The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

84fe298113d852313f420b159e5dc999

Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

A ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’: the selling of ‘ladies tormentors in late Victorian London

81dYTyqkKTL._SX450_

The Marlborough Street Police court dock was pretty crowded on the last day of May 1887. William Waller, William Bryan, Margaret Loosley, John Dean, William Smith, John Coleman, John Reardon, Michael Donnellan, Samuel Maidwell and Thomas Gambier all started up at Mr Mansfield as he listened to the evidence against them.

They had been rounded up by the police and charged with selling ‘squirts’ and ‘thus enabling persons to commit assaults’. The prosecution was brought individually, as they had all been involved but in different places. A Mr Alsop said that he had first complained about the problem but the law was unclear on whether their activities were prescribed or not.

He clearly wanted something done about the ‘squirt nuisance’, but what was it? It seems that the men and women were selling what we would describe as water pistols but these were filled with something unpleasant, not necessarily dangerous, but a liquid that stained or had a very bad smell. The Times described it (in 1876) as ‘a peculiarly abominable scent’1and the pistols sold as ‘ladies tormentors’.

After similar complaints by residents the police had posted up notices prohibiting the sale of such ‘weapons’ but the accused had ignored them. The previous night had seen London’s parks lit up by illuminations and this had drawn crowds on to the streets. Crowds brought mischief and opportunities to sell ‘squirts’ and occasioned this mass occupation of the Marlborough Street dock.

The magistrate agreed that the use of squirts was a ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’ but he wasn’t clear that any law had been broken by selling them. It wasn’t as if they were lethal weapons – like guns – which already had restrictions on their sale.  It was, he said, akin to the school playground where things were commonly thrown around but not intended to cause real harm. An educated man, he regaled the court with the history of the carnival in Rome where ‘bon-bonsetc, were thrown at passers-by’.

He was sure the police were right in trying to suppress the problem but until the legislature acted to prohibit it there was very little he could do to stop it and punish anyone for selling squirts. If, however, those using them were brought before him he would do his utmost to punish them as the law allowed. So the crowded dock was cleared and the squirt sellers dismissed.

1 The Times 1879 from a tweet by Lee Jackson, [24/5/16]

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 01, 1880]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

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]

‘Remember, remember’… anti-social kids in November

nov5_guy_fawkes_guy2

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]