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Facts on fireworks, the firefighters' foe

Ask any fire service in Britain what their busiest nights of the year are, and along with 31st December - New Year’s Eve- 5th November will be very high on the list. Bonfire Night is quite a different celebration to New Year, but the two nights do have something in common: fireworks. It's these popular projectiles that cause fire crews across the country so much extra work in early November.

Safety advice is now provided by local fire crews, such is the danger each year (See HERE for South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue’s firework safety advice). Yet while fireworks can be extremely dangerous if used incorrectly, they are truly spectacular when all goes to plan. As we prepare for this year’s Bonfire Night, we thought we’d take a look at the fascinating backstory of fireworks, the ancient origins of which long predate the professional fire service…

Fact 1: Professional firework artists are known as 'Pyrotechnicians'

The term 'pyrotechnics' began to be used in Georgian times to describe large firework displays, but the word actually has Greek origins. It derives from pyr, meaning 'fire', and tekhnikos, meaning 'made by art', thus the art of fire. However, it’s not just those who make and operate fireworks who are classed as pyrotechnicians. Those who use explosives for quarrying, mining and demolition purposes, and even those who manufacture boxes of matches, work in the realm of pyrotechnics. Fireworks are often designated as 'display pyrotechnics' as a result.

Fact 2: The origins of fireworks are steeped in myth and legend

Fireworks are thought to have first been used in China where gunpowder was invented during the era of the late Tang dynasty (AD 800s). Gunpowder is traditionally one the 'Four Great Inventions' of ancient China along with paper, printing and the compass. But its origins are steeped in legend. Some say it was a cook who invented it by accident while experimenting with some common ingredients. Possibly far-fetched, but then, who hasn’t blown up something in the kitchen at one time or another?

Using gunpowder for entertainment purposes came a bit later, probably during the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279). Yet the artistic potential of fire had been noted long before that. Centuries before gunpowder was invented, the Chinese had thrown bamboo stems into fire to create loud bangs. Now, gunpowder gave them a means to add a few decibels.

Fact 3: Some firework’s names come from gruesome executions.

Roman Candles. Catherine Wheels. These popular fireworks sound pleasant enough, but the origins of their names are actually quite brutal.

The Roman Candle gets its name from the rumoured favourite execution method of the notorious Roman Emperor Nero. In AD 64, the Great Fire of Rome devastated the capital of the empire. Nero blamed Christians for starting the blaze (though many suspected Nero himself of having something to do with it). As punishment, Christians were rounded up, covered in flammable pitch, and burnt alive. The victims were thus termed 'Nero’s Torches' or 'Roman Candles'.

The Catherine Wheel similarly derives its name from a Roman method of execution. According to tradition, the Emperor Maxentius condemned Saint Catherine of Alexandria to death by breaking on a spiked wheel in the year AD 305. However, when Catherine touched the wheel, it shattered, and she was executed by beheading instead. Her feast day takes place in November, on the 25th.

Fact 4: Coloured fireworks were developed as military signals

These days, fireworks come in all the colours of the rainbow. But a bit like photography and television, colour took a while to develop. The ancient Chinese military started experimenting with gunpowder to produce coloured smoke and fire, so they could send coded signals between battalions over long distances. Their recipes were recorded in military instruction treatises, revealing the use of substances like copper acetate (to create green), arsenic sulphide (yellow), and lead carbonate (lilac-white).

In the 18th century the English geographer Sir John Barrow commented, "The diversity of colours indeed with which the Chinese have the secret of clothing fire seems to be the chief merit of their pyrotechny.”

Fact 5: The English Wars of the Roses ended in fireworks - literally!

Nobody knows exactly when fireworks were first used in England, but the first recorded mention of them to survive reveals their use in 1486, the year after King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth and Henry Tudor inaugurated a new royal dynasty.

Henry VII, as he became, represented the Lancastrian House which had been battling for the throne with the House of York for thirty years. To cement his position, the new king married Elizabeth of York, uniting the two warring factions. It was at their wedding that fireworks are first known to have been used, perhaps celebrating the end of the Wars of the Roses as much as the royal nuptials.

Fact 6: The royals hired their own firework makers

The ancient Chinese had treated their firework makers with enormous respect. Their artistry with pyrotechnics made them something akin to magicians in many people’s eyes. (Small pyrotechnics - sparks and smoke - are still used by stage magicians today.) Indeed, firework making became a profession to which a lot of prestige was attached throughout history. Queen Elizabeth I actually appointed a 'Fire Master of England' to run royal displays. The Fire Master became a very important member of court. After a particularly brilliant display at his coronation, King James II knighted his Fire Master.

Royal fireworks on the Thames

Fact 7: Firework accidents caused major fires long before we had fire brigades

NESM regulars will know that professional firefighters as we know them only began to appear after the Great Fire of London in 1666, when insurance and later municipal services were formed. Fireworks are a major cause of domestic fires today, but they were causing havoc long before we had firefighters to come to the rescue. A display for Elizabeth I in 1572 went so badly wrong it nearly burned a whole town down. That was near Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire where the Queen was visiting her favourite, Robert Dudley.

Fact 8: Fireworks in November were a new sight after the Gunpowder Plot, but bonfires were not

We all know that Bonfire Night started in Britain after Guy Fawkes and his cronies failed to blow up Parliament. Celebratory fireworks began to be used almost straight away to mark each anniversary of the 1605 plot. Bonfires were also lit in celebration. But while annual fireworks may have been a new addition to Autumn, fires had been lit for many centuries at this time of year. In fact, bonfires had been used since ancient times to mark all sorts of festivals. Midsummer and Midwinter often saw fires in Germanic and Nordic countries. The pagan Celts would light them on what became May Day, and what became Halloween. Thus, long before Guy Fawkes was even born, the dark autumn festivals of All Hallows and All Souls (2nd November) were lit by fire.

Thomas Hardy in his novel The Return of the Native alludes to a 5th November bonfire’s ancient origins in his fictional County of Wessex: “Festival fires to Thor and Woden had [been lit] on the same ground and duly had their day. Indeed, it is pretty well known that such blazes as this the heathmen were now enjoying are rather the lineal descendants from jumbled Druidical rites and Saxon ceremonies than the invention of popular feeling about Gunpowder Plot.”

Fact 9: There are some great fireworks makers in fiction

“The king would have me present the princess, sweet chuck, with some delightful ostentation, or show, or pageant, or antique, or firework.” This is a line from William Shakespeare’s Loves Labours Lost. And if you’re looking for something to read this Bonfire Night, there are plenty of firework makers in fiction.

It’s perhaps in fantasy tales that the historic association between fireworks and magic is best portrayed. Philip Pullman’s children’s book The Firework Maker’s Daughter tells the tale of Lila, who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a firework maker. To prove herself worthy she must travel to a great volcano to face a terrifying fire spirit. One of the greatest wizards in literature was also a firework maker: “Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me [said Bilbo]… not the man who used to make such particularly excellent fireworks! I remember those! Old Took used to have them on midsummer’s eve. Splendid! They used to go up like great lilies and snapdragons and laburnums of fire and hang in the twilight all evening.”

That’s from The Hobbit (1937). So if fireworks aren’t your thing, why not stay in this Bonfire Night and settle down with a classic?

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