Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

014EVA000000000U04228000[SVC1]

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.

Kids eh?

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]

‘The people in this part of the world are not acquainted with the Manchester language’: a stowaway at the Royal Arsenal.

Royal_Arsenal_Map,_1877

PC Monaghan was on patrol at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich in the early hours of the morning on Tuesday 21 April 1880. As the constable entered the canon cartridge factory site he thought he heard something and went to investigate. The area was restricted since, being ‘devoted to the manufacture and storage of explosives’ it was one ‘of the most dangerous areas of the Arsenal’. Even the workforce at the Arsenal was not permitted inside without a special order but somehow someone had got in.

The arsenal’s store was about two miles from any inhabited buildings but it was accessible from the river, and this is how a man had gained entry and was now hiding inside. PC Monaghan secured him and asked him his business there. The man told him his name was William Smith and that lived at an address in Kennington and was a blacksmith by trade. He ‘was quite sober’ but could not give a satisfactory explanation for being there.

The policeman took his prisoner back to the station where he was formally charged with ‘being in the Royal Arsenal for a felonious purpose’. The police took the details he’d given them and visited an address at Park Street, off the Kennington Road. The address appeared to be a false one however, as no one knew of him there. Later that day William Smith (if that was indeed his name) was presented at Woolwich Police Court before the sitting magistrate, Mr. Balguy.

Smith explained, ‘in a provincial accent’ that he had come down from Manchester looking for work at the arsenal, but he’d got lost. Why had he given a false address to the inspector at the station house then? Smith insisted he hadn’t but the inspector testified that the address he’d heard was ‘on Kennington Lane’. Perhaps it was the prisoner’s accent that was causing the problem Mr. Balguy suggested:

‘Perhaps you did not understand him? The people in this part of the world are not acquainted with the Manchester language’, adding that he would remand him overnight so more enquiries could be made.

Smith doesn’t reappear in the newspaper gleanings over the next few days so perhaps he was able to verify his address or was simply sent to prison as a vagrant, perhaps even despatched back to the North West. The Royal Arsenal employed workers from all over Britain and when these men weren’t building the armaments to defend the Empire they enjoyed a relaxed a game of football from time to time. In September 1886 they played ‘one or two games’ as Dial Square Cricket Club. In January 1887 they played their first game (against Erith) as the Royal Arsenal and the rest, as they say, is history.

[from The Standard (London, England), Wednesday, April 21, 1880]

If you want to know more about Arsenal’s history there is no better place to go than the AISA Arsenal History Society’s website, run by Tony Attwood. As I write this the news has emerged that the modern Arsenal Football Club, now based in North London since it moved there in 1913 (but still called ‘Woolwich’ Arsenal) have decided that this season will be the last under Arsene Wenger’s management. I am a season ticket holder at Arsenal and this is a sad day but also an exciting one. I’m sure he reads this blog so I’d like to say thank you and all the very best for whatever you do next Arsene, you will be a very hard act to follow.