Instruction as home entertainment:The Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series

This article was published in The Magic Lantern Journal, Number 25, December 2020, pp4-7 and was based on a paper read at the conference ‘Camera Education: Photographic Histories of Visual Literacy, Schooling, and the Imagination’, at the Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester, June 2020.
Box for Our Colonies, c.1906. W. Butcher & Sons

Among the thousands of magic lantern slides offered up for sale on auction sites every year, there are always hundreds of chromolithographic transfer slides. They are often of hackneyed fairy tales or cliched subjects, so they are not highly sought after. But the fact that they are so readily available, one hundred and twenty years after they were first produced, indicates that they must have played an important role in the visual culture of the period.

One of the biggest producers of these slides was the British firm W. Butcher & Sons.  In November 1900 the magic lantern trade journal announced that Butcher’s were:

at present making a special feature of lithographic slides pertaining to the Boer war. Of course slides made by this process cannot for a moment compare with photographic slides, but all things considered they are good of their kind, and with, say, an oil light, will look very well when projected on a screen. These sets of slides are known as the Junior Lecturers’ series, and are sold at a low price.[1]

Like many British magic lantern firms, Butcher’s was vertically integrated. It imported and manufactured apparatus — the ‘device’ — and also produced the imagery which their lanterns would project — the ‘content’. Within a few years they had given the series the brand name ‘Primus’.

The genius of the Primus series was that it brought together several different new industrial processes and emerging social developments into the one package. The slides themselves were an offshoot of the massive chromolithography industry which had been growing in popularity throughout the nineteenth century. The image was drawn in separate colours onto multiple stones, but instead of being printed in registration onto paper or cardboard for posters or packaging, the layers of pigment were printed onto a transparent decal, and then transferred to a square of glass.[2] The decorated boxes in which the slides were packaged made use of developments in cardboard manufacture and offset printing in coloured inks to look attractive in the retail space of a fancy goods store, and to be of a comparable price to the toys and games with which they were competing.

Through chromolithographic transfer a diverse range of different pictorial sources from different periods could be brought together into sequences of visually homogenous images. The format of eight numbered and boxed slides could be expanded progressively into different series and sets, comprising a large ‘library’ in many different genres. Eventually there were almost 200 different boxed sets.[3]

The series was aimed not at the assembly hall but at the home parlour. Most importantly, the Primus series was interactive, children could unfold the prepared readings included in the box and read them as the corresponding slide was passed though the lantern. Supported by this systematic structure a child with a ‘Primus’ lantern and slides could become a ‘Junior Lecturer’ for their friends and proud parents. As their catalogue claimed:

The colouring is of the finest quality and is very transparent, so that the slides give perfect results with the minimum amount of light, making them very suitable for home use where incandescent gas or electric light bulb is the only illuminant available. The sets are all carefully selected, and offer a varied choice of humorous, historical, educational, and religious subjects suitable for both young and old. The slides are prepared in many instances from specially taken photographs — others from drawings by famous artists. In every case the draughtsmanship and colouring leave nothing to be desired. […] [They] are accompanied by a well written and interesting lecture.[4]

The series was launched with five sets about the Boer War.[5] As many scholars have argued, the Boer War was a media watershed because public demand for up-to-the-minute war news catalysed well established media such as the telegraph, illustrated newspapers, music halls and the magic lantern with new technologies such as the cinematograph and half-tone newspaper reproductions. This produced an emergent media space where different kinds of immediate experience were developed for audiences who were reconstituting themselves in new ways.[6]

‘The Boer War of 1900’, advertisement in The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger, November 1900, x.

A 1901 newspaper advertisement from the Victorian town of Castlemaine illustrates the changing structure of this crowded media space very well. It promises Australian made films of that year’s Federation celebrations as well as ‘All the Latest War Films’ from South Africa. But more encouragingly for the audience, it also promises ‘No dreary lecture, no magic lantern’.[7] In this context, while capitalising on the established educational prestige of the lantern lecture, the Junior Lecturer slides were also careful to place themselves not in the ‘dreary’ world of old, but in the new world of ‘the most interesting entertainment’.

‘Theatre Royal, Castlemaine’, Mount Alexander Mail, Victoria, 7 February 1901, 3.

To keep ‘up to the minute’ Butcher’s contracted with illustrated newspapers such as the The Graphic and The Sphere. The Sphere was a new illustrated newspaper that had begun in late 1900 as a response to the public’s appetite for images of the War. The monochrome paintings made by the special war artists it sent to South Africa were translated into square colour slides by artists for the Junior Lecturers’ Series. 

‘The Latest from the Front. Colonel Thorneycroft’s Gallantry at Spion Kop’, The Sphere, 24 February 1900, 8.
Thorneycroft at Spion Kop, c1901, Chromolithographic transfer slide number 12, ‘The Siege of Ladysmith’, chapter 2, The Boer War of 1900, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.

Such immediacy continued to be an aspect of the Junior Lecturers’ Series. For instance, in November 1901 both the death of Queen Victoria and the accession of King Edward was marked in a trade advertisement for ‘New Lithographic Slides’.[8]

‘New Lithographic Slides’, advertisement in The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger, November 1901, v.

 Fourteen years later, with the beginning of the First World War, the series once more began to produce up to the minute historical sets. Eventually numbering ten sets, twice as many as for the Boar War, The World War slides once again relied on illustrated newspapers such as The Sphere, but illustrated newspapers no longer used paintings by war artists, but photographs by press photographers.

‘The Crowd Outside Buckingham Palace Awaiting Britain’s Declaration of War’, The Sphere, August 1914.
The Crowd at Buckingham Palace, August. 4, 1914, 1915. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 4 from ‘A Call to Arms’, chapter 1, The World War, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.

However, the set on which I now want to concentrate is not ‘historical’, but putatively educational. That set is ‘Australia’, the third ‘chapter’ in the series Our Colonies, which also included Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa. Although produced around 1906, the Australian set seems to reside in some a-temporal time of empire — a time which was already disappearing because of Federation in 1901. To provide context for this anachronistic colonial imagery I want to look at three other British and American lantern slide firms who sent photographers to Australia during this period.

Firstly, in the late 1890s the Scottish firm George Washington Wilson hired an Aberdeen photographer Fred Hardie to travel by train and horse cart across Australia. He eventually produced five sets of photographic slide lectures with accompanying readings, one on each colony except Western Australia.[9]

Secondly, between 1909 and 1910 the artist and photographer Hugh Fisher travelled though Australia on an itinerary organised by the geographer Halford Mackinder. He was gathering lantern slides for the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee who were producing forty-two lectures to show the empire to British children. Of these, the committee eventually produced eight lectures on Australasia.[10]

Although part of the Colonial Office, The Visual Instruction Committee had to enter the highly competitive business of lantern slide retailing as a semi-commercial body in order to manufacture and distribute their slides. Their slides and textbooks were made and sold by Butcher’s main rival, the firm Newton & Co. The entire set of 489 hand coloured photographic slides from Australasian could be purchased from Newton’s for 39 pounds — a hefty nineteen pence a slide. For the ordinary consumer this price compared unfavourably to the boxes of eight Butcher’s Junior Lecturers’ slides which retailed from a mere two shillings a box, less than a sixth of the price.[11]

Thirdly, in 1907 and 1908 the American stereograph company Underwood & Underwood sent their photographer James Ricalton to New Zealand and Australia.[12] The stereographs he shot became the ‘Australia and New Zealand Tour’ within the Underwood & Underwood ‘Travel System’. This system boxed printed guides, maps, stereoscopes and sets of sequenced stereographs into faux book bindings.

Like the other firms, Underwood & Underwood also saw value in a systematic global library of stereoscopic and lantern views aimed at educating children. A few of the stereographs Ricalton shot became a small part of their massive visual library marketed as: The World Visualized for the Class Room: 1000 travel studies through the stereoscope and in lantern slides classified and cross reference for 25 different school subjects. Of the 1000 slides in the set, a grand total of nineteen, less than two percent, came from Australasia and Oceania[13].

However, when it comes to Our Colonies, unlike George Washington Wilson, the Colonial Office, or Underwood & Underwood, Butcher’s did not send a photographer to Australia. Nor did they contract with specific magazines such as The Sphere and The Graphic as they had for their historical sets. And nor, as they claimed in their publicity, were the slides prepared from ‘specially taken photographs’ or ‘drawings by famous artists’. Rather, the images seem to have been found, more or less at random, from within the vast pool of colonial imagery which had been produced and reproduced over the previous thirty years, and which was swirling around in the London printing trade.  

The Illustrated London News was one useful source for the slides. For instance, an engraving from 1876 of the Prince of Wales killing a tiger did duty forty years later as the source both for a slide in the set ‘India’, and in the set ‘Wild Animals and How They Are Hunted’. And another Illustrated London News engraving, the entirely fanciful Kangaroo Hunting in Australia of 1876, also did duty thirty years later to represent Australian sport in Our Colonies.

Shooting a Tiger, c1905. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 5, ‘Wild Animals and How They Are Hunted’, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.
Tiger Hunting with Elephant, c1905. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 32, ‘India’, chapter 4, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.
‘The Prince of Wales Tiger-Shooting with Sir Jung Bahadoor: The Critical Moment. From a Sketch by One of Our Special Artists’, Illustrated London News, 25 March 1876.
‘Kangaroo-Hunting in Australia’, Illustrated London News, 9 September 1876.
A Kangaroo Hunt, c1906. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 23 from ‘Australia’, chapter 3, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.

The opening image of the set, ‘Government House Melbourne’, comes from twenty years before 1906, from an 1886 book Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil.[14] This introductory slide demonstrates the extraordinary laziness of the series as a whole. The text reports that the colonies had recently federated to become a commonwealth, but rather than showing the grand exhibition buildings in which the first parliament had been held, the slide shows the unprepossessing residence of the Governor of Victoria, whose powers had recently been diminished by Federation. 

Government House, Melbourne, c1906. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 17 from ‘Australia’, chapter 3, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.
‘Government House, Melbourne’, by Skelton and W. Measum in Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, BY HOWARD WILLOUGHBY OF ‘THE MELBOURNE ARGUS’, WITH A MAP AND ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS FROM SKETCHES AND PHOTOGRAPHS, ENGRAVED BY E. WHYMPER AND OTHERS. LONDON: THE RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY. 1886.
Sheep Shearing, c1906. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 20 from ‘Australia’, chapter 3, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.
‘Sheep Shearing’, by the French drawers and engravers Achille Sirouy and C.H. Barbant in Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, BY HOWARD WILLOUGHBY OF ‘THE MELBOURNE ARGUS’, WITH A MAP AND ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS FROM SKETCHES AND PHOTOGRAPHS, ENGRAVED BY E. WHYMPER AND OTHERS. LONDON: THE RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY. 1886.

The same 1886 book is the source for the background image in the final slide of the set, ‘Australian Aborigines’. The foreground image comes from even earlier, from the South Australian photographer Samuel Sweet’s 1880 album ‘Views in South Australia’. The eye-watering racism of the lecture children were meant to read out as they projected this slide contrasts with the slightly more enlightened lecture produced by the geographers at the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee for their equivalent slide. For Butcher’s: ‘The Australian “black fellow” is a savage of a decidedly low type: he has a steady objection to work, has no ideas on the subject of crops, but is marvellously acute as a tracker, and an adept at throwing that peculiar weapon — the boomerang’.[15] But the attitude of the Colonial Office was more nuanced: ‘The hostility of the native to the European colonists often arose from their interference with his natural food supply, or to their careless ignorance of his semi-religious ideas or customs, such as the tabu’.[16]

‘Native Encampment’, in Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, BY HOWARD WILLOUGHBY OF ‘THE MELBOURNE ARGUS’, WITH A MAP AND ONE HUNDRED AND SEVEN ILLUSTRATIONS FROM SKETCHES AND PHOTOGRAPHS, ENGRAVED BY E. WHYMPER AND OTHERS. LONDON: THE RELIGIOUS TRACT SOCIETY. 1886. LONDON
Samuel Sweet, Aboriginal man, Point McLeay Mission, South Australia. c1880. Albumen silver photograph in the album Views in South Australia.
Australian Aborigines, c1906. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 24 from ‘Australia’, chapter 3, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.

Although most imagery in Our Colonies was decades old, some images were contemporary, but they were taken by photographers who were themselves retailing a retrospective, nostalgic view of Australia. The source images for the slide In the Bush were the popular ‘bushmen’ photographs of Nicholas Caire. At this time Caire was himself also turning his stock of negatives into lantern slides and postcards for the expanding tourist trade. Caire’s customers, who were day tripping office workers catching the train from the bustling modern metropolis of Melbourne to nearby beauty spots, saw these photographs as nostalgic evocations of a disappearing past.

Nicholas Caire, Big tree camp, King Parrot Creek, Victoria, Australia, hand coloured albumen silver photograph, c1903. Collection: National Gallery of Victoria.
In the Bush, c1906. Chromolithographic transfer slide number 22 from ‘Australia’, chapter 3, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.

In conclusion, the vertically integrated W. Butcher & Sons were extraordinarily successful in appropriating images from a residual nineteenth century print and photographic culture and an emerging twentieth century media culture for the cheap chromolithographic slides which they used to sell their magic lanterns into homes around the world. In this respect they, and other firms like Underwood & Underwood, are like later media conglomerates such as computer game corporations, where the development of the technology is integrated with the development of content.

‘Butcher & Sons, Farringdon Ave’, in The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal, Vol 1, 1905, 280.

But, even in the context of the period, the imagery of the Junior Lecturers’ Series was egregiously reactionary, ignorant, racist and, frankly, lazy. This was because their business model was not the middle-brow visual instruction of George Washington Wilson, nor the imperial geography of the Colonial Office, nor the virtual travel of Underwood & Underwood. Although they borrowed the rhetoric of ‘education’, their ultimate purpose was not, in fact, educational. It was to sell apparatus into homes, and ‘education’ was a useful way for children to activate the apparatus by enacting the new role of ‘Junior Lecturer’. For decades the watchwords for ‘reputable’ magic lanternists had always been ‘instruction AND entertainment’, but Butcher’s innovation was to turn those familiar watchwords into: ‘instruction AS entertainment’.

Martyn Jolly


[1] ‘Butcher’s Lithographic Slides’, The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger, November 1900, 150.

[2] Hermann Hecht, ‘Decalcomania: some preliminary investigations into the history of transfer slides’, The New Magic Lantern Journal, vol. 1, no. 3 (March 1980), 3-6.

[3]  See examples at the following websites: lucerna.exeter.ac.uk; luikerwaal.com; ehive.com (enter the search term Heritage in the Limelight)

[4] Quoted in Mike Smith, ‘Primus Slides’ in David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, Richard Crangle, eds., The Encyclopedia of the Magic Lantern (Rippon: The Magic Lantern Society, 2001), 240.

[5] Some of these slides are viewable online as a performance by the University of Sheffield Library, see:   https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/library/special/boerwar.

[6] Simon Popple, ‘”Fresh from the Front”: Performance, war news, and popular culture during the Boer war’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 8:4 (2010), 401-418. Denis Condon, ‘Receiving news from the seat of war: Dublin audiences respond to Boer war entertainments’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 9:2 (2011), 93-106.

[7]  Advertisement, Mount Alexander Mail, Victoria, 7 February 1901, 3.

[8] Advertisement, The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger, November 1901, v.

[9]  Mark Butterworth, ‘Imaging a Continent: George Washington Wilson & Co.’s lantern slides of Australia’, Early Popular Visual Culture 7:3 (2009) 253-271.

[10] James Ryan, ‘Visualizing Imperial Geography: Halford Mackinder and the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee, 1902-11’, Ecumene 1:2 (1994), 157-176.

[11] A. J. Sargent, Visual Instruction Committee Handbook, Australasia, Eight Lectures Prepared for the Visual instruction committee of the Colonial Office (London: George Philip & Son, 1913).

[12] Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 January 1908, 8; Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 11 September 1907, 6.

[13] Frank McMurry, The World Visualized for the Class Room: 1000 travel studies through the stereoscope and in lantern slides classified and cross reference for 25 different school subjects (New York: Underwood &Underwood, 1915).

[14] Howard Willoughby, Australian Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil, By Howard Willoughby of ‘THE MELBOURNE ARGUS’, with a map and one hundred and seven sketches from sketches and photographs, Engraved by E. Whymper and others. (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1886)

[15] Printed reading to ‘Australia’, c1906, chapter 3, Our Colonies, Primus Junior Lecturers’ Series, W. Butcher & Sons.

[16] A. J. Sargent, 13.

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