END OF YEAR = FIREWORKS’ DISPLAYS. In Australia, fireworks are now chiefly the domain of the professional pyrotechnical folk. And it seems they have been for as long as the 1880s. The two major English companies, Pain and Brock, both ran events featuring fireworks’ displays in the late 1880s.
And while there may be local producers, and there are regional producers (China and India), this small survey looks at English fireworks’ manufacturers. The survey is also very selective (as there is a massive amount of material). We are looking at labels, not posters or catalogues. The survey’s focus is on the range of images that have been used to capture the notion of crackers and rockets – and they are obvious and ingenious.
If you want to see more, we suggest you try the website for a recent book. The book is Firework Art by Mark Fleming (Rumble, 2005). It is described as a new book on the British fireworks industry during the 20th century which throws an intriguing light on lost Hertfordshire industry. The book is a collection of firework posters, labels and packaging produced by British firework manufacturers, including Brock’s Fireworks, Phoenix Fireworks and Britannia, which were all based in Hemel Hempstead.
Below you will see a rocket, a volcano, rain, a witches’ cauldron and a burning bush. We will go from the obvious to the tangential images. Few dates unfortunately, any assistance as usual welcomed.
Rocket, space race
The reference to the ‘space race’ helps to date this label. According to NASA’s website:
History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm.or 22.8 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg. or 183.9 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race….Read more about the Space Race.
The attire of the ‘pilot’ is because history suggests that the barrels of gunpowder used in the infamous plot to blow up the Parliament of James I in 1605, were “manufactured by a gunpowder manufacturer within earshot of the Bells of Bow”. At that time the only such business was one John Pain, the founder of the modern day Pains Fireworks.
Mimicking nature – the volcano and rain
According to Brock’s website:
Brocks Fireworks was founded in 1698 in Islington by John Brock and it is the oldest British firework manufacturer. Brocks Fireworks produced great firework displays for the public. Some in London’s Marylebone Gardens date back to 1750.
In 1815 the factory was located in a residential area in Baker’s Row, Whitechapel, London. The factory was destroyed when a boy who was ramming gunpowder into a firework accidentally created a spark which ignited the fireworks, he threw it aside as he ran out in fright. Fifty pounds of gunpowder and a large amount of saltpetre exploded immediately, blowing the roof off the building, and setting fire to the factory. The factory was moved to a more suitable location, Sutton and then in 1910 to Hemel Hempstead where it remained until 1971.
After passing through the control of several generations of the Brock family the company became world famous for presenting what would become forever known as ‘Brock’s Benefits,’ displays for the enjoyment of the public, the first of which was fired on July 10, 1826 and from 1865 on became a regular attraction at the site of the Crystal Palace. So connected with the Palace was the company that it was renamed C.T. Brock & Co’s ‘Crystal Palace’ Fireworks in 1865.
Brock’s displays came to Australia in 1887, but Pain was here first according to the Leader of 1 January 1887:
Brock’s fireworks being in a ship which is making an unduly protracted passage, Pain has struck the first light on the East Melbourne ground, and scored a great success on Monday and Wednesday nights. Pain’s admirers say that the show cannot be excelled, and supporters of Brock declare that it is as a box of vestas compared to what is coming. Under any circumstances the public will be the gainers, as, both being in possession of vast resources, the rival fireworkers will doubtless do their best and strive for the inevitable survival of the fittest.
These Brock’s displays continued regularly with just a decade long break between 1910 and 1920 until the Palace was completely destroyed by fire in 1936, an event which ended this firework institution.
Brock’s displays are closely linked to great events and among the more memorable have been the Official Peace Displays in 1919 and 1946, The Coronation Displays of King Edward VII, King George V, Queen Elizabeth II.
Wilder’s were established in 1834 and produced fireworks until the early 1970s, by which time they had merged with Brock’s. This scant information is all that some google searching could find. The artwork is unusual – its not silver, it doesn’t inspire any thoughts about a wonderful fireworks’ display.
More natural inspiration – snakes and fruit
With its roots in the East End of London dating back to the 15th century, Pain’s Fireworks is the longest established firework company in the United Kingdom. Pain’s built one of the first legal factories in Britain. Just after the First World War the company began its evolution from manufacture of military pyrotechnics & shop fireworks & staging large ceremonial displays; to become solely focused on providing professional displays around the world.
The fireworks were sold here. Advertisements appear in 1873 and this is one from the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1874:
PAINE’S FIREWORKS. A Shipment of the finest Assortments, direct from this celebrated manufactory. Ex Duke of Abercorn. By order of the Consígnees. The attention of the Trade is invited to this sale, as it is WITHOUT RESERVE. R. F. STUBBS and CO. will sell by auction, at the City Mart, on WEDNESDAY, May 6th, at 11 o’clock, A shipment of 8 cases Paine’s fireworks, of the very best assortment. Full particulars at sale. Terms liberal.
This seems to be in the genre of surprise fireworks. Rather like the Heston Blumenthals of today, fireworks are disguised as fruit. This doesn’t seem like a great idea.
The supernatural – witchcraft and Christianity
Astra was a newcomer to this ancient industry; it was founded 1946 by two Eastern European immigrants Bertie Yellin and Paul Lax (Jewish refugees, on was a chemist). They started with sparklers which were manufactured in Bromley, Kent. In 1948, they moved to Richborough, Kent, to begin full-scale manufacture. Astra were one of the most popular brands in the 1960s and 70s. Astra’s English production had the classic ending; all home-based manufacture ceased after a serious fire in 1989. The company continued by selling Chinese goods until closing in 1997. The “Astra” name still survives as a Cosmic brand. An old employee reminiscences about Astra on this blog.
This time the manufacturer has made a rather humorous connection between an important biblical story and a firework. Would this happen today? It is odd. This firework is patented which might mean that a date range could be determined after some consultation of UK records.
It might be fun to look at fireworks from our region on another occasion.
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