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May 2022 Item of the Month

‘O love that wilt not let me go’: hymn postcards of war

The deployment of British troops to fight abroad in 1899 and 1914 sparked even greater popularity for postcard series such as this, produced by the most successful British publisher in this line Bamforth & Co. Postcards in the form we know today were a surprisingly late delivery in our postal system, one originating from Eastern Europe. Soldiers were encouraged to write home regularly and postal charges were waived. Bamforth cleverly produced numbered series of postcards to trigger the collecting bug or deltiology. The Postal Museum provides an excellent history of the medium. Bamforth & Co. is doubly interesting due to its role in lantern slide and then early film production in West Yorkshire.

This series (no. 5031) has four postcards, each bearing a verse from the Scottish minister George Matheson’s 1881 hymn ‘O love that wilt not let me go’. The images in each card show scenes of wounded British soldiers, their loved ones and their nurses, all in explicitly religious contexts. Mattheson’s moving text focusses on personal suffering and on life after death. His words in the fourth verse anticipate the poppies of Flanders, “I lay in dust, life's glory dead, And from the ground there blossoms red, Life that shall endless be”. Matheson explained his inspiration, “I took red as the symbol of that sacrificial life which blooms by shedding itself”.

These cards are among 460 donated by Alan Owen to the Pratt Green hymnology collection at Durham University Library and Collections. Several of these cards date from the First World War period, but presumably because they were printed in such high volumes many were never posted and our copies in these particular series remain blank. However, many others in the collection are endorsed with ephemeral messages of best wishes and arrangements for holidays and birthdays now long, long past.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.