Magic lantern body and lens, circa 1857. [composite image] . Rouse Hill House & Farm Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo © Jamie North

John Gilpin’s Ride

John Gilpin was a household name in colonial Australia, just as it was in 19th century England.

The fictional story of John Gilpin and his misadventures on a runaway horse was originally written as a comic ballad by English poet William Cowper in 1782 and first published as The entertaining and facetious history of John Gilpin; shewing how he went farther than he intended, and came home safe at last.  

The title character is a Cheapside (London) linen-draper whose wife, fed up at not having a holiday during twenty tedious years of marriage, organises a day out at ‘The Bell’ in Edmonton, north of London, for their anniversary.  She hires a chaise but there is only room for her, her sister and their children plus a packed picnic.

Her husband must follow on a borrowed horse, carrying two flasks of wine. Gilpin’s horse bolts and he loses hat, wig, cloak and wine, and the horse won’t stop at Edmonton but continues on another thirteen miles to Ware.

At Ware a friend lends him a wig and hat but as Gilpin sets off again to join his wife his horse is spooked by a donkey braying and he loses wig and hat again.

A postboy tries to stop the runaway horse and other gentlemen join in the pursuit thinking he is a highwayman. The horse does not stop until he has set his rider down back at his Cheapside store.

The John Gilpin slides at Rouse Hill House, produced by Newton & Co, probably sometime around 1860, tell the story in eight scenes, mounted in timber frames in two sequences each of four views.

Related objects

  • Stacked images of two static, timber-framed glass slides for a magic lantern. These slides feature a sequence of individual hand-painted scenes illustrating the story of John Gilpin.

    John Gilpin’s ride

    Two static, timber-framed glass slides for a magic lantern. These slides feature a sequence of individual hand-painted scenes illustrating the story of John Gilpin. Made in London, England, mid 19th century. R89/3-6.1. Rouse Hill House & Farm Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo © Jamie North

  • The Diverting History of John Gilpin

    The Diverting History of John Gilpin

    William Cowper, The diverting history of John Gilpin, London: George Routledge & Sons, 1878. From: Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. [Throsby 823.9 CAL]

The Diverting History of John Gilpin

Cowper’s story of John Gilpin was an instant hit when first published, its popularity enduring well into the 19th century, often recited at school events and read at social functions organised by literary institutes and parish groups. It was published in several editions, set to music in the 1830s, and produced in lantern slide format by a number of different lantern manufacturers and suppliers of lanterns slides.

One of the illustrated editions of the ballad published in the 19th century included a children’s version titled The history of John Gilpin produced by George Routledge & Co around 1856 as part of a series called ‘Aunt Mavor’s Toy Books’. This version had 8 coloured plates and it is these plates that may have provided a source for the scenes illustrated in Newton & Co’s first John Gilpin slide set.

In 1878 George Routledge & Sons published a new edition of The Diverting History of John Gilpin: showing how he went farther than he intended and came home safe again, with illustrations by celebrated English artist Randolph Caldecott.  Newton & Co obtained the sole right of making lantern slides from Caldecott’s nursery pictures books, producing an 18-slide set for John Gilpin.

For further details see library catalogue

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About the authors

Head and shoulders photo of woman holding up card to face with conservator's white glove on hand.

Megan Martin

Former Head, Collections & Access

Megan is the former head of Collections & Access at Sydney Living Museums. She has a particular interest in the working of the historical imagination, in teasing out the meanings of objects in museums collections and in crafting the stories that can be recovered/discovered through a close reading of those items of material culture.

Portrait of woman against background of prickly pear foliage.

Holly Schulte

Curator Digital Assets

Holly is the Curator Digital Assets with Sydney Living Museums where she is part of the Collections & Access team.