The Search for "Karaktus"

(and the "F S" Catalogue")

by Chris Reynolds

[Draft under test]

Crown Publishing Co, St ALbans, Karaktus 27 - Milkman

One of the 30 different "Karaktus" cards published by the Crown Publishing Co. in early 1909


I have been collecting postcards of Hertfordshire for the Genealogy in Hertfordshire web site  for over 15 years and my searches occasionally turned up distinctive comic cards by "Karaktus." These were published by the Crown Publishing Company of St Albans in late 1908 and early 1909. The above example caught my eye because my great grandfather, Jacob Reynolds, owned one of the biggest dairies in St Albans - and I was hooked. What I liked was the droll humour, the very simple lines, and the absence of a distracting background.


During my research relating to Hertfordshire I had investigated the backgrounds of many of the photographers and publishers involved (See Early 20th Century Photographers and Post Card Publishers). I decided to carry out a similar investigation to try and track down who was behind these cards. The task was very much bigger that I anticipated - and one of the results is a partial online catalogue of "F S" cards. I describe the "discovery process" below - but have rationalized the order as at any one time several research leads would have been progressing simultaneously. However it is important to note that research of this kind often produces false leads, which have to be eliminated - and also leads which may be improbable but not impossible.

Note: When referring to unsigned post cards there can be many reasons for uncertainties as to the artist - as the examples in It is very breezy illustrate. Wherever possible I explain my reasons (often in the pages giving more detail), and the views expressed as to the identity of the artist in any particular case are my own. 

What the St Albans cards tell us


Three different groups of cards were published by "The Crown Publishing Company" of St Albans

Cards numbered 1-30 (presumably 5 sets of 6)

Nearly all signed "Karaktus."

Earliest posting 8 October 1908

Crown Publishing Co., St Albans, Herts

Cards known with numbers between 1026 and 1040 (perhaps 3 sets of 6).

No signatures.

Earliest posting 9 February 1909

Cards known with numbers between 1043 and 1056 (perhaps 3 sets of 6).

No signatures.

Earliest posting 21 March 1910

Clearly the signature "Karaktus" is a pseudonym - possibly referring to the St Albans Iron Age king Caractacus, and there is no other information about the identity of the artists. The number of different cards (possibly no more than 66 designs) suggests that a company so small was never going to be viable - and the long delay before the final groups is strange - but may be due delays in distribution (see later) or the small number of dated examples.


What books on post cards tell us


The book Picture Postcards and their Publishers, by Anthony Byatt records the following:


This seems to have been a very short-lived company which operated from 23 Catherine Street, St. Albans from about 1908 to 1910. No further trace can be found in 1911 unless the firm had moved to another town. A large crown was used as a trade mark.

The comic card is dominant, with a consistently high numerical sequence, suggesting that this commenced with the number 1000. Later issues are set off rather attractively by means of a dark brown-grained frame about 6 mm. wide. The humour generally attains a good standard.

The most distinctive group of cards published are those signed 'Karaktus'. Drawn in a bold style they convey the message in no uncertain way, as can be seen from Karaktus No. 1 (illustrated). On the back of this card the sender wrote, "I hope you will never be like this". At least 26 cards were issued in this series, but does any collector know the identity of Karaktus?


The book The Dictionary of Picture Postcards in Britain 1894-1939, by A. W. Coysh repeats the St Albans address (again without a source) and mentions another company with the same name operating in London, with Bristol printers, in 1936.


St Albans Information


It is not clear where the information linking the company with 23 Catherine Street, St Albans, originally came from, as the cards I have seen only say "St Albans". The 1901 census shows the address to be a small boarding house. The 1911 census shows that 23 Catherine Street was then an empty shop and house. It is not listed in the 1908 or 1912 Kelly's Directory for Hertfordshire. At sometime in 1914/15 the photographer L. L. Christmas moved to the address from Queens Road, Watford, but there is no reason to associate him with the company. Searches of the British Newspaper Archives and Google come up with no relevant information but (at the time of drafting this) the online coverage of the Herts Advertiser (the main St Albans newspaper) stops at 1907. Later searches, once I had possible artist names, also drew blank.


Because of the small size and short lifetime of the Crown Publishing Company of St Albans, and the uncertainty of where the address information came from, any St Albans-based information may be hard to find.


Chasing the Crown Publishing Company


One possible avenue was if the Crown Publishing Company was related to any other near contemporary company with a similar name which also published comic postcards. The most significant false leads investigated were:

The Corona Publishing Company

This was a Blackpool based company, based in Coronation Street, Blackpool. but with London connections.  It produced a large number of seaside comic cards - and some of its cards published by "CPC" were described as being in the "Crown Series" during the First World War period.

Cards by "Spatz"

The artist "Spatz" (Fred Gothard) produced a number of distinctive cards from about August 1908, and the early ones used a crown logo. Most of these early cards were published by Thomas Hind of Huddersfield. "Spatz" is better known for his First World War cards published by E. Mack and J. Salmon.


In Search of other "Crown Series"


Many different publishers have produced post cards of many different types  which they have called the "Crown Series" but the following series, and an earlier unnamed series provided important clues.


A numbers of different cards appeared with the words "Crown Series" and either the number 1008 or 1009 on the back. Some of the cards were signed "F S." Some cards were also printed with no number or series names, and without a signature. The earliest were posted in August/September 1908.

They have a distinctive "1d postage abroad" back suggesting that the cards were printed by Delittle, Fenwick & Co. Postal dates suggests they were published shortly before the similar style cards published in St Albans.

These cards have the "F S" signature and are in a similar style and carry numbers between 1000 and 1007. They have normal post-1906 backs and while the number of dated cards is small, at least some were published months before the 1008/1009 cards.

The evidence points to these cards being the forerunner of the Crown Publishing Company, and I decided to concentrate on trying to identify "F S" and find out why his cards were published in St Albans.


Who was "F S" - The Possible candidates


The follow artists are known to have used the initials "F S" to sign their cards.

Fred Stone

A comparatively small number of cards produced for several publishers between 1904 and 1906.

"F S"

Produced over 200 cards in 1906/7, then numbers of signed cards fall off and unsigned reprints appear until 1916.

Frederick Spurgin (1884-1966)

A major post cards artist from 1910 into the 1920s, with many thousands of cards. He is known to have used pseudonyms.

In the post card collector world there are arguments about whether "F S" was Fred Stone or Fred Spurgin - or whether Fred Stone was a pseudonym for Fred Spurgin and in discussing the research one must remember that the aim is to find who was the artist(s) involved in the St Albans company and it is important not to record information in a way that could prejudice the findings by jumping to conclusions too early. As a result when discussing cards they will be described in terms of the most relevant of the three options.

The Fred Stone Cards


The task of identifying the work of Fred Stone in the period 1904-6 was relatively clear, although surviving cards are not very common. He produced several sets for the publisher Gale & Polden (who late published a number of "F S" cards), and single sets for Henry Moss & Co, the Davidson Brothers, and W & A K Johnston.  There is no evidence that any of these sets were ever reprinted.

"Nursery Rhyme" series published by Gale & Polden.

Set of six from the Henry Moss "Start Off" cards

"Fairy Tales up to date" series published by Davidson Brothers

While the name "Fred Stone" occurs multiple times in the census returns for 1901 and 1911 all attempts to find genealogy type records of a suitable artist have failed to produce a candidate. One false lead was related to a Fred Stone who was listed as living in Brighton in the 1901 census.


The "F S" cards


The main group of "F S" cards were published between June 1906 and January 1908 and most were associated with the London View Company Ltd. There were a variety of backs including the following:

Early Saxony back (16 sets +)

June 1906

Saxony Name A back (2 sets)

October 1906

Inland German back (4 sets)

May 1907

"F S Comic" series back (6 sets)

August 1907

LVC Logo back (4 sets)

September 1907 - July 1908

Inland Vertigen back (2 sets+)

December 1907

Late Saxony back (4 sets)

January 1908

Cards in each set could have no publisher name or the name of one of the following companies:

J W Asher & Co,  J Beagles, Blum & Degan, Gale & Polden, H Garner, F G Harwood & Co, London View Co Ltd, J Mandel, Morris Singer, Regal Publishing Co, and H Vertigen.

Information on each of these companies, the types of cards they published, and the "F S" cards they published, have been noted. However by far the commonest name, appearing on most sets first published in 1906 or 1907, was the London View Co Ltd so this company was explored in detail.


The London View Company Ltd.


The London View Company name first appears on views of London and various mainly south of London towns in 1905. Soon its name appeared on many other cards and it became a limited company in 1906. Its owners are currently unknown and it seems likely that it was a wholesaler which sold cards produced by other companies but with its name added. It is also likely that it was the London agent of an as yet unidentified Saxony printer. Bryant notes that it was the source of the very distinctive (and unsigned) moonlight romance cards and these were investigated in case the artist was "F S" - but this proved to be another false lead.


The important thing to note is that from mid 1906 virtually all the comic cards issued by the London View Company Ltd. were the ones already mentioned above and drawn by "F S."


What happened in August 1907?


The nature of the contract between "F S" and the London View Company Ltd is not obvious. It seems likely that he was either a free lance contracted to produce about a new set a week or that he was actually an employee of the company.  What is important is that in the summer of 1907 the London View Company went out of business. "F S" was presumably actively producing a series of new sets - and had undoubtedly got draft artwork ideas for other sets. In addition various sets would have been passing through the engraving and printing stages, and it seems that some of these were later reprinted circa 1908/9 by the "Green Back" publisher with a Lined Address back.


What is clear is that after August 1907 Fred Spurgin seemed to follow several different routes to get his cards published, in some case with cards in the "F S" style (and sometimes with the "F S" signature). The "Crown Publishing" trail is has already been described but the following trails were explored in parallel to see if they could help in identifying who "F S" was.


(1) The American Trail 1907/8


Late in 1907 or early in 1908 a number of "F S" sets (Take a Friend's Advice, Mistakes will occur, Who said lair? and Advice to ...) appeared in Britain published either as "The Popular Series" or with no series or publisher names. At about the same time the same sets were printed by the short-lived firm A. Q. Southwick of New York - including some modifications for the American market. Southwick also published three sets (Leap Year, Saucy Little Bird and Affinity) which are unsigned and which appear to have been produced specifically for the American market, but while it is possible it is more likely that the artist was not "F S". Two further U.S. sets (Dear Hubby and Dear Wifey) are very much in the "F S" style - so are almost certainly by him.

Mistakes will occur (or Happen)

Leap Year

Dear Wifey

Advice to ...

The "Popular Series" sets were also published in the United States by the Souvenir Post Card Co of New York. At about the same time the Souvenir Co joined up with Valentine & Co, of Dundee, and it has been suggested that some of the slightly later Souvenir Series of Valentine cards (such as the "I have just arrived" example, might be by "F S". I have not pursued it further.

I have just arrived at ...


In about 1909/1910 some cards from the "Popular Series" sets were reprinted by the "Green Back" publisher with a Writing Space II back.


(2)The Vertigen Trail


When the London View Co. Ltd. ceased it seems that H. Vertigen may have continued to publish "F S" cards (often unsigned) using the same Saxony publishers. When Vertigen ceased trading  some cards were reprinted by the "Green Back" publisher with a Writing Space dot back, including these:

"Holly box" Christmas Cards

Numbered 607x



(3) The Watkins Trail


Various members of the Watkins family were involved in post card publishing from Victorian times until about 1910. Bernard Watkins was a joint publisher, with the London View Company Ltd of the earliest "F S" cards.  Eustace Watkins produced many view cards of areas also covered by the London View Company - using the same printer and maybe the same photographer. In about June 1909, as a partner in Watkins & Krake, he started to published the distinctive cards by "Dauber" (now known as a pseudonym used by Fred Spurgin) and later in the year the unsigned Infantastic series - generally accepted to be by Fred Spurgin. In 1910 Eustace decided that selling motor cars was more profitable to selling post cards, and not long after some Dauber cards first published by Watkins & Krake were reprinted by the "Green Back" publisher with a Number Only [PC. I]  back.

A post card by "Dauber"

An Infantastic card

A "Dauber" Christmas Card


Kute Kiddies and other Children Cards


Grace Gebbie Weiderseim post cards of young children  appeared in England by 1908, and  by 1911 Fred Spurgin was producing and signing similar cards. There are three intermediate groups of unsigned cards which could well be by Fred Spurgin and these are discussed in Round faced children cards.


by Grace Gebbie Weiderseim

Kute Kiddies

Published by Inter-Art


Published by Watkins & Krake

Humorous Art Studies

Published by Shamrock & Co


(4) The "Green Back" Trail


The identity of the "Green Back" publisher is far from obvious, as all cards are printed with no publisher details or series names - although sometimes there is a country of printing and some of the later cards are numbered.  There are six different backs (Lined Address, Writing Space II, Writing Space Dot, Number Only [PC. I], Number Only [PC II], Entirely British) and at first sight the strategy seems to be to acquire art work from businesses that have closed down. At about annual intervals someone would go through the increasing collection of art work selecting which cards to reprint. Apart from the last batch (which included new cards signed by "Chalker" and "FP") which may well have been affected by the outbreak of the First World War and a change in printing arrangements, the only companies selected as a source of new material seems to have been companies which had been publishing "F S" cards before they went out of business!


In addition to the "F S" related cards which had previously been published by companies that were no longer trading there are many cards, some naturally falling into sets, which had not been previously published. Some of  these cards naturally fall into sets (about a dozen have so far been identified) including:


The General (modified to khaki ~1915)


Beside the Seaside  (one of about a dozen sets with big red lettering)

Adam & Eve (two sets and some related single cards)

The reasons why "F S"/Fred Spurgin could well be responsible foe these cards are discussed below.

Variant Copies of "It is very Breezy"

Original "F S" card


The "F S" card on the left was widely copied (almost certainly without permission) and many versions and variants exist. For details see It is very Breezy.

This does not seem to have happened to any significant extent with his other cards,


Copy by East London Printing Co

Redrawn mirror image with policeman


Copy signed Donald McGill



Copy signed "Comicus"

The appearance of signed Fred Spurgin cards in 1910

In the summer of 1910 it would seem that  Avenue Publishing tooks over the "Dauber" cards from Watkins and Krake - and also produced many children cards in the Paternoster series, signed by Spurgin. At about the same time Felix McGlennon (Shamrock & Co) produced cards with figures in a landscape signed by Spurgin and unsigned children cards in the Humorous Art Studies series.

A "Dauber" card in the Paternoster series 


One of the children cards in the Paternoster Series

A children card in the Humorous Art Studies series.


A Fred Spurgin card published by McGlennon


Inter-Art from 1911


In 1911 Fred Spurgin  produced a series of card sets - usually signed "F S" or "Fred Spurgin" for Inter-Art, possibly following on the success of the earlier unsigned set of Kute Kiddies.










He continued to produce cards until the beginning of 1916, including many relating to the war effort. when he switched his activities to publishing cards for Art and Humour - but these cards fall outside the scope of this current project unless they can be explicitly linked to his pre-1911 work.


Later Cards - including Art & Humour from 1916


In 1915 Maurice Spurgin (Fred's brother) founded the company Art and Humour and Fred became the principal artist. While I have sampled some of these later cards they are only of interest where they can be directly related back to Fred's pre-1911 work, or the unsigned "Green Back" cards. What is of particular relevance is that many of the cards were issues with no publisher name, or with the name of an alternative "publisher" - usually keeping the set title and reference number.



Art & Humour finally closed in 1926 but this was not the end of Fred Spurgin's career.

Red Riding Hood - one of Spurgin's many books for children.

He produced postcards for other companies, greetings cards and children's books. He worked as a commercial artist for the Rothman tobacco company, adverts for products such as Bovril and Andrews Liver Salts, and theatrical posters. He continue working until his death at the age of 86, in 1966.

An Fred Spurgin Birthday card

A Spurgin jigsaw puzzle published by Tuck

The Adventures of Lavinia Fitz-Aubyn

Illustration in The Sphere, 1940



 But who actually "published" Fred Spurgin's Cards?


In order to understand what was going on - particularly in the period between the failure of the London View Company and the cards for Inter-Art and Art & Humour - we need to know, at various points in time,  who commissioned Fred Spurgin to do the art work, who instructed the printers to publish it and who decided what publisher details (if any) should appear on the address side of each card. This is particularly relevant as many Spurgin cards were being printed with several alternative "publisher" names or with no publisher details at all.

  • 1904-6: In the case of the earliest cards by "F Stone," Spurgin was apparently acting as a typical free-lance artist touting examples of his work to various publishers, and the cards were printed in the same way as other cards being sold by the same publisher. Only in one case (Gale & Polden) did he succeed in selling more than one set. This could be considered as normal for a new artist finding his feet in the post card market.

  • 1906-7: A large number of "F S" cards appeared with the "Early Saxony" backs - all apparently printed by the same unknown printer. Cards were supplied with either no publisher details or one of up to about half a dozen different "Publisher" names. The commonest "publisher" name was the London Views Co. Ltd, and it seems very likely that this company was a wholesaler who was the agent for the Saxony printer. This suggests that Spurgin was commissioned to provide a steady stream of "F S" cards.

  • Summer 1907: It would seem that the London View Co. Ltd. decided to switch the printing of the "F S" cards to a German printer - with backs showing either the London View Co Ltd as publisher, or with no publisher name. [Perhaps the switch of publisher was triggered by increasing financial problems.]

  • August 1907: The London View Co Ltd goes out of business and there may have been problems distributing some of the cards printed in Germany - perhaps because they had been printed but not paid for. The following happened after the failure.

    • The name Vertigen, who had previously regularly on "F S" cards. appeared on new unsigned cards in the "F S" style, and these cards often also appear with no publisher name. This continued until about 1909 - when Vertigen also closed down.

    • Cards in the Popular and Crown series were printed with no publisher name and some versions had no series name either.

    • A number of sets were printed for different "publishers" by Delittle Fenwick & Co with the unusual 1d postage applies back - when one might expect different firms to select different printers. unless the artist recommended a particular printer..

    • When the series of Dauber cards moved from the failing Watkins & Krake to Avenue Publishing the card numbering and general format remained unchanged - only the series title (Satire to Paternoster) and the publisher names changed.

    • An unnamed company reprinted "F S" cards which had first been produced by "publishers" which had gone out of business. There is no clear evidence that this unnamed company did the same for failed "publishers" who had not sold "F S" cards.

    • The same unnamed company produced increasing numbers of new (i.e not earlier published) comic cards which were all unsigned but tended to resemble that general "F S" style. All the cards (both new and reprinted) were rolled over with a new selection being made approximately annually. The last batch (1916) was undoubtedly affected by the war.

    • The first cards signed F Spurgin,  in 1910, by the "publisher" McGlennon, appear to have come with or without the publisher name (more examples needed to be sure) and the far more prolific series produced by Inter-Art (from 1911) and Art & Humour (from 1916) published signed cards - which were often also sold with no publisher name - or the name of another company.

  • The apparently confusing situation arises because there is a tendency to assume that the publisher  responsible for commissioning Spurgin, getting the art work printed, getting the address side of the card printed, and then selling the cards to the retail market is the "publisher" name printed on the card. All the above observations could be explained if there is a single unnamed publisher whose sole task is to get Spurgin's cards published. This unnamed publisher (the "Green back" company) acts as agent acting between the artist, the printer and the named "publisher" who will be selling to the retail market - and the resulting cards could range from anonymous mixed sets of comic cards through to specially commissioned sets for a given named "publisher."

  • The effect of such an agent (who might be Fred Spurgin himself, or perhaps his brother Maurice) is that Fred Spurgin keeps control of the copyright and that if, for example, one of the customer companies fell by the wayside, the cards could easily be reprinted for other customers, with or without a "publisher" name. While a few special cases have been noted this arrangement means that very likely that Fred Spurgin was the artist responsible for the anonymous mass of comic cards printed on the "Green Back Trail."

  • If this theory is correct the most likely time for the agency to start was when the London Views Company Ltd. collapsed in August 1907. Fred Spurgin would be left with a lot of work in progress, possibly including art work with the printer associated with printing that had not been paid for. Fred would have quickly discovered that he had no effective control over much of the art work already published (only  one of the many sets with the Early Saxony back were ever reprinted) and decided he wanted more control of his own output.

  • The most likely time for the agency to finish was in 1916 - as clearly the war had forced a change in the printing arrangements. In effect what might have happened is that the agency became part of the Art and Humour Co, managed by Maurice Spurgin and with Fred Spurgin the main artist. Art & Humour seems to have acted on the same basis as the earlier agency, except that most cards were now signed by the artist and some of the cards now had the proper publisher name on.

And to Conclude ....


This project set out to find out about the Crown Publishing Co, of St Albans, and its artist(s) and on the key questions it has only been partially successful:

  • It is now clear that the artist for the "Crown Series" cards published in St Albans was a very successful post cards artist called Fred Spurgin.

  • Spurgin was a very versatile artist, who produced cards in various styles for different markets, and was almost certainly capable of being the artist signing the "Karaktus" cards, as he was later when he signed an equally distinctive series of cards as "Dauber."  My view is that "Karaktus" was Spurgin - but I would be prepared to consider any well-researched alternative named artists.

  • No evidence has been found from contemporary St Albans records to confirm Spurgin's presence in St Albans around 1909, or to confirm the Catherine Street Address.

However at the same time the research has filled in a poorly documented period in the career of Fred Spurgin, between the closure of the London View Company Ltd in 1907 (involving many cards signed "F S") and the appearance of many cards signed "Fred Spurgeon from about 1911. IWhile it is only theory and more work needs to be done, it now looks as if there was an agent (perhaps Fred Spurgin and/or his brother Maurice) who effectively controlled the copyright of Fred's artwork and arranged for cards to be printed with various company names appearing as the publisher, or with no publisher information. This included perhaps a thousand unsigned "Green back" cards between about 1908 and 1916. The "Green back" company could have ended up in 1915 as the Art & Humour Co, run by Maurice Spurgin, which also promoted Fred Spurgin's cards and made them available with no publisher - or with an alternative publisher name.


The research has also been very useful by demonstrating that most post card collectors (and most post card sellers on ebay) loose at lot by overlooking the wealth of information on the backs of the cards, This research show that by carefully looking a the backs of cards, even in cases of unsigned cards with no publisher details, can provide valuable historical information.

Note: This is a draft text for comment, and some of the supporting pages (follow the blue links) need updating.  In some areas (for instance the "Inland Postage" backs of the early "F S" cards) more work needs to be done. In addition some more "Topic" pages will be added to the main menu, exploring specific cases, and looking at differences in engraving methods, etc.