to more or less the correct spot and looked at the photo on my phone it was clear it was taken from above ground level, quite possibly from the carriage. Even with CJ’s superior height, we were never going to be able to recreate it exactly but I did the best I could.

In Stuart’s picture the road is blissfully empty of traffic and parked vehicles. In fact there are lots of people wandering about in the road. This is not something I would recommend today. To take my own pictures I had to stand in the road but I needed CJ to stand guard and warn me of oncoming traffic, there was a fair bit of it. Today the river side of the road is filled with flats and the little trees in the original picture have become large, blocking the view towards the Triangle and what is now Riverside Park.

The pub was opened as a coaching inn in 1686, although it was destroyed by a fire in the eighteenth century and rebuilt. It is still open today, but, as with so many pubs, under constant threat of closure. As before I took several pictures, trying to get both the closest to the original shot and the best view of the scene today.

The next picture was a scene I knew full well I would not be able to recreate today, at least not exactly. It was a shot of Cobden Bridge, taken from the banks along Whitworth Crescent, close to where the modern flats now stand. For a start, this is not the same bridge that crosses the Itchen today. There has been a bridge here since 1883. The one in Stuart’s photo is the original, an iron bridge built by the National Liberal Land Company. The present Bridge was built in 1928, five years after Stuart died. The river bank is far more built up these days too, the new flats obscure the view and there are fences and boat sheds along most of the road.

With this in mind I’d taken a couple of shots between the boat sheds and fences as we walked along Whitworth Crescent, hedging my bets in case it was the only shot I could get. After we’d messed about trying to get the Bittern Park Hotel from the right angle, we walked down the private road leading to the flats. This may well have been technically trespassing but it seemed the best bet for a shot from a similar perspective.

This was the first time I’ve ever walked along the river at this spot and I was momentarily distracted by the different views of the blue railway bridge and all the little houseboats and buildings that can’t be seen from Cobden Bridge. This is somewhere I will have to revisit when the weather is brighter.

Eventually I got down to the business of trying to recreate Stuart’s postcard. The bridge, of course, is different but Dyers Boatyard is still much the same with its arched window and fading blue paint. The backs of the little houses along Priory Road haven’t changed too much either, although they are painted in brighter colours these days and no doubt much modernised inside. The other side of the bride has changed beyond recognition though, with blocks of apartments and new houses all along the riverside. There are far more boats now too all gathered by the boatyard in the shadow of the bridge.

Stuart’s photograph was actually taken somewhere on the rise where the Bittern Park Hotel stands. Later I stopped to take a shot from a similar position but the river is now invisible from there, the view blocked by shops, the riverside flats and hoardings. Bitterne Park Triangle is certainly a far busier place today than it was when Stuart visited.

The next postcard was one I thought would be slightly easier to recreate. It was taken from the bridge itself and, even if the bridge is not the same it’s position hasn’t changed. We set off across the bridge feeling confident, stopping along the way for a photograph of the riverside path we’d just left and the building working going on on the corner. There was another stop at the halfway point for a look along the river and to check on the perspective looking back towards the Triangle.

Stuart’s picture seemed to have been taken near the far side of the bridge and, yet again, he had somehow managed to take it from far higher than street level. As the horse and cart in the picture is almost certainly his I’m wondering if he carried a ladder about with him? Either that or he was nine foot tall. The modern bridge is, I think, a fair bit wider than the old iron bridge and, not being as high off the ground, I couldn’t quite capture the same perspective. Even so, the shots are very similar with the Bitterne Park Hotel on the right and the marshland that was to become Riverside Park on the left. The right bank of the river was far emptier in Stuart’s day but the shops and houses on the far side of the bridge have changed a lot less. One thing that has certainly changed is the Triangle Clock Tower. Back then this familiar landmark was still in the centre of Southampton.

With one last view back across the bridge and a quick snap of the tangle of boats and houseboats in front of the boatyard we carried on towards the site of our final postcard for the day.

St Denys Church was built close to the site of the ancient St Denys Priory by Sir George Gilbert Scott, a leading architect in the gothic revival style. He also built St Pancras Railway Station in London and his style is quite distinctive, using red Brick and limestone from Bath. The church was built in 1867 and a south aisle added in 1889. There was once a vestry, completed in 1896 but since demolished. My favourite view of the church is not the same one Stuart used for his postcard. The beautifully rounded rear end of the building with its pairs of stained glass windows trumps the front hands down in my opinion and this was the first photograph I took as we headed along St Denys Road.

When we did get to the front the first thing I noticed was how big the trees outside had grown since Stuart’s day. In his picture they are little saplings, barely blocking the view of the church at all. In my attempt to recreate his postcard they almost hid the whole building.

CJ and I walked up and down the road, staring at the postcard on the screen of my phone and squinting at the church trying to find the best angle but those trees just kept getting in the way. In the end we both agreed that today, the best view of the front of the church was looking between the trees from the opposite side and even then more trees tried hard to hide the building. In summer, with the branches clothed in leaves the church will be almost invisible.

Following in the footsteps of F.G.O. Stuart is proving to be both an interesting and a frustrating exercise. A start has been made though and, if the first five postcards have proved anything, it’s that the city has changed a great deal since the early 1900’s. With two and a half thousand postcards, even discounting the places that no longer exist, this is going to be a long term project. It will also be difficult. What it certainly won’t be is dull.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

10 thoughts on “Postcards from Southampton”

  1. A great project and a great post – it’s really interesting comparing what places look like now to how they were years ago. My local paper runs a weekly page called Looking Back where they publish then and now photos of various places, and it’s amazing to see the changes that have taken place even in my own lifetime.

    1. In over a hundred years there have been masses of changes. In fact, a couple of the local postcard venues are in the process of changing yet again and I have to wait until building work has finished to get my photos.

  2. Yes, I’d say that you’re facing a lot of work, but probably a lot of fun too.
    It’s a mystery how he got those high shots without building a platform or something because cameras were slow in those days and had to be held absolutely still. Also, cameras couldn’t have been operated remotely so he must have had an assistant taking the photos with him in them.

    1. I believe he worked with his sister and brother in law so they were probably his assistants. How he got the shots from high up is a myster though and I was thinking g he must have asked the people in the shots to stand still for them to work. I love the way they have had could added, making them almost like paintings, although some are in black and white. I think it’s going to be an interesting project and will keep me busy.

  3. I work as administrator and site manager at the Church.

    I completely agree with you about the trees. But we are not allowed to cut them, remove them or generally do anything with them at all.
    It’s a complete nightmare in autumn, in wind, in summer in full leave and generally always…

    But, they have a beauty and history of their own

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