Comic postcards sent a saucy Southwold cartoonist packing
Comic genius Reg Carter was a cartoonist best-known for penning the front-page of The Beano for its first decade from 1938. But he also plotted a lively line in saucy seaside postcards and caricatures of his long-suffering neighbours in Southwold.
At his birth, in 1886, Southwold’s miniature branch railway from Halesworth was building up a modest head of steam, and travails of a twig line finally snapping in 1929 would provide him with a rich source of humour as would encounters (often involving clashes of spouses or classes) on the beach.
Growing up in Granville House on the High Street, Reg was a bricklayer’s son who showed such a gift for art that he was soon provided with a studio at the bottom of the garden abutting Bank Alley.
Classmate Bert Girling, later to be Southwold’s last stationmaster, recalled: “Reg was about my age. He always had the desk-lid up, sketching something. You should have seen his maps. He could draw beautiful maps.”
A talent for caricature ran in the family. His builder grandfather Benjamin Howard Carter constructed St Edmund’s Terrace in Victoria Street, to which his uncle Henry added amusing corbel stone portraits ranging from royalty to local workmen.
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The initials B.H.C. and the date 1861 can be seen carved into the corner of a building opposite, which was a Carter family grocery store until converted into houses in 2003.
Reg Carter left school at 14 to work as a junior clerk in a Southwold solicitor’s office. Postcards he penned in his spare time helped to launch the publishing house of Adolph Ernst Wildt and Henry Joseph Kray in 1904 and by 17 he was fully launched as freelance commercial artist.
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After that he never stopped working – supplying 1,500 ink or watercolour images on a wide variety of topics to at least 32 postcard printers, illustrating sports books and children’s annuals (the latter written by the local author who changed his named from Neil Bell to Stephen Southwold) and compiling cartoon strips for a large pile of comics.
On his death, in 1949, he left the equivalent of more than �300,000. Not bad for a bricklayer’s son who lived entirely on his wit.
His most (in)famous black and white images comprised a six-strong Sorrows of Southwold series of railway lampoons, published “with apologies to all” in what turned out to be the seriously unfunny year of 1914. A similarly hilarious sequel set followed seven years later.
The man whose incendiary imagination ran to showing Suffragettes blowing up Southwold Town Hall, the railway bridge over the Blyth collapsing under the weight of trippers and a Belle steamer crashing into the resort’s pier, also depicted the stalled motor bus for Lowestoft engulfed by a riot of late arrivals.
In the vanguard of the picture postcard boom from the Edwardian era – launched in 1902 when Britain became the first country in the world to permit senders of postcards to write on the same side as the address – Reg Carter produced colourful and general seaside images which were then stamped with the names of resorts around East Anglia and indeed the entire country.
Postcards came to sell in their millions as the perfect means of broadcasting the bliss of seaside holidays. The pictures were cheap and cheery and the accompanying messages could be blessedly brief.
So much of the cartoonist’s inspiration came from Southwold, where the workaday and well-do-do could collide most comically and where belles leapt from slim bathing machines while massive matrons freed from their corsets were more at risk of being imprisoned inside…
Hilary Huckstep, local historian and postcard collector, says: “Many moons ago I received 21 Reggies (as we aficionados call them) from a dealer and because they were cheap and amused me I kept them.
“Foolishly, I offered to mount a Carter exhibition in 2004 for Southwold Museum which meant scouring the country using fair means and foul to get enough cards and other material to make it worthwhile.
“Then I fell hook, line and sinker for the charm of a Southwold boy who made good by making people smile.
“He had none of the cruelty of some of his contemporaries but poked gentle fun at errant husbands, sluttish wives, men who liked a drink – always beer – holidaymakers, seasick passengers, children, donkeys and many other facets of the traditional British holiday.”
Still, it’s easy to imagine how the relentless joke might have worn rather thin in a small town – and to guess the real reason why this gently subversive son of Southwold felt it advisable to move to Sussex on marrying in 1923.
The problem was that Reg, who often depicted himself smiling or laughing in the centre of his tumultuous scenes, proved that fact was stranger – and funnier – than fiction. His readily-identified neighbours and their activities were well and truly mocked.
He had lampooned that beloved little railway, with station signs reading “SOUTHWOLD AT LAST!” and carriage notices proclaiming: “Passengers are asked to sit perfectly still so as not to spoil the springs in the seats.”
One caption read: “The first class passenger supported by all the third class shew great annoyance at an unexpected stop – to learn from the guard that ‘The driver seeing a choice crop of groundsel – is gathering it for his canary’.”
Another quipped: “The guard as a profitable sideline puts the dinners of the cottagers along the route on the up train – these being done to perfection by the return journey – the process of curing the renowned Southwold bloaters is shewn.”
The steam train’s boiler was also viewed as a handy oven for roasting chestnuts and baking potatoes, though it might be blocked by birds’ nests and fuelled by dead cats.
But the Southwold railway had begun on September 24 1879 – as it would continue for much of its 50-year life: badly. Building work had begun, despite the resignation of the board amid worries over finance, but it had not been concluded.
Of the intermediate village stations, only Wenhaston was complete. Blythburgh and Walberswick would have to be finished later.
Southwold dignitaries waited at a terminus bright with flags and bunting for passengers who never arrived. The first scheduled train came in empty, having failed to reach a crowd of trippers at Halesworth because a flood had washed away part of the track.
Celebratory sporting events continued on the common as planned, however, where another disaster was only narrowly averted. An entrant in a horse race nearly broke his neck, as organisers had forgotten that it was necessary at the end of the course to allow space for a steed to stop.
And that was just day one.
The veracity of even the most ridiculous of Reg Carter scenes was proved in 1950 at a railway reunion dinner at Blythburgh’s White Hart, whose landlord was our old friend Bert Girling.
He confirmed that his former classmate was an all too realistic recorder of an eccentric enterprise which finally reached the end of a comic line in 1929.
One veteran remembered an occasion when a cash on delivery item was a live lion. No cash being forthcoming on delivery in Southwold, staff had to beg meat from a local butcher until a visiting circus raised the necessary funds for the show to go on…
Blythburgh’s ex-stationmaster recalled wild-fowling on the marshes in the intervals between trains; platelayers had helped to feed their families by setting rabbit traps along the line.
A former driver recollected suddenly noticing that his engine was no longer trailing any trucks – he had left them several miles down the track.
But all agreed that the twig line had displayed uncommon courtesy. When the last (7.30pm) train was due out of Southwold the guard would look up Station Road to see if anyone was coming – and signal to any latecomer rounding the bend not to rush.
And on one occasion a passenger, approaching the 12.50pm train at Halesworth, shouted to the guard and pointed to the next-door hostelry: “Is there time?”
The thirsty employee replied: “There’ll have to be! I’ll have one with you.” Both then entered the Station Hotel.
n Southwold Museum, in Victoria Street, which contains a wealth of Reg Carter material, is now open 2-4pm daily until the end of October (and 10.30-noon during August). Admission free.
The comic genius also features in Siri-Susanna Taylor’s DVD Making Waves – based on the Ian Collins book of that name about artists in Southwold – which is on sale in the museum.
A generous grant from the Barrett Jenkins Trust has been used to refurbish the gallery, with new displays a recent gift of fossils and items from the museum’s textile collection. The website (www.southwoldmuseum.org) has been rebuilt and is well worth a visit. To contact the curator, Dr Diana Dixon, ring 01502-726097.