Abraham Auty, the writer of these postcards, arrived in Gelsenkirchen from Yorkshire only 2 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo – in just over a month Germany would be enemy territory. His first postcard, addressed to his son in Wakefield was written and postmarked June 30th. 1914. Assuming he is the Abraham Auty whose birth in 1860 was registered in the West Yorkshire village of Emley, he would have been 54 years old at the time he was dispatched by his employer to the Ruhrgebiet to demonstrate an automatic coal cutting machine to prospective customers. In the 1911 census Auty was described as a coal miner resident in Morley, Yorkshire. To have been entrusted with this task suggests he was well regarded by his employer. It represents one small episode in the immensely important trading relationship between Britain and Germany that in the previous decade had developed to the point where each nation was the other’s major trading partner. Britain at that time still retained a formidable manufacturing capacity but it had been comfortably overtaken by that of Germany – the difference, just as today, was made up by financial services where London held the advantage.
On the first postcard of a colliery in Gelsenkirchen, Abraham assures his family of his safe arrival, explains that there are 27 collieries in the town, and says he expects to stay between 2 and 3 weeks. The following Saturday Abraham writes home again, spreading his pencilled message across a handful of postcards consigned to the mail in an envelope. He is missing the comforts of home and the absence of tea occupies his mind (“But, But, But, No Tea, Tea, Tea”). On Sunday he observes the local population at leisure with a disapproving eye. “Sunday I am sorry to say is a day of amusements – acrobats, wrestling, racing and parade(s). Church and state militarism all round.” Abraham places a high value on religious observance and writes, “Last Sunday I went to Protestant and Catholic (worship), singing Latin hymns and Litany. Burning incense till we could not breath.” He finds the hot and thundery weather unsettling and even the familiar presence of the Salvation Army brings no comfort – “They are as bad as the rest for talk – you cannot tell what they say any more than interpreting thunder.”
When he gets to work, Abraham sends a full account to his family as follows. “I have cut for the first time today. We are at an inclination of 25 degrees. Machine would shatter to face bottom if not prevented by timber, etc. Our difficulty here was getting oil to the crank pin. I think we have overcome it as I have cut 20 metres German (over 20 yards English) without oiling machine. So if it cuts downhill and keeps its oil we are then very likely to sell 4 machines to go to Silesia, 400 miles away from here.” With the Great War about to break out we can safely assume the Silesia deal never came to pass. Abraham’s impressions of life in Germany are never less than fascinating and expressed in lively prose tinged with humour. As paterfamilias and a man of strong religious principles he remained concerned that his absence from home might lead to backsliding on the part of his offspring – witness the scribbled instruction on the face of a postcard “Eliz. H. Auty go to Chapel in Market St. Sunday”.