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.
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