(this report contains images of postcards other than Julie's 323, to see those you will have to buy 'Cissie and Bella: A family’s story 1886-1930')
The question posed by Julie Bagnall was what to do with 323 postcards and she regaled us this evening with the many and various things she had done with them.
Her first task was to justify to her husband why she had bought this dog-eared album at a car boot sale in 1992. He was told it was none of his business and when he enquired about the price that was a confidential matter. However, the album was squirrelled away for a couple of years on the basis of “out of sight, out of mind.”
When they next saw the light of day, Julie decided to count them, which is how she came to the total of 323. But they were not all postcards. Most were, either used (written and posted) or unused, but there were also pictures and some clippings. And the postcards themselves were an infinite variety - scenic, romantic, seaside greetings, cartoons, comic, saucy and suggestive. Added to this were birthday and Christmas cards, portraits of famous actresses and a tantalising collection of personal photographs. Tantalising because hardly any had names attached to them; you were obviously supposed to know who was who.
Obviously exhausted by this effort, Julie once more put the album away but, when she opened it several years later, she was revitalised and set to investigating with renewed vigour. Only some cards were dated but she was able to create an initial time line from 1904 to 1930. This led on to proper research and she followed two strands simultaneously - pure genealogical research to establish Births, Deaths and Marriages, and casting a wider net to find out as much as possible about the main characters.
These were two sisters, Cissie and Bella, working in the two major fields of female employment at the turn of the century - domestic service and the cotton mills. Most of the correspondence was from Cissie to Bella but it was possible to infer much about Bella and the wider family and friends from the one-sided correspondence. Bella, the elder sister, was born on Tyneside in 1887 whilst her younger sister, Cissie, was born in Stalybridge in 1890. The family had moved from the north east, presumably because of better work prospects. The census of 1891 gives details of the family unit living in Stalybridge but they could not be found anywhere in the 1901 census. Eventually Julie discovered the two girls living with an aunt so she dug deeper to find out what had happened. With careful searching she found that not just their mother and father had died in the period between 1899 and 1903 but so too had four other close relatives. At the age of 10 and 13 they had been orphaned and lost most of their family.
Julie then followed the lives of the sisters. Cissie went into domestic service whilst Bella worked in the mills. The ups and downs of working class life in the early part of the twentieth century were experienced - health, work, romance, holidays and family life. Bella got married and had three children but tragedy struck once more and she lost both her husband and her eldest child from TB within a year of each other. Bella was left to bring up her young son and her daughter remaining a widow for over 30 years. Almost all her life was spent within half a mile of the lodgings where we had found her in 1911.
Cissie meanwhile, had a much more peripatetic life, moving frequently from job to job as was the typical pattern with domestic servants. She did, however, move up in the world (at least in the opinion of this audience) as she moved to Marple. Two of the houses where she worked are still here today - Selma on Station Road and Beechwood on Lakes Road. Throughout the 1920s she was a doting aunt to Bella’s children but we heard of two episodes of illness, convalescing in Blackpool and Ulverston. There were other vignettes which brought the conditions of service into sharp relief. She had to buy her own uniform but needed an advance on wages in order to pay for it.
Towards the end of that decade Cissie took a free passage to Australia under the Empire Settlement Act, contracting to be in service there for two years. She returned in 1930, due to ‘ill health’ but this allowed Julie to speculate as to why she went and why she came back. Unfortunately, we shall never know. Eventually Cissie did marry when she was in her fifties but was widowed after two years.
This whole journey from 1904 to 1930 through the eyes of a working class woman was an engaging experience for us all: an unusual take on an interesting period through the medium of postcards. Most important, Julie showed us just how much could be gleaned about a life from a few clues by intelligent research. We don’t all have 323 postcards but we all have access to the internet.