The fiery phoenix wheel

Programme for Hubert Galton’s Pyrotechnical Exhibition at Duddestone Hall, early 19th century, MS 3101/B/23/7, page 1

By the 18th century, the use of fireworks for ceremonial occasions was not uncommon. In Birmingham, the population was becoming accustomed to the sight and sound of pyrotechnics on the ground as well as in the sky.

In reaction, the second Birmingham Street Act of 1773 specified a penalty of 5s for the making of fires in the street or ‘discharging any squib, serpent, rocket or other fireworks whatsoever’ in any public place. Aris’s Gazette (27 October 1777) reported that ‘On Saturday Night last, about eight o’clock, the Railing which surrounds the Cupola of the Old Cross in this Town was set on Fire by a Serpent thrown thereon by some Boys who were in the Street; but being soon discovered, it was happily extinguished without any considerable damage.’ By 1805, the penalties for throwing fireworks had become markedly more severe; any individual caught throwing them in the street faced a fine of 20s or a spell in gaol (Street Commissioners’ Minutes, Vol. 3. 4 November 1805) and James Clark, a boy who threw a serpent under the head of a horse in November 1807, was indeed sent to the town prison (Aris’s Gazette, 2 November 1807). Yet fireworks continued to be sold and thrown in Birmingham’s streets and in November 1833, it was reported that as a result of accidents involving fireworks, 15 or 16 people had been detained in the General Hospital (Birmingham Journal, 9 November 1833).

Vauxhall Grand Gala Night presented by Joseph Neal & Son, Tuesday, August 8, 1809, MS 3219/6/196/16

The manufacture of fireworks in a town where gun production was a major industry might have been expected. At the Rocket public house on Little Charles Street, the landlord Mr Ashley also had a fireworks packing business upstairs. In 1834, the inevitable happened and the fireworks exploded, killing three of the workers and blowing out all the windows in the street as well as the front of the pub (Birmingham Journal, 10 May 1834).

Less destructive sights included ‘wonderful Philosophical Fire Works’ to be exhibited ‘for four Nights, in the New-street Theatre in this town. They had an advantage over ‘all other works of the kind, in being perfectly free from any disagreeable smell and not occasioning the smallest danger.’ Aris’s Gazette, 25 May 1789, reported that Signor Genetti would stage a grand exhibition of philosophical fireworks (produced from inflammable air) being the invention of the ingenious Mr Diller, which comprised the following pieces:

A fixed Flower. A Sun turning round, A Star varying, A Triangle, A Dragon pursuing a Serpent, A Star of Knighthood, A Flame proper for Lighthouses, to the Splendour and Brilliancy of the Rays of 100 Patent Lamps, The Prince of Wales Arms and Feathers, and an Aerostatic Branch, &c.

List of prices for fireworks, from Joseph Neal to Matthew Robinson Boulton, 15 October 1801, MS 3782/12/46/321

Similar names can be found on the list of fireworks which Joseph Neal of Jamaica Row offered to supply to Matthew Robinson Boulton in 1801,the most expensive being ‘Mount Etna as appears at the time of its Irruption’ which cost £1 11s. 6d. Similar names are still there in 1809 when a printed advertisement shows that Neal was to appear at the Vauxhall Grand Gala Night in August 1809 in a most dangerous fashion: ‘ J. Neal, for this Night only, will walk about the Green with three Vertical Wheels running round on the Top of his Head’.

About the same time, Hubert Galton also advertised his ‘magnificent spectacle’ at Duddeston Hall, with a Serpent wheel, sky rockets, a Bengola Light, a Jack in the Box, water rockets, Mount Vesuvio, finishing with a Star  ‘Supposed to be superior in brilliancy to that comet which astonished Rome for fifteen days after Caesar’s death’.

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