John ("Jack") Henry Spree


St Leonards Gardens (June 1908 postmark)

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Railway signalman and postcard publisher, who lived first in Hastings and then at St Leonards before moving to Nottingham just before or soon after the start of the First World War. Jack Spree was born in Canterbury in 1868 and was the son of a railway signalman, another John Henry Spree. He had three brothers and a sister. When the 1881 census was held, the Spree family were living in a house in Hollenden Road, Tonbridge. Twelve year old Jack had left school and was a telegraph messenger. By the time of the 1891 census the Spree family had moved to 7 Station Road in Hastings. Both John Henry senior and Jack were working as railway signalmen, but through some clerical error each was recorded as George H. Spree! Later in 1891 Jack married Esther Jane Glazier from Guestling in Sussex (the marriage was registered at Battle). The 1901 census records that by this date Jack and Esther were living at 59 London Road in St Leonards with their only child, Reginald John Spree, who was a year old. Jack continued to work as a railway signalman, but local Pike's Directories reveal that he was also a caretaker. In March 1906 he was still living at London Road but by September 1910 he had moved to 41 Kings Road in St Leonards. When the 1911 census came to be held he and his family had relocated to 13 Stainsby Street in St Leonards. The census notes once again that he was a signalman. Apparently, Jack and his family did not live in Stainsby Street for long. A George Dignum had taken over from Jack at Stainsby Street when Pike's 1912 Hastings and St Leonards Directory was compiled, and Jack is not listed in either the 1912 or 1913 Directories. The 1914 edition locates him at 15 Silverlands Road, but after this he disappears entirely from Hastings and St Leonards Directories.

While employed as a signalman, Jack published a small series of generally good quality real photographic cards of Hastings and St Leonards, which have become quite sought after by collectors. They are now increasingly difficult to find, and were presumably issued originally only in small quantities. Many cards have captions in facsimile handwriting and often they are signed "J. Spree" or more rarely initialled "J.S." at the base of the photographs. No address is shown. The backwards sloping handwriting is distinctive and is likely to have been the work of Esther as it does not match Jack's signature or the accompanying handwritten entries on the 1911 census form.

An early sepia-tinted card without a border shows the distant wreck of the SS Clara off Hastings in August 1905. The photograph taken from the cliff top is poorly composed and badly exposed, which may indicate that Jack had not yet mastered his camera. Another and noticeably more successful card shows an 80-foot wide and 20-foot deep hole in the Parade at Hastings that was opened up by storms on November 1, 1905. Workmen try to make repairs watched by a line of spectators. Judges published a very similar card, which attracted much greater sales. Other Spree real photographic cards, dated "27/11/05", show storm waves lashing the Hastings seafront, watched by crowds of onlookers. The angry sea, already beginning to subside, has cast up a small boat and pieces of wreckage onto the promenade and has torn down railings. Spree also recorded the inauguration of the tram service on Hastings sea front on December 18, 1906. Three other real photographic cards, this time with narrow white borders, show snow-covered countryside and the gardens at St Leonards deep in snow. 1907 and 1908 postmarks have been found. A card of Crowhurst Church was posted in May 1905. That Jack had a deep love of railways is evident from his evocative study of an engine venting steam and smoke while pulling a passenger train away from West St Leonards station.

Jack published cards over a period of at least five years during his time in Sussex. A card of the Proclamation of King George V at Warrior Square, St Leonards on 9 May 1910, initialled J. S., has a caption written in the same characteristic handwriting that appears on the earlier cards.

Quite why Jack chose to leave Sussex around 1915 and settle in Nottingham is unclear. According to his great grandson, Alan Spree, Jack was sacked as a signalman "for reasons that he never chose to divulge", and then worked for a few years as a photographer with Judges in Hastings. Stephen Zaleski reports that the 1916 Nottingham Directory lists Spree as a government inspector living at 44 Johnson Road in the Lenton area of Nottingham. It appears that he had secured a post as an inspector of railways. He was still living in Johnson Road in 1922, but the Directory for that year also lists him as a photographer at 60a Willoughby Street in Lenton. The Willoughby Street business "lasted just a couple of years", then Jack set up in business with another photographer in Parliament Street. In 1921 Reginald Spree, who worked at the Players cigarette factory (as a box maker), married Lillian May Parker and the young couple moved in with Jack and Esther at 44 Johnson Road. In the following year Reginald and Lillian had a baby and moved with Jack and Esther to share a house at 101 Danethorpe Vale in the Sherwood area of Nottingham. In 1929 Jack and Esther moved again, to a house at 165 Hawton Crescent in Wollaton Park. Jack, who suffered from high blood pressure, died in a Nottingham hospital in March 1932, aged 63. Esther lived to be 82 and died in 1949.

Stephen Zaleski reports that Jack Spree became quite a prolific publisher of real photographic cards of Nottingham, particularly the Lenton district, remaining active right up to the time of his death. Reference numbers on the cards suggest that he may have published over 900 different views. His earlier Sussex cards are not numbered, but it seems unlikely that he published more than 50 different views. Many of the Nottingham cards like their Sussex predecessors are labelled "J. Spree", and the handwriting used for the titles closely matches that of the Sussex cards.

Although based in Nottingham, Spree also published cards of outlying villages such as Whatton. In addition, he ventured still further afield, producing cards of the villages of Anderby, Willoughby and Huttoft between Skegness and Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire, as well as Saxelby near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. The cards were presumably stocked by local shops, but sales seem to have been very modest. One gains the impression that Jack regarded publishing postcards of relatively remote and little visited places more as a pleasurable hobby than as a money making venture.

Acknowledgement: this website is greatly indebted to Stephen Zaleski for kindly sharing the results of his continuing researches into the photographic activities of Jack Spree at Nottingham. For further information on Jack and reproductions of some of his many Nottingham cards you are recommended to read Stephen's articles in the September 2013 issue of Picture Postcard Monthly (pages 14-16) and in Issue Number 32 of the Lenton Times whose website address is Alan Spree provides a fascinating follow-up article on his great grandfather in Issue Number 34 of the Lenton Times.

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