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).  

Winter is coming

Image 01-11-2019 at 10.34

Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty. And now an election is looming and we might ask ourselves which party is most determined to address the problem of poverty and inequality in the UK?

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to gaol it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming. Use your vote wisely.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

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]