It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.
He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.
Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a private house.
He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.
Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.
The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.
Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.
Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.
The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.
[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]