In years gone by our town has featured in several documentary style television series. One of these was entitled ‘A postcard from Banbury’.
The appropriateness of this title was brought home to me recently following my acquisition of a 1920s Banbury greeting card that unfolded to reveal twelve miniature images that most characterised the market town landscape. Two of these highlighted the part played by village carriers in specific areas. These were the Market Place and the Cow Fair (Bridge Street adjacent to the Town Hall).
Back in 1907 the Banbury Guardian decided to publish some comments about carriers which referred to Banbury and which had been contained in an article in the Birmingham Daily Mail. The writer of this column described the town in a way that has been adapted by more recent historians: ‘Banbury is the Metropolis of the Carriers’ cart’. It has been seen as such way back in mid-Victorian times and by the 1920s the carts were showing their age and in a number of cases they had been replaced by small buses.
The Mail article goes on to stress that carts and vans were more evident in a country market town than in somewhere such as Birmingham with its numerous railways and tramways. In appearance they were ‘often shabby looking canvas covered vehicles whose frame testifies to the careful monetary expenditure of the owner and economies of space for passengers and parcels’. Although carrier’s vehicles were seen on several days and especially when markets were active it would seem that country people knew them better than townsfolk as each was an institution in its native village. Many a rural resident was only too glad that the carts ‘put up their sails and rode majestically into town’. Potts in his Banbury List and Directory for 1907 (he took over from Rusher) records a total of 150 carriers who collectively made 400 visits. Accordingly they must have been seen regularly by Banburians and visitors. In the case of villagers some words of Thomas Hardy seem appropriate to this area as to his beloved Wessex, ‘these vans, so numerous hereabout are a respectable if somewhat lumbering class of conveyance much resorted to by decent travellers not overstretched with money’.
Another characteristic of their mode of operation in towns like Banbury was the way carriers scorned notions of a home-going timetable. Many lingered in the hope of late trade enjoyed by some market stalls. Even then carriers who had departed from the Market Place and Cow Fair could still be found up inn yards, many of them close by.
Returning to the souvenir greetings card it is interesting that the Reindeer Inn (popular with carriers) features in two images. Here the age of the inn coupled with the fascinating stories about the Globe Room, many Civil War related, attracted visitors, some of whom sought accommodation there.
A picture highlighted on the front cover of the Greeting Card would be anyone’s treasured memory of Banbury. It shows a half-timbered High Street building that has been recognised by English Heritage as of major importance.
Originally this 17th century property was home to a wealthy cloth merchant but by the 1920s it housed a Banbury Cake shop and traditional ironmongers with specialist links to agriculture. Both local and national photographers realised its potential for postcards. Yet another in the series of pictures shows the 1859 Cross surrounded by railings, which remained until the late 1920s. More importantly the camera shot aligns the monument with St Mary’s Church which dates from the late 18th century.
An unusual choice for inclusion is that of the prominent Victorian building in Marlborough Road which housed the Technical School and Mechanics Institute, later the building on the left became the Municipal School, forerunner of Banbury School. This characterful property would command the attention of those who strayed from the High Street.
A card such as this one is not just a souvenir it is also an attractive kaleidoscope of Banbury’s past.