Capturing the sights and sounds of the British seaside through postcard design and correspondence.

The very first postcards did not have a picture. It wasn’t until 1894 that picture postcards produced by private publishers were accepted by the Post Office bearing an adhesive stamp. Picture postcards went on to depict a huge array of themes including the images of holiday destinations and the British seaside.

Postcard depicting many people on a beach with a large building in the background.

South Sands, Scarborough Postcard, Early 1900s, PH64S/36b

With the expansion of the Victorian rail network more and more people from all classes were able to reach the British coast. This only later increased with the Holiday Pay Act allowing people to take time off work without losing pay. For those individuals able to indulge in a day out or a few days away at the seaside, picture postcards made it possible to show friends and family at home what they had been up to.



Lowestoft Donkey Postcard, 1904, PH64Y/01a

British seaside postcards often depict quintessential images of our coast and holidays, with people in deckchairs, taking donkey rides and walking down the pier. The images on these cards not only show the receiver where the person is and what they might be doing but also transports them back to their own past holidays.


‘Palace Pier, Brighton’ Postcard, 1902, PH64Y/30 (item not in exhibition)
‘West Pier Entrance’ Postcard, 1904, PH39/04a (item not in exhibition)

It amuses me that you don’t see postcards of the British coast in bad weather, with families huddled under an umbrella, which we’ve all experienced at one time or another. Instead, they show the seaside basked in sunshine, not so realistic but definitely more enticing.


Lady in a deckchair, Postcard artwork by Arnold Taylor. c.1960-65, E16368/07
‘Knightstone Sands, Weston-super-Mare’ Postcard, 1914, PH64W/40c
‘The Beach, Broadstairs’ Postcard, 1903, PH57/33a (item not in exhibition)

A trend of seaside postcard designs was saucy inuendo driven images. Produced by publishers like Bamforth & Co. and Donald McGill these images used the medium of caricature as a way of playing with body forms. They also portray questionable humour which to many today may seem unacceptable.

Postcard with an image of a gentleman next to a lady in a pink dress which has been blown up revealing her undergarments.

‘Censor or no Censor’ Postcard 1956, © Donald McGill, on loan from the Brown Family, E16361/05


Whereas the image can be slightly misleading the postcard message really sums up what the experience is like for the visitor. The below card from Weston-super-Mare asks the recipient ‘How would you like to be here, no offence but it is lovely on the sea front’. It was difficult for them not to gloat just a little when they were having such a lovely time.

Reverse of the postcard with a hand written message upside down from the address.

Weston-super-Mare Postcard message, 1914, PH64W/40c

Holidays however are finite. Here Amy laments that she’ll return ‘Tuesday week’ and wishes it was ‘Tuesday 6 weeks’. The front of this postcard also classically mentions the weather ‘Having a lovely time. No rain’.

Handwritten postcard message with stamp cancelled from Broadstairs Station.

Broadstairs Postcard Message, 1903, PH57/33a, (item not in exhibition)

The below postcard message not only tells us what a great time they were having but even sets the scene as the sender writes ‘excuse pencil on the beach’.

Handwritten postcard message that curves around to find more space for the text.

Great Yarmouth Postcard Message, 1907, PH40/11a, (item not in exhibition)

Tom Jackson, creator of the Twitter account Postcard from the Past also takes snippets of these holiday postcard messages and posts them with the postcard image. Giving you a sneak peek into the life of the sender and keeping us guessing what the rest of the message might have said.

Visual of a tweet featuring a postcard image of Bognor Regis including boats and a dog.

Bognor Regis postcard tweet from Postcard From The Past, 2020

Seaside postcards can make us long to go on holiday. These picture postcards document the beauty of the British coast and make us take that chance again on a UK trip.

If you’d like to see and learn more about postcards our new temporary exhibition ‘Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard’ is open until 2 January 2022.

– Georgina Tomlinson, Exhibition Curator

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