Wednesday, 5 May 2010

York and Son, magic lantern slide-makers

These Bridgwater buildings look like they've always been quiet homes, but a century ago they were the factory premises of a significant business. York and Son were one of the main manufacturers of photographic slides for magic lanterns. They specialised in photographic scenes, particularly of London life.

Frederick Arlington Vilar York (1823-1903) was born in Bridgwater, Somerset but moved away first to Bristol and Bath and then to South Africa where he had a photographic business. After his return to England in 1861 he soon set up a photographic publishing company in London; its main product became magic lantern slides. A factory was established in Bridgwater in 1884, and by 1893 was producing about 100,000 slides per year. Apparently the choice of location was largely sentimental.

As well as occupying the two houses, the factory extended into outbuildings in their back gardens. One of these was the negative store, carefully fire-proofed. Don't imagine the 35mm film negatives most of us grew up with: according to a feature in the British Journal of Photography, 1893, these were 5x4 plates. In the main building, reproduction by the wet collodion process took place. With equipment, glass, chemicals, packing supplies and twenty-six employees the workplace must have been a fairly crowded one!

Frederick and his business headquarters remained in London. He sat on the Council of the Royal Photographic Society from 1879 to 1881. After his death in Kensington in 1903, his son William took over the business. It had about 33,000 different slides available and many of the photographs had been taken by Frederick himself (although negatives were also purchased from other photographers). However, magic lanterns were declining in popularity and in 1912 the firm went into liquidation. Although Newton & Co bought the company, they closed the Bridgwater factory.

Further reading: the 32 Friarn Street website has lots of information about not only York and Son but also the earlier and later history of this house, which dates from the sixteenth century.
The National Monuments Record holds a number of images, some of which are reproduced in this PDF and on this website.

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