Victorian London through the Magic Lantern

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I’ve been pondering (not a word you hear very often) on why some of my books sell better than others. Of the seventy that I’ve published using historical photographs and Victorian guide books from my archive, my favourite is ‘Victorian London through the Magic Lantern’. The text is taken from a very detailed tourist guide written in 1871 and the photos are mainly from late Victorian slides and are full of activity ….. horse buses, barges on the Thames, street sellers etc. with poverty and wealth in evidence ….. but I sell very few copies.

At the time that the slides were produced, most people in the UK lived in rural communities and wouldn’t, in their lifetimes, have visited their nearest city, never mind their Nation’s capital. Even when we came to live in Lancashire in the 1980s, some of the elderly locals had never been to nearby towns and the big city, Manchester, just twenty miles away, might as well have been on another planet!

So where am I going with this? Well, in the 19th century, most people could only experience the world beyond their immediate environs through photographs and paintings, not personal experience. For Victorians, a magic lantern lecture at their Village / Church Hall or Mechanics Institute could show them different and often strange foreign cultures, lifestyles, races, religions and customs. A slide show of London, home to their Queen, epicentre of their Empire, with grand buildings and traffic-clogged streets, would have been particularly exciting and a must-see event.

So why is my London booklet one of my slowest sellers, while those about English towns and villages fly (well walk) off the digital shelves? Has London lost its appeal? The answer might be that whilst London is still fascinating to visit, perhaps, from a family and local history point of view, people find it difficult to identify their past connection with a cosmopolitan modern city. London is undoubtedly loved by many of its residents but its history isn’t ‘theirs’. Conversely, small towns and villages where our ancestors lived are often still recognisable as the places they were one or two hundred years ago. In a globalised world, where races and cultures mix freely and families, like mine, are spread across the continents, our identity is very important to us and one facet of this, is a place we can call ‘ours’.  

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