In the 1860s the Royal Polytechnic Institution was at the height of its popular fame, thanks to its lavish Christmas productions. The 1861 programme established the pattern for family entertainment with the building decorated with ‘holly, Christmas and exotic plants’. A giant Christmas tree in the 309 Regent Street entrance hall was a focal point for a ‘gratuitous distribution of thousands of beautiful ornaments, toys, pocket knives, scissors, cannons etc., among juvenile visitors’.

The Christmas programme was made up of a variety of events taking place throughout the building, which were repeated during the two daily openings from 12 noon until 5pm, and then from 7 until 10 in the evening. Visitors could choose between ‘promenading’ to music around the picture galleries and the exhibits in the Great Hall, descending in the diving bell, taking refreshments, or attending lectures on natural science accompanied by the Polytechnic’s famous ‘dissolving views’ magic lantern shows. Most of these items were short, lasting about thirty minutes; the pantomime was (unusually) allocated an hour on the programme.

The first Polytechnic optical pantomime opened on Boxing Day in 1861 with a staging of Harlequin and Mother Goose. Its success was followed in later years by other traditional favourites, including Cinderella, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. The pantomime usually ran until Lent.

Photo of the programme for the Polytechnic Institution, Dec 1861
Programme for the Christmas season 1861-2

On Christmas Eve 1862, Professor John Henry Pepper, director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution, introduced what was to become his best known invention, the ‘phantasmagoria’. Pepper had obtained permission to use Charles Dickens’ tale, The Haunted Man, and added optics and visual illusions to explore the psychological demons of Dickens’ chemistry teacher. The Times reported: ‘We really do not think we say a word too much in praise when we call this “strange lecture” one of the most curious displays in London. The spectres and illusions are thrown upon the stage
in such a perfect embodiment of real substance that it is not till the haunted man walks through their apparently solid forms that the audience can believe in their being optical illusions at all’.

This clever illusion was achieved by concealing an illuminated figure beneath the stage who was reflected onto a transparent plate-glass sheet to appear in spectral form on the stage. The appearance and disappearance of the ghost was controlled by the strength of the hidden light source. Success depended on the plate-glass being invisible to the audience and also on careful rehearsal, because the other actors could not see the ghost on the stage. At the first performance the ghost  took the form of a skeleton, held under the stage by a man concealed in black velvet. As the stage staff developed their skills in presenting the illusion, so the ghost was seen to move around and even to drink a glass of water.

Illustration of how Pepper's Ghost illusion is achieved
Diagram of the ghost illusion, from J H Pepper, Cyclopaedic Science Simplified (London: Warne, 1869)

The ghost was an instant success, transferring to the Polytechnic’s large theatre and continuing to be performed throughout the whole of 1863. Even the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII) brought his new bride (later Queen Alexandra) to see the illusion.

The Christmas programme for 1866 was billed as the strongest ever presented. Pepper’s continued experiments led to the appearance of a truly macabre illusion called ‘the decapitated head speaking’. An engraving on the front page of the Penny Illustrated Paper showed the scene that greeted the audience as the curtain rose, revealing the severed head of a recently-executed criminal. Its reporter described what happened next: ‘To the right is the alchemist, gorgeously attired, who performs certain incantations, at the end of which the head becomes brilliantly illuminated by a light from above, slowly opens its eyes and lips, and, in a state of semi-animation, confesses that it was alone in its guilt. This satisfactory result obtained, the curtain falls’.

Illustration of Pepper's Ghost Illusion
Engraving ‘The Spectre Drama at the Polytechnic Institution, Regent Street’, Illustrated London News, 1 May 1863

The full Christmas programme included a dramatic reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, during which a succession of ghosts silently walked the stage, and the pantomime Dick Whittington, in which Dick was recalled to be lord mayor of London, ‘not only by the touching appeal of Bow bells, but also by airy figures produced by “the ghost illusion apparatus”’.

Some historians have dismissed the ghost as ‘an illusionist novelty that exactly suited popular taste in those years of cheap sensations’.2 But this view has been challenged by historians of science who do not regard Pepper’s illusions as mere stage magic, but value them as an integral part of his major contribution to the popularisation of science. By blurring the lines between experiment and performance, between laboratory and theatre, Pepper made the phenomena of physics and chemistry both visible and accessible to the general public.

And Pepper’s Ghost continues to live on, its technique re-imagined for the 21st century to create the appearance of Tupac Shakur onstage with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg at Coachella in 2012, and Michael Jackson at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.

University Records and Archives, December 2019

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