Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the History’s House of Lords, 1660-1832 project, shares a cautionary tale ready for bonfire night…
For most, the mantra is “remember, remember the 5th of November” but for Thomas, Lord Jermyn, the ditty was more likely to have been “remember, remember the 28th of October”. On that day in 1697, while observing the lord mayor’s procession in London he was hit in the face by a squib resulting in the loss of an eye and very nearly his life.
Whilst we all know the story of Guy Fawkes and will be remembering those 17th century events this weekend at firework displays across the country, we perhaps forget that fireworks have long been a feature of both celebrations and protests. In November 1668 the queen’s birthday festivities were rounded off with fireworks on the water, but a decade later at the height of the government crackdown resulting from the Popish Plot the Lords had requested that the king should issue orders for regulating their possession. By the 1690s elaborate celebratory displays had become all the rage thanks, largely, to the demonstrations put on by Lord Romney in St James’s Square. Small firecrackers such as the one that hit Jermyn, though, remained a perennial problem for civic authorities.
Today, the government enforces strict rules on when fireworks can be lit, standards guaranteeing their safety and punishes those who misuse them. Jermyn was the more unfortunate, however, in that accidents like his had driven the lord mayor and corporation to issue an order to the city beadles only a few days before empowering them to arrest anyone throwing squibs and other sorts of exploding projectiles. The day after the procession, the lords justices released similar instructions relating to the king’s entry into the city and on 3 November ‘strict orders’ were issued once again against the throwing of squibs. By then news was circulating that Jermyn was believed to be at the point of death. Even if he did survive it was understood that one of his eyes had ‘quite gone’.
Not everyone was sympathetic to Jermyn’s predicament. At least one person questioned what an old man like Jermyn (he was 64) was doing at such a rowdy event. Others took the incident more seriously. On 15 December Sir Henry Dutton Colt introduced a bill into the Commons prohibiting the ‘throwing or firing of squibs, serpents and other fireworks’. On 17 January 1698 it was given its first reading in the Lords and on 3 February it was passed without amendment.
In spite of his unpleasant injuries, Jermyn survived his experience and was back in the chamber on 7 March in time to witness the passing of Dutton Colt’s bill into law. He then continued to attend the House until the close of 1702 and finally passed away at his house in Spring Gardens the following April.
So we hope you all enjoy your Bonfire Night celebrations this year, and that no-one shares Jermyn’s misfortune!