July 25, 2018, by Kathryn Steenson
‘Wish You Were Here!’ Picture Postcards: The Wrench Series
Guest post by Abigail Cobley, Document Production Assistant at Manuscripts & Special Collections.
Picture postcards offer a unique and fascinating insight into social history. Much can be gained about life in the past from studying postcards showing street scenes, holiday destinations, military events, and artistic watercolour prints (to name but a few). In the 21st century, with modern postcards much in decline, it is interesting to unearth the history of a notable picture postcard manufacturer: Evelyn Wrench.
Sir John Evelyn Leslie Wrench (1882-1966) was the initiator of the Wrench Series, and items recounting his endeavours are kept in the Wrench Collection at Manuscripts and Special Collections. Wrench believed in the unity of the British Empire and spent many years undertaking jobs with this in mind; he was indeed set for a diplomatic career. Yet early in his life he tried his luck at publishing postcards and for a time was held up as an excellent example of a young British entrepreneur. Despite his efforts ending in financial failure, he learned from this and left a good number of postcards behind as his legacy.
Wrench established a postcard firm around 1901, soon after his parents withdrew him from Eton for reasons of ill-health and took him abroad to travel the Continent. It was his time in Germany that inspired him to think about picture postcards, for these were already proving very popular there. Returning to Britain, he formed his Wrench Series, finding old Etonian contacts invaluable when seeking permission to set up stalls in royal and public buildings. A number of wealthy people bought shares in his company and by 1902 the company was flourishing as Wrench Limited. Wrench proved himself to be a skilled salesman and organiser and at one point was employing 100 staff and turning over more than £5000 a month. Indeed, his company had become the largest postcard publishing business in England. He said of his venture:
‘I was never so struck with anything in my life…as I was with the enormous extent of the Teutonic craze for pictorial postcards. It was a craze I admired, however, because many of the cards were so distinctly artistic as to be well worthy of a frame, and I determined to try, on my return to England, to make picture-cards as popular in my own country as they were abroad’
(quoted in The Pictorial Magazine, 1903. Wr D 48/67).
Edward M. Wrench (1856-1912) noted Evelyn Wrench’s success in his 1903 diary (Monday 12th October):
Upon this page was also glued a cutting from the Daily Express:
However, Wrench’s success was short-lived. The business expanded very rapidly and potential profits were caught up in voluminous piles of stands and stock; ultimately, it began to fail. Wrench had no choice but to sell the business cheaply.
Wrench, however, learnt from his experience. He went on to become, amongst other things, founder of the Royal Overseas League, a writer, editor, a Major during World War One, a manager, and principal private secretary to Lord Rothermere. His brief success with postcards, plus a number of other noteworthy accomplishments, have written his name into history.