Rex Needle: Spreading the advertising message with paper and paste

rex needle
rex needle

Pasting advertising material in public places is now largely prohibited.

But in past times notices announcing forthcoming events and other occurrences of common interest could be found everywhere, an activity known as bill posting.

rex needle

rex needle

Such was the ubiquity of this occupation that men were employed full time in touring town and country seeking out suitable spots to leave their printed messages.

The result was that advertising posters were everywhere announcing forthcoming attractions such a theatrical performances, fairs and circuses, dances, public meetings, sales and auctions of all description and even police notices warning the public about dangerous criminals who were on the loose.

No empty space escaped the attention of the pasters of posters with fences and blank walls the main attraction, such as the gable ends of houses, empty buildings, bridge parapets and the windows of empty shops, and despite the ubiquitous and admonitory warning notice on many saying “Stick no bills”, all were soon covered with gaudy announcements for a variety of forthcoming events.

One of the most popular places for bill posting was the Town Hall at a time when the building was protected by iron railings, a blank surface stretching along the entire frontage which cried out for the attention of the bill posters to work their magic with the result that this place became the town’s unofficial notice board.

The hey-day of bill posting was during Victorian times, before radio and television, when it became a fast and cheap method of reaching the people with information and so one poster was often pasted on top of one another and some of the more popular spots were soon bulging to a depth of several inches. The advent of the cinema brought a fresh wave of colourful notices and by 1930 local authorities in some of the larger cities, including London, were greatly concerned about the ruinous effect they were having on the street scene.

One of the most well-known bill posters in the county was William Welldon, of North Street, Bourne, who achieved some prominence in his trade during the 19th century. There were several men in the town so employed but Welldon did the job for such a long period that he was reckoned to be the oldest in Britain and earned himself a reputation as the “Father of the Bill Posters”, becoming a familiar figure in the district and walking thousands of miles to carry out his work which he continued until he was well over 90 years of age, five years before he died in 1916.

Another colourful character in the bill posting business was Joseph Edward Dallywater who was also the town crier at Bourne as well as being a chimney sweep and landlord of the Red Lion in South Street. He also achieved short fame in September 1899 by entering the lion’s cage of a Spanish travelling menagerie that was visiting Bourne, facing the lion and remaining inside with the door locked for several minutes while he calmly smoked a cigarette, after which he emerged unscathed amid the cheers of a crowded audience. He lived to tell the tale and to post more bills but only for a short while because he died prematurely in September 1901, aged only 36.

During the early years of the 20th century, the work was carried out by John Henry Pool who also had a variety of jobs around Bourne including running the market on Thursdays and Saturdays. His bill posting round was a busy one, with three large hoardings in Bourne, one close to the railway station off South Street, another in Coggles Causeway facing the railway line which ran close by and the third underneath the railway bridge in Abbey Road.

He also had a number of sites in the villages around Bourne but despite the long distances involved, he always completed his rounds on push bike with a leather satchel full of bills over his shoulder and a bucket of paste and a brush fixed to the cross bar. The paste was delivered wholesale to his home in Alexandra Terrace, large barrels of the stuff straight from the factory but had to be diluted before it could be used.

John Pool was so dedicated to his work that he could be seen returning home from his bill posting as farm workers were setting out to start their day. The only occasion that he did use motorised transport was at election time when the number of posters increased dramatically and as timing was of the essence, he would hire a car and driver to take him around the many designated sites. He was a busy man all his life and died in 1956 at the age of 70.

Although many posters became an art form and are widely admired and collected today, the practice of pasting them on every available public space ended their popularity. They became so widespread that the defacement nuisance could not be ignored and local authorities, beginning with London County Council, started to introduce bylaws prohibiting their use and this initiative was eventually adopted throughout the country.

Official sites continue to be used to good effect but the placing of unauthorised notices which despoil a neighbourhood, now known as fly posting, carries heavy fines for the culprits and so occasional advertising is confined to approved or private sites, shop windows and official notice boards, and although they sometimes appear illegally on roadside verges and elsewhere, local councils usually turn a blind eye provided it does not cause a nuisance or generate complaints.

We now have a more orderly approach to public announcements with cast iron notice boards erected at vantage points around town by the local authorities while many public buildings also have their own official space. Yet itinerant advertising material or fly posting still occasionally surfaces in Bourne, on the grass verges alongside the roads into town, on fences or even tied to iron railings around the town centre and although no one seems to mind, their legality may not bear scrutiny under the law unless specific permission is obtained from the appropriate authority.

A PORTRAIT OF BOURNE is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.