Alfred & Edward Banks


Church Road, Hove, with old Town Hall in the distance (AB Series)

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Postcard publishers, photographic materials and toy dealers, Hove. Alfred and Edward Banks were brothers, who saw active service in the First World War. During the 1920s and 1930s they ran a highly successful postcard publishing business in Hove, producing numerous high-quality real photographic cards, mainly of Brighton and Hove but also a range of other places in southern Sussex. The cards were well designed, with attractive photographs of familiar as well as more unusual subjects. Many were published anonymously, but others carried the brothers' names or initials.

Alfred Banks was born on Christmas Eve, 1894 at the home of his parents, Naomi and Alfred Banks, at 1 West Hill Place, near Brighton railway station. In 1896 or 1897 the family moved to 13 Belfast Street in Hove, near the Town Hall, and it was here that Edward was born on August 7, 1897.

Alf and Ted, as they were known to family and friends, attended Connaught Road School in Hove. Alfred sat next in class to a lad called Thomas Sargent, who later became well known on the stage as Max Miller, Brighton's own "Cheeky Chappie".

During the First World War, Alfred joined the Horse Artillery and was one of the lead riders in a gun team; he saw service not only in Europe but also in the Middle East. Edward joined the Signal Division of the Royal Engineers, and was sent to France in 1918. He kept a diary of his adventures while riding back and forth on horseback carrying messages between the local headquarters and the front. He survived a gas attack and narrowly escaped being killed by a stray shell.

When the war was over, Alfred and Edward returned to live with their parents at 13 Belfast Street. Apparently, it was Alfred who first took up photography and postcard publishing, but his brother soon joined him as a partner. Several of the 1921 and 1922 cards are marked "13 Belfast Street, Hove" on the front, but how many were actually printed there is uncertain. The house was quite small, with little space for postcard production.

Fortunately for the brothers, their uncle, Thomas Banks, came to their aid and allowed them to convert the basement of his florist's shop at 40 Church Road, Hove, into a workshop and darkroom. They were certainly printing at Church Road by 1922 or 1923, when they began labelling some of their cards: "A. E. B. Series. Photographed and Published by A & E Banks, 40 Church Road, Hove".

On October 29, 1924 Edward married Ada Walker, the 26-year-old daughter of a retired civil servant. Some two months later, on the 27th of December, Alfred married Philadelphia Avis, who was also 26 years old and "in service" in Hove. She was the youngest of three daughters of a Rodmell shepherd, James Avis.

Following their wedding, Edward and Ada went to live in a flat over the Church Road shop where they stayed until 1927. They then took another flat near Hove Station for a short period, before settling in 1928 at 9 Connaught Road in central Hove. Their two children were born in 1927 and 1928.

After her marriage, Philadelphia joined Alfred and his parents at 13 Belfast Street. By April 1929, however, she and Alfred had set up home at 33 Blatchington Road, Hove. They had four children, born between 1929 and 1936.

Both brothers put a lot of effort into their postcard publishing and other work. At weekends and on summer holidays Philadelphia ran a teahouse close to the Devil's Dyke railway station. Alfred used to take her there in his motorcycle sidecar before going off to take photographs. He had an allotment in Hove, which he liked tending, and also conducted his own four-piece band, which played at gigs. Edward too had an allotment. In his spare time he studied accountancy and did book-keeping for people he knew.

Until the early thirties the brothers appear to have supported themselves entirely through their postcard business. However, in about 1933 they opened a shop at 4 Blatchington Road, Hove, selling toys, postcards, photographic materials and other goods. There was sufficient space at the new premises to enable them to transfer their postcard production from 40 Church Road. The shop seems to have been an immediate commercial success, and within a year or two, they opened a second shop next door, selling and repairing radios and other electrical goods.

As the thirties progressed, Alfred and Edward concentrated more and more on running the shops, and postcard publishing became something of a sideline. They decided to publish cards of fewer places, while continuing to introduce new cards of places they still supplied. When war was declared, the brothers decided to sell their two shops, and give up postcard production. To help with the war effort, they joined Allen West & Co. Ltd, a Brighton engineering firm, engaged in producing a great variety of military equipment including radar units.

After the War, Alfred continued to work at Allen West, and for many years organised the firm's Social Club, and its various outings. He died suddenly of broncho-pneumonia on February 22, 1959, when he was only 64. Philadelphia outlived him by 30 years.

Edward left Allen West after the War, working in London first as a book-keeper and later as a partner in a textile business. In 1960 he moved from Connaught Road to 57 Holmes Avenue in the West Blatchington area of Hove, and it was here that he died, on September 4, 1980, aged 83.

Unfortunately, none of Alfred and Edward's glass plate negatives have survived. Some were used as miniature cloches on Alfred's allotment; the rest were thrown in the dustbin!

The earliest postcards date from about 1919 and were probably the work of Alfred Banks alone. It was not long, however, before he and Edward decided to form a partnership. According to the family, both partners shared the work of taking the photographs for the cards, using a big box-type camera with bellows. Alfred may have been the more skilled cameraman, but Edward excelled at lettering and handwrote the captions on all the cards. They both spent long hours in the darkroom, printing the cards and preparing orders. Edward played a much greater role than Alfred in marketing. He liked to dress smartly, smoked full-sized cigars, and seems to have relished playing the role of the smooth talking, sophisticated businessman! It may well have been Edward who initiated negotiations with James Hamilton, another local postcard publisher, who kept a stationer's shop and sub-post office at 24 Queens Road, Brighton. By 1922 or 1923 the brothers had reached agreement with Hamilton to print at least some of his cards for him, and from 1925 onwards they relieved him of all the design work as well as the printing, leaving him to take the photographs and market the cards, with the help for three years of his son Norman. This arrangement with Hamilton, which lasted until the start of the Second World War, allowed the brothers to treble their output of cards, and no doubt enabled them to buy photographic materials and equipment much more cheaply than if they had printed only their own cards.

Postmark evidence suggests that the peak years for sales of Alfred and Edward's own cards were around the mid 1920s, but sales continued to be buoyant until well into the 1930s. The most popular cards remained on sale from the mid twenties through to the Second World War, passing through several re-designs. Some of the cards introduced in the thirties, however, had a life of only a few years.

Alfred Banks took up photography soon after the end of the Great War. He is not known to have served an apprenticeship with an existing photographer, and the likelihood is that he simply bought a camera and taught himself how to use it. There is evidence that before starting to publish his own cards he may have supplied photographs to other publishers. E.T.W. Dennis & Sons of Scarborough issued a set of cards of Rottingdean not long after the War and one of these cards carried a photograph of the sea front that Alfred Banks may have taken. A May 1919 postmark establishes a last possible date for the photograph, which reappeared a few years later on a Banks brother's postcard.

The first cards that Alfred Banks issued are a little known series of perhaps as many as 50 views of Hove. These are all marked with his initials AB, often followed by a number, enclosed in many cases in a round cornered box or bubble in the lower left corner of the picture. The artistic and technical quality of the cards is variable, which is not surprising given that they were the work of a fledgling photographer. Sales seem to have been quite modest, which could suggest that only a few shops stocked the cards. The earliest postmark so far found is June 1919.

It is doubtful whether Edward Banks had any hand in the production of the AB cards, as they may be termed. The initials clearly point to Alfred as the photographer, and it is probable that he also wrote the captions because the lettering is a little hesitant and uneven. Edward, who was responsible for all the captions on later cards, had very neat, even handwriting.

The AB cards were soon replaced by the technically more advanced Hova Series cards, portraying both Hove and Portslade. Although the Hova cards carry no name, initials or other indication of their publisher, there is every reason to suppose that they were a joint venture of Alfred and Edward. In later years the brothers re-issued some of the Hova cards in their AEB Series, this time with their names or initials. In addition, a multi-view card of Hove has come to light, labelled "Photographed & Published by A & E. Banks", which reproduces various Hova Series cards and one AB card in miniature. Its cheerful mermaid and fish decorations were presumably drawn by Edward Banks. The June 1920 postmark indicates that the brothers were already in partnership by this date.

During 1921 the brothers continued to expand their postcard business, issuing cards showing, for example, the opening of the Indian Chattri at Patcham (on February 1), the new Hove War Memorial (unveiled on February 27) and the Indian Memorial Gateway near Brighton Pavilion shortly before its dedication (October 26). Other cards show Brighton War Memorial in the Old Steine, apparently shortly after its unveiling on 7 October 1922.

The design of these "Transitional" cards, as they may be termed, is quite variable. Some have black and white photographs; others, which are probably faded, are very pale sepia. The captions at the base of the photographs are usually preceded by serial numbers of up to four digits, followed by a dash and the name "A & E Banks" (in a few cases with the address 13 Belfast Street). Some captions are written in plain, blocky capitals simulating machine printing. More often, however, they are composed of a mixture of plain and more decorative capitals, suggesting that Edward was trying to evolve an Art Deco script. Some backs are labelled "Post Card" in giant, intertwined letters of genuinely Art Deco character that Edward may have designed himself.

The brothers soon seem to have had second thoughts about the design of the Transitionals because in little over a year they started to issue the replacement "AEB Series". The first examples of the new cards can be called "Gothics". The photographs are generally strongly sepia-tinted and lack borders, but black and white examples with white borders are sometimes found, most of which are later reprintings. The captions along the base of the photographs are written in an ornate "Gothic" script, in both capitals and lower case. The serial number is relocated in the lower right corner and is preceded by the initials A.E.B. A few cards have initials but no serial number. In most instances the initials provide the only firm evidence that the brothers published the cards, but a few are labelled on the back: "A. E. B. Series. Photographed and Published by A & E Banks, 40 Church Road, Hove".

The first Gothics were in circulation by June 1922, and this style of card seems to have remained in production until 1925 (inexplicably later in the case of some Patcham cards).

These cards, which comprise re-issues of the Gothics, and also additions to the range, have hand-written captions in plain, blocky capitals. The serial numbers in the lower right corners usually lack the AEB prefix. Both sepia-tinted and black and white cards were issued. The photographs lack borders.

Cards of this design began to circulate during 1925. The earliest cards have a circular logo on the back, which declares in an Art Nouveau script that the cards belong to the "AEB Series". In addition to the logo there is a neat, handwritten label: "Printed and Published by A & E Banks, 40 Church Road, Hove." Cards from 1926 onwards, however, use a succession of anonymous bought-in backs, and are difficult to distinguish from the cards that the Banks brothers produced for James Hamilton.

These sepia-tinted and black and white cards have white borders and generally lack code numbers. The titles are written in the same blocky capitals as the Early Moderns. The first cards seem to have been issued in 1929, and in the early thirties they became the standard design, again mirroring the cards produced for Hamilton.

Several Late Moderns show the lagoon at Hove, which was constructed in 1930-31. Other cards that the Banks brothers are believed to have published, though anonymously, include the decorations for the Jubilee Celebrations in Brighton and Hove in May 1935. Of particular interest are four or more aerial views of Brighton and Hove sea front that date from about 1930 or 1931. The pictures are commendably sharp, and provide a refreshing antidote to the plethora of often boring ground-based views issued by rival postcard publishers. It is a great pity that the Banks brothers did not decide to photograph more of Sussex from the air.

The core area of the Banks brother's sales territory was undoubtedly Brighton and Hove, both back streets and sea front, together with the neighbouring settlements of Portslade, Southwick, Fulking, Poynings, Patcham, Pyecombe and Hurstpierpoint. The large numbers of surviving cards with postmarks continuing to the end of the 1930s testify to a highly successful and sustained sales effort in this area. In addition, Alfred and Edward produced cards of Rottingdean, Lewes and Rodmell in the twenties, and perhaps also in the early thirties. Rodmell was doubtless selected because of the links with Philadelphia's family and friends. By the mid thirties, if not earlier, sales seem to have been discontinued in all three places.

Alfred and Edward Banks published cards of many places to the west of Brighton and Hove, including Chichester, Arundel, Worthing, Shoreham, Bramber and Henfield, but interestingly not Bognor or Storrington, where competition from existing postcard publishers may have been severe. Sales in Chichester were very sluggish, judging from the rarity of surviving cards. Only Gothics are known, which suggests that the brothers probably stopped supplying shops in the town in the mid or late twenties.

Hamilton published far fewer cards of Brighton and Hove than Alfred and Edward Banks, and possibly sold the cards only in his shop. It is also noticeable that he produced very few cards of the villages and countryside on the fringes of Brighton and Hove where Alfred and Edward were evidently concerned to capture as large a market share as possible. Nor did he try to compete with them at Shoreham and Arundel. However, he did sell cards in competition with the brothers at Bramber, Rottingdean and Lewes.

The numbering system on the cards is not chronological but geographical. Alfred and Edward evidently reserved a block or run of consecutive numbers for each area that they were photographing. They then allocated each photograph a number within the block.

Alfred and Edward sometimes issued identically numbered cards showing the same view taken in different years. It can be assumed that they decided to replace the existing photographs by more up-to-date ones while retaining the original serial numbers. In several cases, however, they issued identically numbered cards of different places apparently at about the same time, judging from postmark evidence. This suggests that they sometimes made mistakes when numbering their photographs and then failed to correct the mistakes, perhaps because the numbers were written directly on the negatives and could not easily be removed.

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