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The Lantern Slides of Old London

October 15, 2013
by the gentle author

Two years ago, I became enraptured by a hundred-year-old collection of four thousand lantern slides. They were once used for educational lectures by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Institute in Spitalfields. When Stefan Dickers became archivist there, he discovered the slides in dusty old boxes – abandoned and forgotten since they became obselete. Yet over the last decade, it has become apparent that these slides, which were ignored for so long, are one of the greatest treasures in the collection. And it is my delight to be the one responsible for publishing a selection of these wonderful images in print for the first time in my London Album this week.

When I was first offered the opportunity of presenting these lantern slides which have been unseen for generations, I was overwhelmed by the number of pictures and did not know where to start. The first to catch my fancy were the ancient signs and symbols, dating from an era before street numbering located addresses and lettered signs advertised trades to Londoners.

Before long, I grew spellbound by the slide collection because, alongside the famous landmarks and grand occasions of state, there were pictures of forgotten corners and of ordinary people going about their business. It was a delight to discover hundreds of images of things that people do not usually photograph and I was charmed to realise that the anonymous photographers of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society were as interested in pubs as they were in churches.

The more I studied the glass slides, the more joy I found in these arcane pictures, since every one contained the rich potential of hidden stories, seducing the imagination to flights of fancy regarding the ever-interesting subject of Old London. Once I had published The Signs of Old London, I realised there were many other such sets to be found among the slides, as a result of the systematic recording of London which underscored the original project by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, a hundred years ago, and parallels my own work in Spitalfields Life, today.

If you cast your eye over the list of categories at the end of this story, that I chose to arrange these slides, you will see that I arranged them quite literally – in terms of doors, or night, or dinners, or streets, or staircases. I did this because I was interested to explore how the pictures might speak to me and to you, the readers. No evidence has survived to indicate in what sequence or order they were originally shown and it was my intention to avoid imposing any grand narratives of power or poverty, although these pictures do speak powerfully of these subjects. Recognising that objects and images are capable of many interpretations, I am one that prefers museums which permit the viewer to decide for themselves, rather than be presented with artefacts subject to a single meaning within an ordained story and so, with the Album, we have presented the pictures and invited the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Equally, in publishing the slides, we chose not to clean them up or remove imperfections and dirt. Similarly, we did not standardise the colour to black or a uniform sepia, either. Instead, we have cherished the subtle variations of hues present in these slides and savoured the beautiful colour contrasts between them, when laid side by side. There is a melancholic poetry in these shabby images, in which their damage and their imperfections speak of their history, and I came to glory in the patina and murk.

Above all, in publishing these pictures in my Album, I wanted to communicate the pleasure I have found in scrutinising them at length and entering another world imaginatively through the medium of this sublime photography.

Today I publish a serendipitous selection of glass slides which fascinate me but that did not make it into the book – to provide you with a little idle distraction to pass the time until the Album is published later this week.

In the Inns of Court

At Eltham Palace

At Euston Station

The Anchor at Bankside

Crocodiles at the Natural History Museum

Reading Room at the British Museum

Chelsea Pensioner

In Fleet St

In Fleet St

St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell

Between the inner & outer dome of St Paul’s

Along the Embankment

The Old Dick Whittington, Clothfair, Smithfield

Firemen take a tea break

Lightermen on the Thames

Flood in Water St, Tower of London

The White Tower, London’s oldest building

Glass slides courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

Take a look at these sets of the glass slides of Old London

The Nights of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

The Staircases of Old London

The High Days & Holidays of Old London

The Dinners of Old London

The Shops of Old London

The Streets of Old London

The Fogs & Smogs of Old London

The Chambers of Old London

The Tombs of Old London

The Bridges of Old London

The Forgotten Corners of Old London

The Thames of Old London

The Statues & Effigies of Old London

The City Churches of Old London

The Docks of Old London

The Tower of Old London

14 Responses leave one →
  1. October 15, 2013

    These are truly amazing… thankyou so much!!!

  2. October 15, 2013

    How bucolic Eltham Place looks. And I remember when the Natural History Museum looked just like that: we often went there on a Sunday afternoon. What an evocative collection.

  3. October 15, 2013

    Just look at those massive telegraph poles above the rooftops in the St Pauls images. And we think that satellite dishes disfigure the skyline today! Somehow things really don’t change, the new is always causing problems …

  4. Paul Kelly permalink
    October 15, 2013

    As a serving Firefighter myself , you pleased me with the picture of the Firemen on their tea break!

    I’m not sure if one can access the inner/outer dome of St.Paul’s these days. Interesting if you can.

    I read recently there is a movement to get the Euston archway and columns resurrected and that the columns when broken up were thrown into the Regents canal and were now being retrieved and reassembled. John Betjeman , when alive and Poet Laureate was most vociferous in defence of the archway and strongly against its dismantling. It will be great to see it back in place.

  5. Bruce Eames permalink
    October 15, 2013

    You have outdone yourself Gentle Author – these pictures are like a time machine and I find them incredible !

  6. October 15, 2013

    Your remarkable find of the photograph of Ye Olde Dick Whittington in Smithfield’s Cloth Fair inspired me to look for others. I found some here:
    http://oldebreweryrecorder.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/ye-olde-dick-whittington-public-house.html

  7. Martin Guilfoyle permalink
    October 15, 2013

    I find these images just amazing. What an absolutely fantastic archive. I wonder if anyone would have even thought that one day some of these images may even end up in some type of augmented reality on a handheld wireless device. One day, you will be able to walk along the street and use your camera phone, point at a building and with the aid of an app display these old images exactly where you standing.

    Never in their wildest imagination could the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society even have thought of the tremendous value they were capturing for generations to come.

    Thank you GA for all your work, just as valuable as the original Society.

  8. October 15, 2013

    These are magnificent photographs. So pleased you have left them in their original state!

  9. John permalink
    October 15, 2013

    Great photographs! Thanks so much for sharing them.

  10. Gary permalink
    October 15, 2013

    When those slides were in use they were packed in 12 inch long tins with a script in with them so that the presenter could narrate the story, clicking when he wanted the next slide shown.
    Perhaps somewhere in the Institute a bundle of yellowing papers may still be around.
    I have sets of those old slides that my grandfather used in his day, mainly of countries of the world. When I retire I will sort them out. I will see you at your book launch on Friday.
    Gary

  11. October 16, 2013

    I love all these photos you have access to and always look closely at the ones of east end street life, always in the hope of seeing one of my ancestors! Thanks for sharing.

  12. barbara permalink
    October 17, 2013

    these are absolutely amazing … having grown up in London in the ’50′s and 60′s and part of the 70′s many of these places were still around then

    remember the old bombsites where I lived and often walked home in the Summer from school picking the flowers from the bombsite gardens and taking them home to my mother xxx
    lovely memories of lovely old London xxx

    fantastic, thank you xx

  13. Jules Frusher permalink
    October 18, 2013

    Fantastic collection of photos!! I could look at them for hours. My family on my father’s side used to live around the east end during the late 1800s/early 1900s so it’s great to look at some of these places and wonder whether they saw them too! Thank you so much much for sharing them :-)

  14. Diane Blackwell permalink
    October 20, 2013

    Thank you very much for everything you write. I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate all the hard work you put into your incredible website, and to say how happy the various articles make me, and now my mother too. Thank you!

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