‘Billy’s Rose’ magic lantern slides

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I’ve talked before about sets of magic lantern slides that tell a story. These were mass-produced by companies such as Bamforth’s of Holmfirth in Yorkshire. They built a stage set with a painted backdrop and a few props, positioned actors on it and took a photo, changed the backdrop / props / actors’ positions, took another photo and so on. In the case of Bamforth’s, the building where they were made still exists and I understand that it has recently been purchased by a local family who are very familiar with its historical significance. It will be interesting to see what they do with it. Incidentally, the on-screen ‘stars’ were usually volunteers from the village of Holmfirth, rather than professional actors.

Some of the stories were familiar to audiences as poems, prior to being published as magic lantern slide sets, so illustrating them in dramatic poses, in colour, was a very successful business strategy for slide manufacturers. This particular story, ‘Billy’s Rose’, would have tugged at the heart strings of any audience and, indeed, still does today.

Billy, a young boy, is dying in a filthy garret (attic) and his sister Nell asks if he has one last wish. He remembers that, last Summer, they had been taken by the Sunday School Mission to the countryside, where he had seen some beautiful roses and he tells Nell that he would like one to take to heaven with him. That night, she runs through the city streets, barefoot in the snow, trying to find the place where they had seen the flowers. Eventually she collapses from exhaustion. A rich lady, passing in a carriage, throws away, in anger, a rose that her husband has just given her. It lands next to Nell who believes it has come from heaven, in answer to her prayers.

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The end of the story is that Nell dies where she lies, not knowing that her brother Billy has also passed away in the garret. The last verse of the poem is …..

“Billy’s died and gone to Glory, so has Billy’s sister Nell,

and I would like to think that they are in the land where angels dwell,

and that when they met in heaven, after all their earthly woes,

Nelly kissed her little brother and said “Billy, here’s your rose”.

….. and the moral is? We middle class Victorians, watching a magic lantern show in comfort and with full stomachs, should do something about the grinding child poverty that we know exists but which we choose to ignore!

The three slides shown here are Billy dying with Nell at his side, the lady throwing the rose from the carriage and Nell dead in the snow.

This story can still touch an audience today.

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To see similar posts, please visit my website Magic Lantern World and to receive new posts automatically, just click ‘follow’.

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