Vintage postcards: Franco-British Exhibition

The choice of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition as the next in the vintage postcard series is particularly apt given that it was the cards themselves – and their wonderfully evocative images – that prompted me to learn more about the event in the first place. The Londonphile is not alone in finding them to be inspiring – Donald R. Knight, author of The Exhibitions: Great White City, first became interested in the topic after receiving a vintage postcard featuring the exhibition.

Knight notes that most people who visited the exhibition would have bought postcards to send to friends and family and to add to their own collection. The hobby of postcard collecting had really started to catch on at the start of the new century; twenty-two different postcard manufacturers produced cards featuring the exhibition to satisfy the high demand, with over 1,000 different cards on offer to an enthusiastic public. Valentine & Sons Ltd (Dundee, London and New York!) were the official postcard providers, and the three cards featured in this post all hail from this company. A post office was located within the exhibition in the British Industries Palace and a special handstamp created for the event; no less than four daily collections took outgoing mail to the Paddington sorting office.

It's official: Valentine & Sons Ltd Official Franco-British Exhibition series.

So just what was the Franco-British Exhibition? It was the first bi-lateral international exhibition, commemorating the Entente Cordiale between the two nations – essentially a large expo or trade fair to promote the products and cultures of France and Britain. Running from May to  October 1908, it was the first of five major international exhibitions to be held in West London at the White City complex, which later gave its name to the area. Over 8 million people attended over the course of the exhibition, including 123,000 people on the first day (and yes it did rain at the opening ceremony!).

As the delightful images on the cards show, the exhibition contained a number of ornate buildings in the ‘Oriental’ style, complete with plenty of domes and arches. These buildings were covered with fibrous plaster and painted painted white – hence the name White City – to protect them from the weather. Visitors could take boat rides along a central artificial lagoon, while a number of waterways, roads and bridges linked the 120 exhibition buildings and twenty pavilions that were constructed across the 140-acre site – a remarkable transformation of what was formerly farmland.

The entertainment on offer for patrons included a scenic railway (featuring fake mountain scenery), fun-fair style rides (including the famous Flip Flap and a toboggan ride), musical events, food outlets and some rather non-PC model villages (in which people became the exhibits). A Tudor house was uprooted from Ipswich and re-built on the site, and scale models of London from the Middle Ages erected so that visitors could experience ‘Old London’. Spectators could also thrill to the sight of an entire town being suddenly swept away in ‘The Johnstown Flood’ – over 715,000 visited this model alone, which required 54 tonnes of machinery to operate.

Interestingly, many of the buildings were put to use again for the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition, making for a strikingly similar set of postcards. A future edition of the vintage postcard series will feature that exhibition and discuss what remains of the site and its exhibits. In short, this was sadly very little, but at least the postcards remain to tell the story.