James Bamforth was the son of a painter and decorator. In 1870 he set up business in Holmfirth as a portrait photographer. It was the fashion during the late Victorian period to pose for photographs in front of a scenic backdrop, alongside a few props. James painted his own backdrops, which were enormous – maybe 8 feet square. With a few well-chosen props he created realistic and attractive settings for his models.
James was a keen businessman always on the look out for ways to use his photography skills and equipment for other commercial ventures. Magic lanterns were an early form of slide projector and were popular in the late 19th century. Lantern slide shows were given in church halls, clubs and museums. The slides could illustrate lectures, songs and stories. James’ studio was ideal for the production of such slides. Jaems began production of lantern slides in the 1880s and eventually created over two million slides.
James Bamforth and his family – his three children Janie, Edwin and Frank were all involved in the business – were especially skilled at creating a variety of settings using props and painted backdrops. James pioneered the use of outdoor sets, near the Bamforth factory in Station Road, Holmfirth. As well as local friends and family members, actors who might be performing locally often posed for the lantern slides. Those in ‘starring’ roles would be paid more than ‘extras’ in the background.
From a modern-day perspective it seems almost inevitable that this set-up would lead the company to expand into moving picture production. In reality, a move into cinema was anything but obvious in the late nineteenth century: in 1899 James Bamforth was one of the first film makers in the world. Over the next 16 years Bamforth made over 50 short films. The films were mostly comedies and often featured a risqué or saucy element. Titles included Kiss in the Tunnel, Bobby’s Flirtation and Winky Fights for a Bride.
Film production was brought to an end by war conditions. Fortunately, by this time the Bamforth family had developed another line: postcards. The world’s first postcard was published in 1869 and postcards soon incorporated pictures. However, Post Office rules meant that one side had to be given over entirely to the address, thus any message had to be written on the same side as the image.
This rule changed in 1902 and the quickly lead to a boom in the picture postcard market. Once again, James was quick to pick up on a new business opportunity and the first Bamforth postcards appeared in 1903. These proved to be highly successful and the firm began to develop an international reputation.
Bamforth & Co became a limited company in 1910 and at times they had offices in London and New York. James Bamforth died in 1911, but his son Edwin, who was already involved in the business, was able to take over as managing director.
Their first postcards were simple local views, but the company quickly branched out. They created special scenes with actors. Some used the studio sets, but they also had scenes set outside. Many of these cards continued the comic themes seen in the films.
The Bamforth business also began re-using scenes created for lantern slides, especially song illustrations. These song cards were a particular success. These were published as a series, of up to 6 cards in a set, and illustrated popular songs of the day from the music halls. These were highly collectible almost instantly and other postcards manufacturers copied the idea. None could match Bamforth for scale of production, as Bamforth eventually produced over 5000 postcard sets.
On a more serious note, sentimental cards served an important role during the First World War and cards featuring royalty appealed to patriotic emotions. This is of course another example of the company looking out for good marketing opportunities. The ‘Patriot’ and ‘Patriot Lovers’ series both date to the First World War, and many feature images of individual servicemen, groups of soldiers, and their families or girlfriends. There were also many postcards featuring hymns and songs relating to the war, such as 'Land of Hope and Glory'. War-related postcards were also produced during the Second World War. These appear to feature more cartoons, are more political in nature, and less likely to feature images of individuals than First World War material. The 'War Cartoons' and 'Wartime' series date to 1939-1945.
But the perhaps the greatest potential was provided by the growth of holidays. By the 1920s and 30s, cheap rail travel and paid annual leave meant that trips to the seaside, either for a day or a week, were very popular and common. All those trippers enjoying the highlight of their year, and all wanting to tell the folks back home what a good time they were having: this was too tempting a market to pass up.
The slightly racy humour, with its innuendo, puns and taboo subject matter that Bamforth & Co had developed in the films and early postcards was ideally suited to the seaside, where people wear fewer clothes, drink more and are generally more relaxed. Classic Bamforth cards feature a range of caricatures from the seaside: buxom bathing belles, leering men, cheeky boys, ample wives and downtrodden husbands. Many people have fond memories of giggling over the cartoons in shops along the sea front, so long as they could get away from their disapproving parents.
The seaside comics are, of course, always artist drawn rather than photographed. This makes it so much easier to exaggerate certain physical features such as huge bellies and bottoms or bright red noses. Perhaps it also made it easier to get away with the saucy subject matter. Whatever the reason, artist drawn product became increasingly important and in about 1912 they employed house artists on a permanent basis.
Over the next 80 years just 4 artists – they went in for very long service - produced thousands of paintings for postcards and greeting cards.
The original paintings for 100s of postcards and greeting cards show what highly skilled artists worked for Bamforth & Co. Not just finished paintings are shown: there are also rough sketches and doodles too. It is possible to trace the production from first idea, through development and printing to printed card. The comic subjects may have been crude but the colour and shading are subtle and they show meticulous attention to detail.
From an article written by Katina Bill, Curator, Kirklees Museums, for the "Secrets of the Saucy Seaside Postcard" exhibition, 2004.
Additional information on wartime postcards by Heritage Quay staff.