At this time of the year we are used to getting news reports about the dangers of playing with fireworks. I remember them from when I was boy and they seem to appear with increasing gloomy regularity.
Just last week BBC London news was running a story about youths in London staging pitched battles using fireworks as missiles. Similar incidents were reported in other British cities over the past week. But none of this is particularly new. One of my colleagues at the University of Northampton commented that this was a regular occurrence in Manchester where he studied in the 1990s, and we can take it further back than that.
In November 1835 a ‘genteel youth’ named Thomas Smart appeared at the Queen’s Square Police Court in London charged with ‘firing off squibs and other combustibles, contrary to law’.
Its not surprising that our ancestors celebrated Guy Fawkes, this was a much more important event in the 1800s than it is today. Now it was largely been subsumed into the American commercial holiday that is Halloween. In the early 1700s it was a riotous affair that celebrated a Protestant victory over Catholicism, with heavily loaded publications making political capital out of the thwarting of the Gunpowder plot 100 years earlier.
In 1835 William Dawkins was riding in his chaise along Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when his horse was alarmed by a loud noise. Dawkins then saw Thomas Smart ‘letting off fireworks’, seemingly with little care to where they went.
One or more landed close to the chaise and startled his animal and so he reined in and leapt from his position to chase after the lad. He caught up with him and took Thomas to the nearest policeman.
In court the boy pleaded ignorance of the law (which is no defence, then or now) but promised not to offend again. The magistrates (plural on this occasion) decided that a message needed to be sent to prevent others indulging in such a dangerous pastime. They added that ‘in many instances, they had been attended by loss of human life’, so they fined Thomas 20s and costs.
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 07, 1835]