The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelopes

We love a mystery at The Postal Museum, and the identity of the artist behind these envelopes has intrigued us for years.

Illustrated Tolhurst envelope, sent 14 March 1917, (2014-0038/78)

What are the Tolhurst envelopes?

Frederick Charles Tolhurst, a unionist worker from Stockwell, south London, posted more than 200 letters to his beloved children, Vera and Reginald, and other members of the Tolhurst family.

Each letter was posted in an envelope which was carefully decorated with hand-drawn images – some happy, some sad – that referenced the changing mood of Britain as the country went through drastic changes between 1909 to 1940.

A group of over 100 illustrated envelopes sent between 1909 and 1934 are in the care of The Postal Museum.

Some envelopes sent during the First World War contain warfare imagery: searchlights over London, a shell firing, and the jagged scar of a trench. Medieval imagery is referenced, as knights charge across the envelope, and depictions of quaint English villages highlight the pastoral ideal. Later envelopes observe contemporary 1920s style, such as the illustration of a cropped-haired flapper, driving a convertible.

Some illustrations are comic and whimsical, like the shoe full of dolls floating across a blue sea. The envelopes offer a myriad of themes and emotions and provide a window into this period of great change. They are wonderful examples of mail art, but beyond an appreciation of their aesthetics, I was fascinated by the unidentified artist and their relationship with the recipients. I was determined to find out more.

Illustrated Tolhurst envelope, sent 23 February 1919, (2014-0038/113)

Researching the Collection

The first step in identifying the artist was researching the address that the majority of envelopes were sent to: St Lawrence, Ernest Road, Hornchurch. The 1911 census shows the occupants at this address were George, Amelia, Frederick and Amy Tolhurst. Frederick and George Tolhurst, father and son, were frequent recipients of illustrated envelopes, and a Mrs. Tolhurst, who may have been either Amelia or Amy, also received illustrated mail at this address.

Locating the census record enabled the identification of all but one recipient: Vera. Vera received the majority of the illustrated envelopes in our collection, addressed to Ernest Road, however, she was not listed on the census record for this address. Not put off, I used the accumulated information to build a family tree. Constructing a family tree is a useful way of recording the dates and facts gathered through family history research, making it far easier to understand relationships. You don’t need special software, just a large sheet of paper will do.

Further study of the envelopes uncovered a vital piece of information: the initials ‘FCT’ were printed decoratively in the corner of several illustrations. There is just one name on the family tree which matches the initials ‘FCT’: Frederick Charles Tolhurst, son of Frederick and Amy, and brother of George. The artist’s identity, and the key to the mystery had been printed on the envelopes for over a hundred years.

Frederick Charles Tolhurst’s signature, (2014-0038/110)

Who is Vera Tolhurst?

Vera Tolhurst, the recipient of the majority of the illustrated envelopes, remained a puzzle. The turning point came when I discovered a postcard addressed to Vera and signed ‘with love & kisses from your Mama & Papa’.

Evidence of the relationship, (2014-0038/112)

Reviewing the envelopes addressed to Vera, which includes illustrations of dolls, ducklings and flowers, I realised they were very likely to be mementos sent from father to daughter. A search of the birth index for Vera Tolhurst revealed a Vera Sylvia Tolhurst, born in 1908 in the district of Lambeth. We requested a copy of the birth certificate, which would list the name of Vera’s father and confirm, or disprove, my theory.

When Vera’s birth certificate arrived at The Postal Museum it revealed that Frederick Charles Tolhurst was indeed her father. The birth certificate lists Frederick Charles Tolhurst’s occupation as ‘Lithographic Artist Journeyman’, however, three years later his occupation had changed, according to the census, to Trade Union Secretary. Though no longer employed as an artist, Tolhurst continued to utilise his artistic talent in the mail art he frequently sent to his family.

Illustrated Tolhurst envelope, sent 23 June 1917, (2014-0038/53)

You can discover more about the artist and his family in part 2 of this blog.

– Joanna Espin, Curator

Sign up to our newsletter for stories of extraordinary communication and more.