Magic lantern slides of Victorian mill workers

After forty years of buying magic lantern slides, I’m trying really hard to stop it, so I was really pleased to be offered a swap recently instead of a purchase. The slides that I parted with are no longer of interest to me but, to many people, the subject matter of those that I acquired is rather dry and not worth a second look. To me though, from a social history perspective, they are fascinating.

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The set of fifty slides is called ‘Linen Manufacture’. I can hear you yawning already! They were produced by the Aberdeen based slide maker George Washington Wilson, probably in the late 1880s, and are high resolution, pin sharp photos of the many processes required to turn crops into cloth and, more importantly, of the people who did it.

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I always assumed that linen was a generic term for cloth but it’s not, it’s a specific type, made from flax. Unfortunately, the set of slides doesn’t have its original script (and I can’t locate a copy) but, helpfully, each one is captioned. I thought it would be easy to locate where the photos were taken by identifying the UK’s main linen making areas but it turns out that production was widespread. Indeed, wherever the atmosphere was damp, linen was produced. The only clue is one photo with two quite distinctive Church towers in the background. I’ve provided a close-up of this, in the hope that someone might be able to identify the town.

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The slides show details of the linen making process with machine names that are probably lost in time …. tow breaker, stone mangle, web maker, twine ball maker etc. and was produced as a ‘lecture’ set, probably for the late Victorian, self-improvement movement. The lack of machine safety guards is striking. We know that there were many accidents in the textile mills and the noise of the clanking and clattering machinery was, quite literally, deafening. Until closed as a cost-saving measure, Queen Street Mill in Burnley, Lancashire, would occasionally demonstrate its belt-driven looms and just a small number of them in operation meant that normal conversation was impossible because of the noise.

So, this set of slides gives us a glimpse into the lives of tens of thousands of Victorian mill workers. Is this a dry, boring subject? Not in my view.

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