George Stafford Courtenay Gouldsmith


View from Tower, Battle Abbey

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Engineer and postcard publisher, Bexhill (also briefly at Ninfield and Eastbourne). George Gouldsmith ("Stafford", as he was known to family and close friends) was born at 3 Holland Villas Road in Kensington on November 12, 1890 to George Waller Gouldsmith and Maria Louisa Phillipa Sophia Gouldsmith, née Courtenay. His father had been born in London in late 1850 or early 1851 and was the lead partner in a firm of estate agents in Pont Street ("Oliffe & Gouldsmith"), reputedly the first in Britain. The Gouldsmiths were well off - the 1891 census records that they employed a cook, two housemaids, an under housemaid and a nurse.

Maria's widowed mother, Susannah Cobb Courtenay (née Lash), lived with the family. Susannah had been born in Yarmouth in Norfolk in 1818, and had eight children by her first marriage to John Gray, a Newhaven shipbuilder, who died in 1855. She then married William Henry Courtenay, from Padstow in Cornwall, who was eight years her junior. He was a kinsman of the Earl of Devon, hence the name Courtenay. He had been working for John Gray and by marrying his widow acquired John's shipyard. It was at Newhaven that William and Susannah's first child, Maria, was born, on March 28, 1858. After William died in Essex in 1875, aged only 48, Susannah went to live with her daughter and son in law in Kensington. She died in 1901, some months after the census.

In addition to Stafford (George), Maria and her husband had three other children: Phylis Daphne Gouldsmith born in 1884 (known as "Bunny"), Dorothy M. S. Gouldsmith born in late 1886 or early 1887 and Stella Louisa Maud Leslie Gouldsmith, born in 1896, all at Kensington. Stella married a Mr Orr.

It is thought that Maria may have rather indulged Stafford as he was her only son and suffered from asthma. He attended St Paul's School in London, and later trained to be an electrical engineer at Crystal Palace School of Engineering. Because of his rather uncertain health he took no part in the First World War. On September 6, 1916, he married Eva Batchelor at St Peter's Parish Church in Bexhill. Eva was 24 years old, one year younger than George, and was the daughter of Frank Batchelor, a florist, living at 16 Albert Road, Bexhill. Stafford, who was working as an engineer, gave his address as 7 St. George's Road. His eldest sister, Phylis (who had become Mrs Campbell) acted as a witness at the wedding.

Eva had an easy, outgoing personality, whereas her husband had a much more complex character. Quiet and reserved, he was not always very focused on work, but gave much time to his hobbies, especially his photography. Eva must have found him a drain on her patience at times, especially when he buried himself in his dark room.

Soon after their marriage, Eva and Stafford settled in Ninfield. Pike's 1918 Hastings, Bexhill and District Directory records that they lived in a house called Capel Hurst and that Stafford was a "motor and cycle engineer". He purchased the village forge, installing J. A. Steer as the blacksmith. Steer lived in Forge Cottage.

Soon after taking up photography Stafford found himself in trouble with the law. He was caught in possession of a camera at Hooe in October 1917 without a permit, contrary to the Defence of the Realm Act. Outdoor photography was strictly controlled during the Great War in an attempt to counter German espionage, and Stafford was brought to court where he pleaded guilty and had to pay costs.

By 1920 Stafford and Eva had left Ninfield and were living at 4 Amherst Road in Bexhill. The house was quite large, and by letting rooms to lodgers the Gouldsmiths gained useful additional income. According to Pike's Directories, Stafford continued to work as an engineer throughout the 1920s. The family remember that he also kept a shop ("Stafford's Photos") on the sea front near the Memorial, where he sold cameras, films and postcards.

The Gouldsmiths are last listed at 4 Amherst Road in Bexhill in Pike's 1932 Directory; the Directory for the following year records that the house had changed hands. Stafford and his wife bought a guest house at 9 Cavendish Place, Eastbourne, which they ran for four years, hiring an army of Welsh girls to help with the influx of summer visitors. They then moved back to Bexhill to live at 33 Cantelupe Road, where they again took in lodgers.

Stafford published possibly as many as a thousand real photographic cards of Sussex. The majority are labelled "Gouldsmith Bexhill" in tiny, rather clumsy handwriting at the base of the photographs, but some cards of Northiam, Alfriston and Normans Bay are marked "Gouldsmith Eastbourne", while "Gouldsmith Ninfield" appears on some cards of Ninfield, Dallington and Herstmonceux. A very few cards have a printed label on the back: "G. Gouldsmith, Bexhill-on-Sea". Yet other cards are anonymous.

Stafford began publishing cards by 1918, when he was living in Ninfield. A card of a class at Herstmonceux School is dated February 1918 and labelled "Gouldsmith, Ninfield". Even after he settled in Bexhill he kept up links with Ninfield, not only supplying the village shop with cards but also organising an annual firework display.

Stafford was as fascinated by fireworks as he was by photography. He used every year to import a small barrel of gunpowder from China in order to make his own fireworks. Fortunately for him he did not have to contend with today's Health and Safety Executive! His firework shows at Ninfield were always well attended. In November 1933 the Sussex Express told its readers:

"A large crowd gathered in the School Field on Monday evening for the annual firework display given by Mr. G. Gouldsmith of Bexhill. Mr. Gouldsmith has for many years treated the villagers to a fine exhibition on Guy Fawkes Day, and every one of his fireworks is entirely home-made. This year's display proved no exception to the high standard of excellence. Luckily the rain held up just before the show. In all 45 rockets were sent soaring into the sky, amid showers of highly coloured sparks. Shells, flying wheels, pigeons, catherine wheels and tri-wheels were set off in abundance, and Mr Gouldsmith closed his display with a spectacular set piece. He was given three cheers by the enthusiastic crowd."

As far as is known, Stafford published only real photographic cards. The photographs are normally black and white, with a touch of sepia. The majority have white borders. The captions are handwritten, usually in capitals, not always very neatly. A serial number is usually present. Most postmarks are from the mid 1920s or later. The places shown on the cards are widely scattered and include Uckfield, Ashburnham Place, Battle, Beachy Head, Bodle Street, Boreham Street, Brede, Brightling, Burwash, Cowbeech, Dallington, Fairlight, Guestling, Northiam, Sedlescombe, Normans Bay, Hellingly, Selmeston, Alfriston, Alciston, Lullington, Litlington, and, rather surprisingly, Treyford in West Sussex, Midhurst, and the South Downs Hotel at Rogate. From the outset he seems to have used a motorcycle for many of his photographic expeditions.

Stafford was a very competent photographer, with a well-trained eye for the distinctive and the picturesque. His photographs of Battle Abbey taken from the tower are an indication that he was always on the look out for an unusual vantage point. Like many inter-war photographers, he does not seem to have been bothered to record the changing effects of light and weather, which are a major preoccupation of modern photographers. His favourite photograph was his view of Herstmonceux Castle reproduced above (he published at least five other views of the Castle). One of his most spirited cards shows a train fast approaching the Normans Bay halt, supposedly in the early 1930s. A multi-view of Fairlight is particularly well designed. Two cards of the Ship Inn on Winchelsea Beach are an interesting reminder of this famous old hostelry, which was destroyed by pounding seas in November 1931, after over twenty years of flooding during storm surges. One of the cards is included in the Gallery selection; both are reproduced by Michael and Ruth Saville in their delightful book, A changing shore - an illustrated account of Winchelsea Beach (2006, Edgerton Publishing Services, Pett).

In about 1930 Stafford decided to give his cards a new identity, as he was irritated that people never pronounced or spelt his surname correctly. He stopped writing "Gouldsmith" on the photographs and started labelling the back of each card "Staffords Postcard". In some cases the Stafford label has been properly printed, but on other cards it has been applied with a handstamp, and the backs are otherwise left blank.

Stafford could do little to remove the name "Gouldsmith" once he had written it on his negatives, and for this reason reprints of his 1920s cards are often still marked "Gouldsmith" on the front yet are labelled "Staffords Postcard" on the back. The earliest known of these hybrid cards shows the Star Inn at Alfriston and carries a 1930 postmark. Hybrids exist also of Northiam, Boreham Street, Litlington and other places. Nevertheless, the majority of Staffords Postcards omit the Gouldsmith name.

After the Second World War, Stafford continued to publish his postcards for many years, albeit in reduced numbers. The correspondence on a card of the Grammar School at Windmill Hill notes that it was purchased on April 17, 1956. A Boreham Street card has been seen with a 1956 postmark. Some of the more interesting of the later Staffords Cards show the Cuckmere valley, for example the Long Man of Wilmington (1949 postmark noted), Litlington, haymaking at Alfriston (1945 postmark noted), and the Cuckmere River from High and Over (1960 postmark).

Some of the postwar Staffords Postcards have white borders round the photographs and are labelled on the back "This is a real handmade photograph printed in Sussex". They were on sale by 1948.

The Second World War was not kind to Stafford. A bomb fell in a neighbouring road in Bexhill, which greatly affected his nerves and he never totally recovered. Eva Gouldsmith had to put in long hours working in a canteen in Eastbourne as part of the war effort and to help supplement the family income. She died on September 15, 1963 and is buried at Bexhill. Stafford lived on for another four years at 33 Cantalupe Road until his admission to Hellingly Hospital, where he died on October 9, 1967. He was survived by his son, George Richard Gouldsmith ("Dick"), who died in 2010, and his daughter-in-law, Barbara Joan Gouldsmith (1920-2009). Grateful thanks are due to both of them and his granddaughter, Valerie Barbara Knott, for sharing their memories of Stafford and allowing his photograph to be reproduced on this website.

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