We welcome a new contributor to the blog this week with this article by John Stocks Powell. Enjoy and remember we have almost 190 articles to read at http://www.offalyhistoryblog. Like to get it each week and share to your friends.
There is a hierarchy of sources for the historian, local historians and those with the wider landscapes. The principal material is the written word; evidences from the time, written archives, and later written published assessments such as county histories, church memoirs, Ph.D. studies gone to print. On-line developments have made for more in quantity, and more exciting revelations, from the checking of dates on Wikipedia, or the digitised sources such as Irish and British newspapers online, and directories. Yet we know the old cliché that history is written by the winners, and that is especially true when trying to write about the history of the losers, the poor, and the illiterate. Every source has its importance.
What are legitimate sources? Frequently the local historian has to supplement the written accounts with photographs and what is politely called ephemera, such as bill heads. There is a further challenge in the fact, and so many Irish historians know this only too well, that records have not survived well; indeed, were many events compiled at all? Handling ephemeral material has its problems; there is not that ‘gravitas’ element so necessary for academic work. Frequently ephemeral material is just there, and suits an extra stuffing category rather than providing the signals or arguments for a case. A bill-head is just that, a name and perhaps a picture. This issue is even more of a challenge when through lack of immediate sources, the historian has to use sources from beyond and extrapolate meanings back into one’s own area.
In a study on the school history of Portarlington, there was the discovery of a large number of schools, not through local sources, or buildings there, but through adverts in Dublin newspapers now brought online. As a source these are safe enough, but inevitably questions follow. Schools involve finance, involve language teaching, issues of politics, bullying, later careers of pupils, the differences between girls’ and boys’ schools. The answers are not always available from local sources. With ideas this can pose more serious problems. Is an idea expressed in a letter from Waterford to Carlow, for example, valid for an issue in the King’s County? Are sermons preached and printed in Dublin suitable for setting the mood of Edenderry listeners? A case could be made that these ideas from elsewhere appear like the colours or wallpaper of a room through which the writers’ characters pass. They don’t comment on those features, but they affect the mood and the thinking of those passing through. You do not need to have proof of readership of David Patrick Moran’s The Leader in Ferbane to assume that several there would have become familiar with his term ‘West Briton’.
In thinking of source hierarchy, this essay endeavours to open up the validity of cheap souvenirs as a historical source. They are rarely allowed into serious study, for they are essentially passive; they don’t force a change or argument: they are just there, often on a mantlepiece getting dusty, and left as a narrative entertainment.
Between the 1880s and 1920s a collecting craze developed for cheap ceramic souvenirs, identifiable by a locality. This ware is often known as Goss ware or crested china, and identifiable by a coat-of-arms, a transfer print of a view, and a name sometime preceded by ‘A present from …’ Goss was William Henry Goss (1833-1906) and a potter in the Stoke-on-Trent district of Staffordshire, where pottery was a major industry. He devised, and soon came to realise, there was a profitable market in portable souvenirs. Other potters followed and there became a major craze for collecting, so much so, that one of Moran’s articles denounced those ‘who collected crests’ as part of the Englishing of Ireland.
Goss’s feature was to create small ceramic items, mostly little vases, bearing the coat-of-arms of a place visited. The number of items produced for Irish places was inevitably smaller than such produced for England and Scotland. Seaside resorts reveal the greater numbers. But as an indicator of the growth of tourism in Ireland, the growth of annual holidays for factory and retail workers, places like Portrush and Bundoran are more plentiful than Limerick city. Offaly, or the King’s County to use contemporary naming, had a very small tourist market in the late nineteenth century, so there are fewer places recorded, and fewer quantities produced. This county’s material is rare.
There is no definitive collection of this either in any national museum: Tullamore features, as does Birr and Charleville Castle, also Portarlington, but what other places are revealed? Apart from just being there, what use may these items be put in local history?
A case may be made that these reveal the beginnings of tourism, visitors buying as memorials of a good day out, essentially items of separation, wrapped up in a paper bag and a shilling or half-crown paid over a local counter. They may be the souvenirs taken away by emigrants to remind them of home; the coat of arms for Moville in Co. Donegal shows a ship from the Allan Line which took emigrants from Derry and area to America, and Percy French recorded this departing, in his emigrants’ letter song ‘where they’re cutting the corn in Creeshla the day!’. This ware could also support the notion of local pride, and the development of historical sites for visitors such as the great telescope at Birr: when Tullamore catholic church was rebuilt in 1906, small china pieces were made with a coloured transfer view.
This ware could also support ideas about the growth of local retail trade, and the emergence of small surplus finances above the essential needs, as with the spare cash to visit music-halls, pubs and later cinemas. Local traders would be approached by travelling agents from the potteries with sample books showing shapes, prices, designs, and the agents would need hotels, letters of introduction, the knowledge of retailers who would be safe for the paying of long term bills. As an added incentive the potters would often agree to including the retailer’s name and town along side the potter’s name in the final firing. Some of these agents acted indirectly such as the Signal series of china, manufactured in England, but sold by Signal, a branch of Eason’s in Dublin which had control of most railway book and newspaper stalls, and that included the line through Tullamore. Most of the local retailers were newspaper sellers, tobacconists, postcard sellers, and those who went in for fancy goods; many of these were women: a major example of this from neighbouring Kildare was Bridget O’Connor who had china rooms in Claregate Street and enjoyed a wide clientele from the nearby Curragh and Newbridge garrisons.
Once Goss, and later Arcadian, Carlton and Grafton potteries began producing items with coats-of-arms, there was the challenge of what do with those places which didn’t have such. This was where local patriotism and the importance of symbols became significant. The potters, essentially English in background and culture, had little difficulty with the notions of heraldry, but these were the imports of the Norman English ascendancy. Coats-of-arms were encountered virtually everywhere from public buildings, buttons, lamp standards, private families: but towns? Which town in King’s County had arms like those of Dublin or Cork? The potters were faced with a choice. Either arms could be adopted from the dominant landlord family, and this happened at Birr and Charleville and Portarlington; they could be taken from Irish clan arms, such as happened at Maryborough and Thurles, or they could be a complete fabrication from suitable symbols acceptable in the market. At Newcastle in Co. Down there was a golf course, so a golfer teeing off was used. In Tullamore the Irish national symbols of sunburst, round tower, harp and wolfhound were put together under the name Tullamore. This was a very serviceable symbol, and can be found for other places such as Castlebar in Co. Mayo. Irish names were frequently added with the English and it is a major point that Irish named places appeared on this ware before official name changes in the 1920s, such as Maryborough to Portlaoise, Kingstown to Dun Laoghaire. It is a challenge to know how the potters acquired the coats-of-arms; whether they came from the local retailers’ suggestions, or imposed from directories. There was multiple usage, colour mixes, and it is an open question whether the pieces named Charleville bearing the Bury arms were intended for retail in Charleville Co. Cork. Interestingly a post-card printer called Ja-Ja in Halifax, Yorkshire, produced a run of cards showing municipal and county coats-of-arms which the pottery painters, mostly women working with tiny brushes and enamel paints used as source. Probably the arms in Burke’s Peerage and Landed Gentry books were also sourced. Goss went into postcard production with images of its ware with arms. The potters did not seek permission to use the arms from families concerned: no records in the Rosse Archives show any attempt to gain permission for use. There seems no copyright.
It is worth pointing out this historical source is conservative in design and shape. As the craze grew, the potters produced more and more different shapes: vases, animals, birds, monuments, domestic utensils, hats, pans, toast-racks. There were specific Irish shapes, such as the three-legged cooking pot, mathers, jarveys and jaunting carts. Models of Irish colleens with shamrock shawls could be turned into Lancashire mill lasses by a change of decoration. Politics became involved. Busts of major figures were placed above local place names and arms, people such as John Redmond at the time of his near success with the third Home Rule Bill in 1912; Edward Carson who had been schooled in Portarlington, placed above a plinth bearing the arms of Belfast. To have a bust of General Kitchener on the shelf above the Dublin coat-of-arms might indicate a Unionist retailer and customer there. Far from killing the trade, the first world war stimulated it greatly, with models of soldiers, gun shells bearing mottos such as ‘Iron rations for Fritz’, the newly invented army tank, red cross nurses in uniform, pepper pots modelled on kit-bags with the song words ‘Put all your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile’. The words of ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ were also often used. Returning to the notion of conservative: with only a small output of this ware from Belleek, the majority was either English, or before the war, German; it is not surprising to find there are no busts of Jim Larkin, or the leaders of 1916 on town plinths. The green harp flag appears at times, but mostly it is the crowned gold harp on a blue background.
The main story of the souvenir craze is at a narrative level, but there should be enough material here to support the history of local development in issues such as retail trade, the role of women, the growth of surplus income above the essential, railway expansion, and the emergence of early tourism. At the idea level there are the representations of political and war images for the general public, the carrying over of their ideas into drawing rooms and shop fronts. Above all are the questions of Irishness, Englishness with design, choice of symbols for purchase, manufacture and importation: sentiment, culture, separations.