Curator and historian Paul Gaunt discovered what he thinks is Victorian Spiritualist James Johnson Morse's original 'Magic Lantern slide projector'. Alongside the projector were hundreds of Morse's glass slides, many documenting well-known pioneers of Spiritualism, including a rare spirit photograph of Emma Hardinge Britten.

Hidden in the cellar of the Arthur Findlay College amongst the boxes and paperwork lay an undiscovered gem; the Britten Museum curator, Paul Gaunt, had recently begun clearing out the archives when he stumbled across a Victorian slide projector and boxes full of glass slides.

A little bit of research revealed that the projector most probably belonged to a well-known Spiritualist pioneer, James Johnson Morse. Details of how it found its way to the College are a little sketchy; we believe it was most probably donated to the SNU by his daughter, Florence. Morse was a founder of the Spiritual­ists' National Federation and a former SNU Vice-President. It is documented that Morse travelled and toured many countries in the late 1890s; a vast collection of the slides document travels, psychic photography and many portraits of well-known Spiritualists of the time.

Morse was known for his magic lantern shows, as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Today the idea of a slide show isn't exactly very exciting but I should imagine it would have been quite an event to attend in Morse's time. Many would gather for magic lantern shows, enticed by the chance to see illustrated lectures on subjects of popular interest; in our case Spiritualism would have taken centre stage! Quite possibly the venue for the show could have been a Spiritualist church.

 

The magic lantern works by shining a bright light from the projector housing through a large lens; this then travels into the chosen glass slide located in the holder at the front of the unit. The image from the slide is then extended through a series of smaller lenses (front brass section), which enables the user to then focus and 'project' the image on to a large blank screen or wall.

These slides offer us a rare insight into the kind of images you might have seen projected by Morse at one of his lantern shows. Of noticeable interest are the 'spirit photographs', particularly one of Emma Hardinge Britten, which upon research shows her portrait allegedly with the arms of famous composer 'Beethoven' draped around her shoulders.

Many others show a fairly standard Victorian portrait but with phenomena evident around the sitter; this would not have been visible at the time of the portrait but would have been an incredible sight for the sitter upon viewing the final print! This discovery now means that the Museum can add to its archive of images. New additions introduce images of early Spiritualist Churches, Lyceum street marches, SNU committees, spirit photography and a wealth of unseen images of early pioneers, including some fascinating images of the Davenport brothers.

The projector is still in working order; it will now be permanently on display at the Britten Museum & Library at Stansted Hall. All of Morse's slides have now been digitally archived by Redwoods and will also be available to view at the Museum digitally.

For a more in-depth analysis of the slides and projector history please subscribe free to Paul's online journal, 'The Pioneer'.