The DPP's anti-obscenity campaign at Margate
These images are taken from the central archive of the Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP], who during the 1950s co-ordinated an anti-obscenity campaign against saucy seaside postcards. The campaign began in 1951, involved police forces in coastal resorts throughout England and Wales, and lasted for more than a decade. These images are selected from the 128 postcards that were prosecuted in a single town - Margate in Kent.
The DPP’s archive was created to co-ordinate the anti-obscenity campaign. It has index cards recording where and when each of 1,300 postcards was seized and prosecuted, with a note of the outcome. In many cases a copy of the offending card was attached. The majority of the prosecutions were brought in local magistrates’ courts under the Obscene Publications Act 1857, which allowed local magistrates to issue destruction orders for postcards that had been seized by the police. These orders served as a warning to local shopkeepers and postcard publishers, but they had no impact in other towns, and did not stop the same shopkeepers stocking the same cards the following year.
The DPP decided to run a co-ordinated campaign across England and Wales, in which the worst cards - those on his “(a) list” - were prosecuted again and again until shopkeepers daren’t stock them. In 1950 only 297 postcards were ordered destroyed, but in 1951, as the campaign got underway, this jumped to 11,662 postcards, including three ordered destroyed at the Margate Magistrates’ Court on 5 October 1951. The campaign then gained momentum, and in 1952 some 16,029 postcards were ordered destroyed in England and Wales, reaching to a peak of 32,603 in 1953.
Postcards ordered destroyed in England and Wales, 1950-1956:
- 1950 - 297
- 1951 - 11,662
- 1952 - 16,029
- 1953 - 32,603
- 1954 - 16,646
- 1955 - 1,214
- 1956 - 22,558
Margate was one of the towns which acted decisively in 1953. The Town Hall, Police Station, and Magistrates’ Court formed a single block in the centre of town, and on 19 August the Mayor sent his secretary across the road to buy some objectionable postcards and bring them back to the police. They raided the shop next day, seizing 415 copies of six different postcards. They then made similar purchases at two other local shops, which they then raided on 29 August, seizing a further 1,409 postcards, including 21 new cards.
On 16 October 1953 the 27 postcard designs were put up before the Margate magistrates, in the same building. The shopkeepers claimed that these cards had “an ordinary meaning”, and that it was “up to the purchaser if he wants to make anything obscene from them.” But the police officer who seized them said they could have “only one meaning”, and that they were bought for just one reason - “they are not good art, even the drawings are not good.”
The Margate magistrates declared the 1,824 cards obscene, and ordered their destruction within 14 days. This encouraged the police, who seized another 36,000 copies of 32 different cards from a fourth Margate shop that same month - presumably taking a van to carry them in. These postcards were brought before the magistrates on 27 January 1954, when a destruction order was made for 35,550 copies of 29 different designs.
However, the Margate shopkeepers decided to appeal, and in April 1954 the case was heard at Margate Quarter Sessions. The shopkeepers’ lawyer argued that the cards were not obscene, as they were based on “a sense of the ludicrous”, and “cannot be said to incite a person’s lust”: "Although...there may be many people in Margate and elsewhere who would rather see them kept out of the shops... there are no means at the moment of imposing a censorship on them."
The judge seems to have been persuaded by this argument, and decided that 22 of the cards were in fact “merely vulgar”. However, he continued the official censorship by confirming the destruction order on 10,800 copies of seven different “obscene” designs, and telling the Margate police that they had been “justified in bringing the whole matter before the court”.
The police were sufficiently encouraged by this to make further raids in the new summer season, and another ten cards were prosecuted at the Margate Magistrates’ Court on 11 August 1954. The following year was relatively quiet all over the country, but 1956 saw a resurgence of prosecutions, and on 17 October 1956 another twelve cards were prosecuted in Margate Magistrates Court. This seems to have been regarded as sufficient warning for the shopkeepers of Margate, who must have felt intimidated by the regular police raids and loss of stock. There were no further prosecutions, and the whole anti-obscenity campaign fizzled out a few years later.
An overview of all records in the group with annotations (where entered).
Showing records 1 to 18 of 18.
This card is one of several on the same theme that were on sale in all British seaside resorts in the 1950s. A perennial favourite, it was nevertheless ordered destroyed by Margate Magistrates in January 1954, and the judgement was confirmed on appeal in April 1954.
By contrast with the previous card, this almost identical design was seized by Margate police in August 1953, and yet not condemned by the magistrates. It was this inconsistency in the verdicts of magistrates in the same town, or in different seaside towns, that led the DPP to create his central index of prosecuted postcards.
This card is another good example of the problems faced by the DPP in mounting a national campaign. It was seized by the Margate police on three occasions, with quite different results. When presented to Margate magistrates in October 1953 it was let off, but in January 1954 they ordered it destroyed. On appeal in April 1954 the judge overturned the magistrates' decision, but when the police again presented the card to Margate magistrates in August 1954 they once again ordered it destroyed. This uncertainty may have suited the police, as it left the shopkeepers reluctant to risk stocking such cards, but it did not help the DPP's campaign.
This apparently-innocent seaside scene had a hidden meaning that was condemned throughout the country, in a ten-year campaign lasting from 1951 to 1960. Margate magistrates had no doubts about the true nature of the "handfuls", and condemned it both in October 1953 and January 1954. But it was still let off on appeal in April 1954, when the judge at Margate Quarter Sessions included it among the cards that he considered not obscene but “merely vulgar”.
This was one of the most notorious postcards on sale in Margate in the 1950s. The DPP pursued it through the courts for nine years, from 1952 to 1960, and it was ordered destroyed by magistrates all over the country. It was one of the postcards that would have been on the DPP's "(a) list" of cards that were definitely obscene, and was seized by Margate police in August 1953. When it was presented to the local magistrates, two months later, the shopkeeper argued disingenuously that “no offence could be given by a card which showed a husband playing with a cat every night”. But the magistrates knew what the card meant, and ordered it destroyed.
This is another notorious card seized by Margate police, and ordered destroyed by local magistrates at the last of the Margate trials in October 1956. The card had been pursued by the DPP and ordered destroyed all over the country, and it is not difficult to see why it would have been on his "(a) list" of obscene cards. Unusually among the seaside postcards of this period, it does not conceal its sexual content beneath a double meaning, for the caption means exactly what it says.
The postcard publishers realised the threat posed to their trade by police raids on shopkeepers, as the next two postcards demonstrate. This one was issued by Leslie Lester as their card No.258, and attracted attention from police forces all over the country, including seizures and prosecutions in Margate and nearby Ramsgate in 1953, and Margate again in 1954. Both its image and its caption have strong sexual content, and it was clearly placed on the DPP's "(a) list" of wanted cards.
Following the successful prosecutions of Leslie Lester card No.258, the manufacturers decided to reissue it with a revised caption, to reduce the likelihood of its being seized and prosecuted as obscene. In Leslie Lester card No.267 the shop assistant is no longer presented as sexually available, but simply as "nice in nylons". The new postcard escaped prosecution in Margate, but it still caused offence, and was seized and prosecuted in Ryde and Morecambe.
Scotsmen in kilts were always funny to the designers of seaside postcards, and long unfamiliar words were always taken to have some medical - and thus hidden sexual - meaning. The kilted figure has been asked to show his references ("testimonials") to a prospective employer, and has misunderstood. Prosecuted in Margate in October 1953, the magistrates seem to have accepted the innocent nature of the joke, and allowed the card to remain on sale.
Another illustration of the fact that long words were thought to conceal sexual meanings. The woman in this postcard is semi-naked and sitting on a bed to emphasise her sexuality, which lends an obvious double-meaning to her exhausted husband's "recommendation", which she improved in the night with an ointment. Magistrates around the country had no illusions about the card's hidden meaning, and ordered it destroyed.
Pursued by police for ten years, twice ordered destroyed in Margate, and still being prosecuted as late as 1963, this card would certainly have been on the DPP's "(a) list" of obscene cards. Another illustration of the fact that Scotsmen in kilts were considered inherently amusing by seaside postcard designers.
Large breasts were a common feature in seaside postcards of the 1950s, as in this design by Donald McGill. They were considered inherently funny, as were vicars, who were always confused, and garden marrows, which were always phallic. McGill managed to combine all three in this card, which most police forces seem to have regarded as quite innocent, but which was seized and ordered destroyed in Margate in 1953 and in Christchurch in 1956.
This postcard is a variation on the "little Willie" joke, featuring an equally large woman bather. It was ordered destroyed at Margate in January 1954, but went to appeal. In Margate Quarter Sessions in April 1954 it was argued that such cards were part of the English seaside holiday, and were “based on an almost Elizabethan sense of fun, coarseness, boisterousness and rumbustiousness which is almost traditional.” But this card was one of those whose destruction was confirmed by the judge.
The "Lancashire lass" in this card suggests that it may have been designed with the resort of Blackpool in mind, as that was the most important market for seaside cards in the 1950s. It was never prosecuted in Blackpool, but from 1951 onwards the town's shopkeepers operated their own censorship committee to keep the most obscene cards off the seafront, and this design may have been one that the committee rejected. The magistrates in nearby Morecambe allowed it to remain on sale in 1953, but it was condemned elsewhere, including Margate in the same year.
This card, with its obvious double-meaning, was a focus of police attention in 1953 and 1954, appearing in court thirteen times and being ordered destroyed on almost all occasions. The DPP's annotations on the back show that the first prosecutions were of shopkeepers (code number "5"), including Margate in October 1953. However, the Margate police then raided a wholesaler (code number "4"), and got a conviction in January 1954, and soon afterwards the DPP permitted the Lincolnshire police to prosecute the publisher (code number "3"). Only on this occasion was the card let off by the jury.
In October 1953 the Margate police condemned the cards they seized as showing “leering men and nearly naked women”, and this must have been one of the cards they had in mind. The local magistrates condemned it twice, and it had the distinction of being ordered destroyed whenever it appeared in court.
Another comic vicar, and another seaside misunderstanding. Margate magistrates set the pace in October 1953 by ordering this postcard destroyed as obscene, but other courts seemed reluctant to follow their example, presumably regarding it as merely vulgar. Its publisher was prosecuted in Lincoln in 1954, but the jury considered that the card was not obscene, and the police seizures stopped.
The little boy in this postcard is pointing to the car's "trafficator", an illuminated indicator which rose out of the bodywork to show that a car was turning in that direction. They were common on cars until the 1950s, but were afterwards replaced with indicator lights, destroying the obvious phallic associations. Police, magistrates, and the DPP clearly understood the hidden meaning of this card, and it was ordered destroyed in every court where it appeared.