Magic lantern slides of a Victorian morality (or immorality) tale

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In the 1890s, when the magic lantern slide industry was in its heyday, the largest manufacturers churned out huge quantities of story sets, a sequence of slides telling a tale in comic strip format but with live actors and an accompanying script to be read to the audience whilst the images were projected onto the screen. Virtually all of the stories were on safe moral ground, nothing controversial and usually teaching rights and wrongs (well, just the wrongs, actually) of drinking, smoking, gambling etc.

In this predictable moral climate, the subject of today’s post is extraordinary. It’s a set of nine slides called ‘The Level Crossing’ and the story is as follows …..

  • the local village beauty, Mercy, and her sailor boyfriend, Bill, plan to marry
  • Bill goes to sea and word gets back that his ship has foundered in a storm with all hands lost
  • Mercy finds that she is pregnant but now has no husband to support her ,so is facing life in the workhouse
  • the local Squire, in his eighties, who has always fancied Mercy, asks her to marry him
  • she reluctantly agrees
  • having married the Squire, fiancé Bill, who has survived the shipwreck, returns to the village

So far, we’ve had premarital sex, an illegitimate child, a maritime disaster, an old man lusting after a girl young enough to be his grand-daughter ….. and we’re only on slide number seven!

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How does it end? The Squire, in his love for Mercy, selflessly throws himself under a train at the level crossing, so that she and Bill can marry, bring up their child together and live happily ever after.

Who said the Victorians were prudes? If this was a morality tale, I’m not sure what lessons it was preaching! I’ll let you decide.

The three slides illustrated show Mercy with Bill before he goes to sea, Mercy (now married) hearing the news that Bill is still alive and on his way home, and her husband, the Squire, committing suicide.

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