Did the inspiration for a glittering military career lie in this 1902 postcard?

The Edwardian Postcard Project recently launched a searchable database of one thousand postcards, written and sent between 1901 and 1910, together with transcriptions and all the historical data we have found so far about the people who wrote and received the cards.  Investigating the cards, the social networking tool of the early twentieth century, we have uncovered some amazing tales but perhaps few as remarkable as the story behind this card.

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This type of picture postcard is the only format the Post Office allowed at the turn of the century.  Although this was before the era of colour photography, publishers could produce attractive images such as this, of Hastings Castle, through techniques such as hand colouring.   Since there were several deliveries a day in towns and cards could travel across country extraordinarily quickly through the rail network, people used postcards just as they use social networking platforms and text messages today.  Wherever they were, they bought, commissioned or created their own artwork on postcards and sent them off in the knowledge they would reach their recipient within hours.

The card’s message reads as follows:

July 22nd 1902

I am sending you this view of Hastings Castle- as I am sure you learnt who landed here, & won the battle of Hastings- With much love M.M. (??)

At the very beginning of the twentieth century the Post Office regulations were understood to insist that the whole of the other side had to be used for the address. Therefore, although picture postcards had become popular the only space for a message was a tiny area left blank by the publisher.  The only possibility was to write a short messages that often functioned as a caption to the message, much as one might use Snapchat or Instagram today.

The Edwardian Postcard project uses the censuses, especially 1901 and 1911 in order to investigate the postcard addressees.  Occasionally, especially if we are given a clue such “Dear Mum” and a first name we can read we can find out about the sender too. With this card nothing about the sender could be ascertained but, with help from Kathrin Kaufhold, I succeeded in tracing the person who received the card.

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The card was written to: J. Drummond Inglis, Esq, 24 Culmingron Road, Ealing.

This led me on a fascinating trail with various twists and turns.  In the 1901 census (accessed through http://www.findmypast.co.uk) it was easy to find John Drummond Inglis living at the address on the card with his mother Katherine S. Inglis.  There, John was listed as being born in 1896 in Devonport, and so was just 5 years’ old when he received the postcard.  The household was relatively privileged with two servants, a nursemaid to look after John and a cook.  The husband was not present on the night the census was taken.

At this point I could find a John Drummond Inglis who progressed from being a Second Lieutenant, to Lieutenant and then Major in the Royal Engineers in the First World War.  The next record for him I found was as an “Exec” recorded as a shareholder in the Great Western Railway in 1932. But could I be sure this was the same John Drummond Inglis who received the card?  And if so, were there any other records about his life?

I looked forwards into the 1911 census where I found a Katherine Sarah Inglis, identifiable as John Drummond’s mother through repetition of her birthdate and place.  At this time she was recorded with her husband in St Marys Church Street, North Colchester.  Thomas Drummond Inglis is described as a Retired Major Royal Artillery Training.  In the household with them were three servants (none the same as 1901) but John Drummond Inglis was not with them and I could not find him elsewhere.

The breakthrough came through a simple search engine find for the military John Drummond Inglis.  This revealed a portrait of “Sir (John) Drummond Inglis” by Janet Jevons, dated 1944 in the National Portrait Gallery online collection.  A vital piece of information that enables me to prove our postcard was sent to this man was provided by the clue of his birth and death dates – here given as 1895.  It is extremely common for censuses to record birth dates wrongly; census enumerators enquired the age of everyone living in the house and then approximated the year of birth.

Armed with the new information that he was born in 1895 rather than 1896, much more information emerged.  His birth is confirmed in 1895 in Devon, in both birth and baptism records.  In the 1911 census, when he was not at home with his parents, he was a student at Wellington College, Crowthorne, Berkshire.  John Drummond Inglis like many of his schoolmates fought in the First World War; 707 lost their lives then.  John must have felt himself fortunate to survive.

Other records, including a particularly informative obituary of his second wife, who died in 1987, flesh out his military career.  Between the wars he was particularly involved in technical developments in the army working in elements such as the “School of Electric Lighting” (19922-26) and acting as the Vice President of the Mechanical Board between 1934 and 1937.  During the Second World War, he became Chief Engineer, 21 Army Group and then held the rank of Temporary Major-General.  On retirement in 1945 he was granted the honorary rank of Major-General.  But he did something else very interesting when he retired: he deposited “correspondence, papers and photographs” with the Royal Engineers Museum.

The Museum have kindly given me some information about this archive which reveals his career to have been exceptionally glittering.  It includes a letter from

Field Marshal Montgomery congratulating him on the award of his KBE.  It also contains the paperwork for various awards he received including the OBE, Order of the Bath, the French Legion of Honour and several others.

John Drummond Inglis died in Eastbourne in 1985, so aged 90.  I can never be sure how the card was preserved for so long that we were able to buy it from a dealer in the twenty-first century. Usually dealers acquire cards once the families let them go,  often through house clearances.  But it seems likely it was held onto for a many decades, perhaps the whole of his life by John himself in order to reach us over a century later.  Was this card, sent to a small boy in 1902 about the Battle of Hastings, perceived by him as a source of inspiration for his long and glittering career?  Of course objectively the influence and position of his father and their social class, plus the good fortune of surviving the First World War were likely to have been decisive factors.  But we can still wonder.

Everybody is welcome to browse the new database, read the cards and transcripts for themselves.  We are now benefiting from an Arts and Humanities Council Cultural Engagement Fund Fellow, Dr Amanda Pullan.  People are beginning to contribute more information about the cards, their senders, receivers, as well as places and events associated with them.  We are also appealing for people to share their cards, or scans of cards with us.  The Edwardian Postcard Project website gives further details about this.

The database was funded through the Lancaster University Public Engagement with Research Leadership Group Fund.  The Edwardian Postcard Project is co-directed by Julia Gillen and Nigel Hall, Emeritus Professor, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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