Postcards from the past: libraries sharing the history of our seaside resorts through postcards

During the 2021 lockdown Rhyl Library was busy scanning and uploading a large collection of postcards, donated to them by Colin Jones and Brian V. Teece. They include postcards documenting the town’s built heritage, from Grade II listed buildings such as hotels and guest houses to well-known landmarks on the seafront and streets in Rhyl town itself. Also included are postcards with scenes from the pier and promenade and the beach, packed with tourists, as seen in this Edwardian era postcard of the Rhyl seashore, complete with horse-drawn huts for bathers.

The authorities gave picture postcards the seal of approval in 1894 as it was from this date onwards, people were allowed to buy halfpenny stamps on cards that were produced privately. Before this, the Government’s Finance Department was responsible for printing a stamp on all postcards. The golden age of the postcard was roughly between 1905-1915 when millions of picture postcards were sent every day; in 1909, for example, a total of 866 million cards were processed by the Post Office in Britain. In Wales, the growing demand saw regional and local publishers flourish here too.

Debbie Owen, Library and Customer Services Manager at Rhyl and Prestatyn Libraries, recalls: ‘A few staff from Rhyl Library attended a workshop over zoom held by the Peoples Collection Wales back in November 2020 and we shared the training with the whole team. We thought it would be a really good platform to share some of our local studies materials, in particular our large collection of postcards, especially as people couldn’t visit in person.’

One of the earliest postcards in the collection is this charming image of a distinguished Victorian gentleman in casual clothes on West Parade with the Drinking Fountain in the background. The image itself is dated 1871, although the postcard would seem to have been produced some years later.

As Debbie Owen observes, ‘Rhyl has been a popular seaside destination for many years, and it has seen lots of changes, which are reflected in the postcards, such as the original five dome Rhyl Pavilion (1908-1974):

and the outdoor swimming pool on the Prom featured in this 1930’s postcard.’

‘Postcards are really evocative of British seaside holidays,’ muses Debbie Owen – haven’t we all sent the typical ‘wish you were here’ message, or received it from someone else? For me, they brought back memories of visiting the Sun Centre as a child back in the early 1980s and all the excitement of the wave machines!’

‘Cataloguing the postcards was a task that we could do during the times that the library was closed and we were working from home, in between our other tasks, such as making phone calls. It was a team effort, as some of us could scan them at home, some people catalogued in English, and someone else would check the Cymraeg. Hopefully, now that we are back open, we will still find time to continue adding interesting items to the People’s Collection.’

Some of Rhyl Library’s items have been brought together in the Hotels in Rhyl collection, the Rhyl Pier, Pavilion and Promenade collection, and the Entertainment and Leisure in Rhyl Through The Decades collection, reflecting some of the favoured topics that have appealed to tourists over the years.

The Vale of Glamorgan Libraries’ account has been publishing items on the People’s Collection Wales website since 2014, and their latest contributions of over 500 items include, among other things, a number of postcards uploaded by Barry Library depicting the historic Barry Island and the nearby golden sands of Whitmore Bay beach. This collection has come together over a number of years, with material that was acquired during the 1980s and 1990s as part of the ‘Living Archive’ project in partnership with Valley and Vale at it's heart. (The videos that the Vale of Glamorgan Libraries have available on PCW are also a product of this project). 

A collection of images documenting the history of Barry Island holiday resort over the years can be viewed here. Barry Island had attracted tourists on a small scale from the 1850s. Still, it was in the midst of the nineteenth-century industrial boom and following the development of Barry Docks, when Barry Island was linked by rail to the mainland in 1896 that day-trippers began to flock to the area. A day at the beach became accessible for all social classes, not just the gentry.

Facilities for bathers had been introduced from the late 19thC. A ‘Ladies Bathing House’ was built on Friars Point on Whitmore Bay whilst the men’s Bathing House was situated on the Nell’s Point end of the bay, and there was also a Ladies’ Bathing Pool on the beach itself, which was a tidal pool, seen here:

This was at a time when ‘Real photographic’ postcards were still popular; they were first introduced in the Edwardian era, giving a detailed account of everyday life, and holiday resorts such as Barry Island and Rhyl were well served by the postcard publishers.

One development that saw visitors from further afield arriving at Barry Island was the paddle steamers and passenger boats that operated from Barry pier. The ‘Cambria’ paddle steamer operated between 1895-1966 and was run by the Bristol Shipping Company, P & A Campbell. Another paddle steamer, the ‘Gwalia’, seen here in the postcard below, was run by the Barry Railway Company from 1905-1910:

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Although a few carousels had appeared on Barry Island at the end of the nineteenth century, the famous Figure 8 roller coaster ride built by the White Brothers in 1912 began to draw the crowds to the fair.

Fairground rides and amusement parks introduced by Collins and White Brothers’ appeared over the decades, and the development of the Pleasure Park site can be seen in many of the postcards from the 1920s and ’30s. Other popular attractions included the Barry Island Boating Lake and the new promenade. There were also rides to be had in pleasure boats from the wooden jetties on Whitmore Bay Beach, and in fact, it can be said that the beach itself has always been Barry Island’s most significant attraction since its heyday.

Although only a fraction of the vast numbers of postcards produced in seaside resorts have survived to today, these photographic records, similar to the collections held by Rhyl Library and the Vale of Glamorgan Libraries, are invaluable in helping us understand how people lived and how society changed and embraced new developments.

By sharing these collections on the People’s Collection Wales website, both libraries have played an essential part in making these collections more accessible, bringing local history to a broader audience, and perhaps even stirring up a few memories for those who have visited Rhyl and Barry Island as holidaymakers themselves.

Do you have photographs that help share the history of our seaside resorts? Contact us through our social media platforms   Facebook | Twitter | Instagram or by email: [email protected]


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