The Director of Public Prosecutions' campaign against obscene seaside postcards
Throughout the twentieth century saucy postcards were a vital part of the British seaside holiday, and they were generally left alone by the police. In 1941 George Orwell observed that although the most explicit were “far more obscene than anything else that is now printed in England,” they were seldom prosecuted because they were “invariably protected by double meanings.”
But after 1945 the climate changed. In 1950 just 297 postcards were ordered destroyed under the Obscene Publications Act 1857, but the election of a Conservative Government in the following year coincided with a rapid increase in the number of police raids on seafront kiosks and stationers’ shops. In 1951 some 11,662 postcards were consigned to the flames, rising to 16,029 in 1952. At the climax of the campaign in 1953 some 32,603 seaside postcards went up in smoke, after being ordered destroyed by local magistrates.
Long-established postcard companies argued that the problem was newer firms “not knowing where to ‘draw the line’.” But the police attitude also hardened. “We have our own method of dealing with obscene postcards”, one Blackpool police officer noted in 1951: “Upon receiving a complaint from a member of the public, a plain clothes man is sent to buy a copy of the offending card. When the stationer says that he can see nothing wrong in the card, he is asked: ‘Would you send that card to your daughter?’ If the answer is ‘No’ - as it usually is - a prosecution may follow”.
The local magistrates’ destruction orders had no effect in other towns, so the same postcards were prosecuted again and again in different seaside resorts, year after year. Shopkeepers attempted to protect themselves with local censorship committees, to ban the worst cards. By 1954 censorship committees were operating in Blackpool, Hastings, Cleethorpes, and Brighton, with an official postcard censorship on the Isle of Man. But the destruction orders continued, and in 1956 some 22,558 cards were condemned.
The anti-obscenity campaign lasted more than a decade, but it lost momentum after 1960, when the jury in the prominent prosecution of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover brought in a verdict of not guilty. Local prosecutions of postcards continued for a couple of years, but the tide of opinion was changing once more. The postcard artist Donald McGill might have been prosecuted for obscenity in 1954, but by 1966 his cards were being hailed as art, and in the following year the Brighton Art Gallery proudly mounted an exhibition of his original designs.
The DPP's central index of postcards.
The Conservative Government’s anti-obscenity campaign, which began in 1951, was co-ordinated by Sir Theobald Mathew, the Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP]. Mathew disliked his role as guardian of public morality, and his attempt to impose some level of consistency on the local police obscenity prosecutions created the archive now held by the BCA.
Most postcard prosecutions were carried out under the Obscene Publications Act, 1857 (20 and 21 Victoria, Cap.83). Upon receiving a complaint about the sale of obscene postcards, the police would obtain a search warrant from a local magistrate, raid the shop or warehouse concerned, and seize offending stock. This was presented to the magistrates, who summoned the owners and issued a destruction order if they were persuaded that the postcards were indeed obscene.
Both the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, and the 1959 Act which replaced it, had their limitations, for the magistrates could not fine or imprison the shopkeepers, and could only destroy the actual postcards brought before them. As a result the police kept raiding shops year after year, seizing as much material as possible.
The regional police forces were obliged to consult the DPP in all obscenity cases, and he attempted to develop an “(a) list” of material that had been condemned everywhere, which the police should definitely prosecute, and a “(b) list”of material which had been let off in some places, which they shouldn’t. To help in this process his office compiled a card index recording the outcome of all obscenity prosecutions.
The DPP’s card index eventually recorded the repeated prosecution of 1,300 different postcards in England and Wales, during the Government’s decade-long anti-obscenity campaign. Unfortunately for Mathew, the verdicts in these postcard prosecutions proved too random for him to compile an “(a) list” and a “(b) list”, and any advice which his office gave to the police must have been very subjective.
The DPP’s office stopped recording postcard prosecutions in 1962, and the index quickly became an anachronism. In 1998 the Crown Prosecution Service deposited it with the British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent, which in 2011 catalogued and digitised it with a grant from from JISC, the higher education funding body.