Fire And 18th Century Traffic Jams: Handel And The Royal Fireworks

Chaos surrounded the premiere of George Frederic Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks on 27 April 1749, during a celebration in Green Park to commemorate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle. It was what it sounds like: a piece of music to accompany some fireworks in the presence of George II and his family. But while that conjures up an image of a sedate little ceremony, not much seemed to go according to plan.

To start with, the music was previewed at Vauxhall Gardens on 21 April, attracting around 8,000 people. If you think it’s a nightmare getting out of Wembley or the O2 after a gig, after this performance the resulting traffic jam blocked London Bridge for three hours.

George II and a retinue went to Green Park a few days beforehand to inspect the fireworks machinery. The King also reviewed some Gunners, who demonstrated how often they could charge and discharge a cannon in a minute. Sadly, while loading for the sixth discharge, something went wrong and Matross (assistant gunner) Thomas Harvey’s right hand was blown off. The Derby Mercury records that the King was “pleased to order him ten guineas and expressed a great deal of concern at the misfortune”.

According to another account from the Derby Mercury, the night itself started well. At about 8.30pm a few rockets were sent up, followed by the firing of 101 cannon along Constitution Hill. Then the fireworks began in earnest, watched by people crowding wherever they could, including on roofs and boats. At 9.30pm, the wooden building that was being used to launch the fireworks, somewhat inevitably, caught fire. Quick thinking by carpenters pulling down some timbers stopped the flames spreading across the whole edifice, but what was already alight burned until around 2am.

Another of the rockets went off course and set fire to the clothes of a young woman, who escaped with minor burns after swift action from bystanders to strip her down to her underwear. Two more Matrosses were burned, and one lost both his eyes, after yet another firework went astray. Sometimes a bit of health and safety wouldn’t go amiss.

Edit: since we originally posted this, Pains Fireworks has been in touch to say they were more than likely the company that supplied the display, and sent us this image of the Royal Fireworks in 1749 from their archive.

Photo of Green Park by Guy Tyler from the Londonist Flickr pool

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