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History's Clues: A Postcard from Darwen

By Geoff Timmins
Interrogating the evidence

Image of the back of a postcard
The card was sent to J T Price Esq from 'Brother J H Boardman' 
However, you can build on your initial observations to extract more information from the picture. Just as when you look at a written record, you can interrogate this piece of evidence to assess its value as a source.

Looking at pictures and commenting on what you see is an important part of working as a historian. For instance, you might infer from this scene that Darwen was quite a prosperous place in Edwardian times, with some high-quality shops and an impressively modern public transport system - electric trams, after all, had only begun to appear in the 1890s.

'Manchester had four times as many miles of electric tramway as London.'

And you'd be right. Darwen's wealth, like that of most Lancashire towns, was largely built on the thriving Victorian cotton industry. Here, as elsewhere, professionals and local businessmen sitting on the town council took a lead in municipal improvement, and the result was that the bustling towns and cities of the north were quick to embrace electric trams. At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, for example, Manchester had four times as many miles of electric tramway as London.

But we also need to evaluate the reliability of the picture as a source of evidence. Why were these particular images chosen to put on the postcard? What impression were they designed to make?

Well, you might point out that only part of the street is shown - perhaps the smartest part. Some very respectable shoppers are shown (were they carefully posed?), and colour has been added to enhance the richness of the scene. What was the industrial part of town like? Or the residential streets where millworkers lived? These are not shown.

You might reflect that the makers of this postcard wanted to present a rather grand and prosperous image of the town, to impress the viewer, attract potential visitors and bring in more tram passengers and shoppers.

Published: 2005-01-31



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