17 May 2021
Duncan Evans looks at the weekly British photojournalist magazine that reported on WWII.
It was Britain’s most influential pictorially led magazine of the war years, showing life as it happened overseas and the hardships on the Home Front. For militaria collectors, if you want to know what was happening in Britain during the war, Picture Post is an invaluable resource. Sir Edward George Warris Hulton, the son of a Baron and a newspaper magnate, created the Hulton Press in 1938 before launching Picture Post later that year.
It took a weekly look into life in Britain and its interests around the world, one minute covering society events, the next, Glasgow slums. Even though Hulton was, himself, a Conservative, the magazine’s stance was resoundingly liberal and populist and sought to counter Hitler’s fascist propaganda, even before the war started. Within two months of its launch, it was selling 1.7 million copies a week.
Each issue had pictorially led stories, in stark contrast to the newspapers of the day, which showed in graphic detail events happening around the world. It was, to all intents and purposes, a British version of the photojournalistic Life magazine, published in America. Readers were also invited to write to the letters page and, unusually, the editorial leader wasn’t written by the Editor, but by the owner, Hulton himself. Picture Post even featured stories from futurist writer H.G. Wells, which managed to outrage the Catholic Church.
Paper shortages from 1940 onwards limited the number of pages but that didn’t stop the popularity of magazine which, by 1943, was selling 1.95 million copies a week.
As well as the photo features, the other area of interest for militaria and Home Front enthusiasts are the period adverts. These are a mix of consumer products and ones related to rationing and war shortages. The content is also an excellent guide to the mood of the country, as expressed by those writing in to the letters pages.
Once the war was over, public interest in the magazine started to decline and the arrival of television accelerated its demise. Sales had fallen to under a million by 1952 and, despite a last hurrah covering the Korean War, and introducing colour photography, by 1957 it was selling fewer than 600,000 copies a week. At that point Hulton finally pulled the plug and closed the magazine.
Picture Post in WWII
Here are just a few of the issues to look out for as the Post reported on WWII:
June 3, 1939 (Vol. 3. No.9) – Everyday life in Berlin. By June 1939 everyone knew war was coming and in this bumper issue the Post published photos from the streets of Berlin. Meanwhile, you could see how the rich elite were being educated with a day in the life of a Cambridge undergraduate. Three other features showed the variety of coverage: firstly, a report from the World Fair in New York, then coverage of a society wedding and then, on the next pages, photos of camels getting washed!
September 23, 1939 (Vol. 4, No.12) – Diary of the War. War had been declared on 1 September but this was the first issue where the Post started a Diary of the War feature, beginning here with a report of what happened during the first week. The previous two issues sold out and are hard to find. Expect to pay a premium for them. Inside, the owner Edward Hulton, explains what the consequences of the war will be for the magazine.
December 16, 1939 (Vol. 5, No.11) – The Life of Goering. A fairly savage feature on Hitler’s number two, how Britain was already guarding its oil supplies in Iraq and Russia invades Finland.
August 15, 1942 (Vol. 16, No. 7) – Malta holds out. Scenes of devastation from the island that was vital to the war in the Med. Still, time for outrage about a new play in London, while the gardens of the public are busy growing as much food as possible.
October 16, 1943 (Vol. 21, No.3) – The Russians Return. Features include letters about the Indian famine; Russian peasants returning to devastated villages once the Red Army had pushed the Wehrmacht back; Stars, including Vivien Leigh, entertaining the troops at a bomber station by re-enacting Gone With the Wind; the nightmare war of retaking the Pacific islands and a well-meaning article on black soldiers at the Albert Hall, which uses language that would be unacceptable today.
January 29, 1944 (Vol. 22. No.5) – The Battle for the German Air. Features on the RAF and USAF bombing campaigns over Germany; Canadian troops in Italy; H.G. Wells talking about Anglo-US relations and Polish troops in Russia praying for their country to be liberated.
June 24, 1944 (Vol. 23. No. 13) – A few weeks after D-Day, the magazine gets to publish its photos. There are pictures from the beaches as the troops go ashore and inland as the German defences are breached. There’s also an interesting feature which the Post had written in January of that year, discussing invasion sites. The censor banned it, showing that all war stories had to be cleared before they could be published.
The Hulton Archives
Even by 1945 it was obvious to Edward Hulton that the huge collection of photographs the magazine had amassed was going to be an important historical resource. He created the Hulton Press Library in that year, which set about cataloguing the collection of published and unpublished negatives and prints. When Picture Post closed in 1957 Hulton sold the archive to the BBC which incorporated it into the Radio Times photo archive. The BBC subsequently sold the collection on, in 1988, to Brian Deutsch and eight years after that it was bought by Getty Images where it now resides.
The complete paper archive of the magazine itself, from 1938 to 1957, was scanned in its entirety and made available at https://www.gale.com/c/picture-post-historical-archive. Unfortunately this is only available to educational or research establishments as a paid-for resource.
Collecting the Post
You can find individual copies of war-era issues for as little as £3.50 each on eBay, but add on postage and the minimum price you’ll pay is £5. Typically, issues with more interesting cover stories push the price up, so it’s common to see them for £7-£8 plus postage. At last year’s Military Odyssey festival, an issue with Dunkirk on the cover was being sold for £10. A better option is to try to pick up multiple copies, especially at auctions, in one go, lowering the overall cost per issue.
Condition is tricky, because even the best-kept ones are likely to have yellowed pages and rusted staples. You can still be selective enough to avoid copies with ripped covers or loose pages, though.
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