Making ‘night like day’

As Bonfire Night approaches, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section takes a look at the use of fireworks in 17th and 18th century celebrations…

The recent accident at the fireworks factory in Stafford is a timely reminder of the perils as well as the joys of such entertainments. In the 1690s, the problems associated with celebrations that were marked with fireworks were well understood. It was with a sense of pride that Henry Sidney, earl of Romney (who held the office of master of the ordnance and was particularly keen on all things gunpowder-related) was able to tell William III’s confidant, Hans Willem Bentinck, earl of Portland, how his impromptu firework display in St James’s Square marking the capture of Namur in 1695 had passed off with great success. (Namur was, of course, the siege that was to play such a prominent role in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Uncle Toby had played a part in the action and was preoccupied with re-enacting it.) It had been, he boasted,

as well executed as could be expected, and it did please the mob and ladyes most extreamly; there was I believe thousands, and yet there was no disorder nor any ill accident, which is the onely thing I will bragge of…’ [N. Japikse, Correspondentie van Willem III en van Hans Willem Bentinck Eersten Graaf van Portland, no. 24 (1928), p. 67.]

In the years immediately after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ such displays seem initially to have been quite common. On 7 November 1691 one correspondent remarked how a few days before had seen ‘wonderfull rejoycing’ for both the king’s birthday and Gunpowder Plot:

wee have gotten a new way of expressing our solemnities, viz: insteed of Bonefires, illuminations, that is all the windows towards the streets and Bellconies fitted with candles burning which makes the night like day. [Portledge papers, 123-4.]

Such high spirits did not last long, though. Within a few years of the Revolution, the high taxes of a war economy and general discontent with the new regime meant that regular festivals were abandoned. The 13th of February (the anniversary of the coronation of William and Mary) was at first also treated as a day of rejoicing but by 1694 it was neglected. Charles Hatton noted that besides Lord Lucas, who ensured that the Tower of London signalled the day with an appropriate salute, no one paid any attention: ‘I doe not heare it nor have seen this evening ye expence of one farthing candle to make an illumination, nor have we one poure squibb or cracker’ [Hatton Correspondence, ii. 200-1]. The rejoicing at the fall of Namur, then, was probably driven as much by hopes of an end to the war on the continent as by delight at Romney’s spectacle.

Patience with the Williamite regime may have worn thin during his lifetime, but it is notable that by the latter part of the 18th century there is some indication that celebrations associated with his invasion of England in the late autumn of 1688 were quite as common (possibly more so) than the now more familiar festival associated with the Gunpowder plot. John Wilkes, for one, was present at a dinner held in honour of William III’s birthday on 6 November 1770 (he made no mention of the 5 November celebrations) and in the summer of 1772 he was clearly overwhelmed by a visit paid to the site of William’s landing at Torbay. In his correspondence with his daughter, Polly, Wilkes gushed that he was ‘ready to fall on my knees on the sacred spot; and could scarcely leave the holy steps on which he landed to rescue a wretched people from slavery…’ [Correspondence of John Wilkes and his friends, iv. 112]. It was a far cry from the despairing commentary of Charles Hatton who lambasted the ‘very ungratefull, rebellious generation’ that at one moment welcomed their Dutch saviour and at the next turned their backs on him.


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