Nostalgia: History of seaside souvenirs

A piece of crested china from Bognor
A piece of crested china from Bognor

As we have been promised some summer weather, I thought I would look more at the seaside experience this week.

I expect many of you will have purchased a souvenir of your holiday destination, as many of the traders try to entice you with their own particular item. They will try to sell us various souvenirs by which to enrich the memories of our holidays, including postcards, china, T-shirts, mugs etc. The thought of this made me look back historically to what was available for the holiday-maker.

A present from Bognor: A ribbon plate

A present from Bognor: A ribbon plate

The Times in 1910 stated the ‘collectors’ instinct seems to be a curious by-product of the human mind.’ An interesting comment of more than 100 years ago, but what did people actually collect? It started during the Victorian and Edwardian times between the 1890s to 1930s that seaside visitors would generally return home with a keepsake of their holiday – typically in the form of a piece of crested-china. Historically this has been classed as the most popular seaside souvenir ever produced, unless you know different! In the late 1800s, this form of trade was known either as a ‘trifle from’ or seaside ware.

There was one famous name that always seems to encapsulate this type of china – that of William Henry Goss, who with his sons led this field. It was in the 1880s that Adolphus Goss, who was a traveller for the company of WH Goss, stumbled on the idea of placing town crests on to pieces of china. His father, William Henry, had already developed fine ivory porcelain pots and shapes and therefore to combine the two they thought would produce an ideal souvenir.

The idea of these small pieces of china soon increased so that various shapes were developed, eg eggcups, shoes, animals, etc. Originally towns would have a shape that was specific to them. For Bognor this was to be the lobster pot; however this ‘one town, one shape’ limited the number of sales. The traders began to request a variety of shapes, with their own crests. The idea being to bring the visitor back time and time again and eventually a variety of shapes became available in shops. Hence we can have lighthouses from resorts where none exist, or bathing machines in the centre of the country. It was the shape and crest that were then important. Other companies soon became involved in this trade, many of which were in Europe.

The number and range and shapes of items on sale was boundless, and is now the subject of many books, research projects and talks by local historians. Each piece of china found is lovingly looked at and viewed for its shape and crest. When viewed underneath, many pieces showed the name of the shop which originally sold this china. For Bognor it stated S Piper, Bognor or T Piper. The Piper family had a couple of shops in the Arcade and the High Street, where they would display windows full of all manner of pieces of china. In 1929 there were a number of cups and plates that were produced for S Piper complete with one, a building – Craigweil House, the year that King George V came to Craigweil House to recuperate, definitely a case of cashing in on an event.

I have often been asked if there had ever been a pottery in Bognor. The answer was yes, 
Mr Masters, who resided in Lyon Street. He produced china, with quite a distinctive style; many pieces are brown with green leaves and hops. He had started work in Rye in East Sussex and when he came here to Bognor he started work by producing these items, the green depicting hops, a memory of his time in Kent, the hop-growing area. He died at the age of 83 
in 1962.

This is a very wide and deep subject, and I know I have only scratched the surface here, but today there are so many collectors it would be impossible to cover the subject comprehensively. Needless to say, when you are on your travels have a look in antique shops, junk shops and carboot sales for these little gems. Remember also that older members of your family might own some of these articles. One year a lady arrived at one of my talks, having just returned from a funeral. At the end of the evening she came to see me and said ‘thank you’. Not knowing what I had done, I asked why. She explained the box she was clutching contained ‘lots of little pieces of china in strange shapes’ which apparently she had been left, but had no knowledge of these collectables. It is possible this legacy could turn out to be a rewarding experience. If you visit the Bognor Regis Local Museum in West Street, it has even more information and a collection of collectables.

Today collecting is a rewarding experience, although it can also be expensive. Above all, it is enjoyable. Try to collect types, crests, manufacturers, or whatever while learning of its derivation. I hope you can enjoy these ‘little pieces of china in strange shapes’ as I do.