Royal Fireworks

Royal FireworksWhilst reorganising the library Janet discovered an interesting pamphlet from 1749 describing “the machine for the fireworks”; this item, on account of its age, has now been transferred to the archives. This pamphlet is 14 pages long (it should be 16 pages, but unfortunately the final 2 pages are missing from our copy).

The full title of the pamphlet is “A Description of the Machine for the Fireworks, with all its ornaments, and a detail of the manner in which they are to be exhibited in St. James's Park, Thursday, April 27, 1749, on account of the General Peace, signed at Aix La Chapelle, October 7, 1748.”

The description of these fireworks was published by order of his Majesty's Board of Ordnance. The Board, based at the Tower of London, was the government body responsible for army and navy supplies, providing artillery training, making military maps and maintaining coastal defences.

The peace referred to was the end of the war of the Austrian Succession signed at Aix La Chapelle (or Achen). The dispute related to the succession of Charles VI by his daughter Maria Theresa of Austria. The main protagonists were Prussia, France, Austria, Great Britain and the Dutch Republic, however, it involved nearly almost every major European power.

According to one of the inscriptions on the firework machine the fireworks celebrate “the Restoration of Peace to Europe” and “the Security of the Faith of Treaties” and “the happy Re-establishment of Commerce under the Auspices of the best of Kings.”

The pamphlet is in two sections – the first describes the machine and the second the order of the firework display.

The “machine” was a structure of 114 feet high in the form of a Doric temple with statues, pictures, flowers and inscriptions. The pamphlet offers only a literary description, but notes that a plan is also available for purchase. It is not entirely clear where all the fireworks were placed on the machine, but they were intended to interact with the statues and pictures, for example, “Large Fountains, which form all the Outlines of the Machines, and play thirty Feet high; at the same Time the Vases on the Pavillons appear in Fire.” The machine also changes during the course of the spectacle: “the allegorical Pictures, which appear in Basso Relievo, are removed by Machinery, and discover the same subjects in transparent Colours, and the Area before the Machine is beautifully illuminated with Variety of Designs.”

The structure of the machine was designed by Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni (b. 1695 Florence -d. 1766 Paris) the theatrical designer and architect.

The description of the number and types of different fireworks is quite breath-taking:
….120 Large Honorary Rockets
96 Rockets in two Flights
12 Mortars with Air Ballons
12 Caduceus Rockets
12 Girandole Rockets...

At one point in the display 600 rockets are launched in two flights!

In search of an explanation of what these rockets are, I found an illuminating article in the Scots Magazine vol. 11, 1749, (available on Google Books), which reprints the description of the royal fireworks along with explanations of the fireworks. Air ballons, for example, are something like Chinese lanterns - “hollow globes of paper filled with stars &c., which are fired from mortars, and are contrived to burst at their greatest altitude”

This event is also important in the history of music because Handel's Fireworks Musick was commissioned especially for this occasion: “After a grand Overture of Warlike Instruments, composed by Mr. Handel, a Signal is given for the Commencement of the Firework...” Interestingly, this seems to indicate that the music preceded the firework display, as opposed to accompanying it.

In fact, a rehearsal of the piece was first performed a few days earlier in Vauxhall Gardens. Entrance cost half a crown and over 12000 people attended. The number of people attending the rehearsal caused a three-hour traffic jam on London Bridge.

It is interesting to note that the pamphlet was published before the display took place, meaning its not merely a souvenir of an event, but also an advert to attract people to watch the display. According to Horace Walpole it seems that the actual event was not as successful as anticipated:

“the rockets and whatever was thrown up into the air succeeded mighty well, but the wheels and all that was to compose the principal part, were pitiful and ill-conducted, with no changes of coloured fires and shapes: the illumination was mean, and lighted so slowly that scare anybody had patience to wait the finishing.”
In addition, the right-hand pavilion where the orchestra had been performing caught alight and burned down and a dispute between Servandoni and the Comptroller of the Fireworks broke out and Servandoni drew his sword and had to be removed from the proceedings.

The pamphlet cost six pence and was printed by W. Bowyer and sold by R. Dodsley at Tully's Head in Pall Mall, M. Cooper in Paternoster Row and booksellers in London and Westminster.

Robert Dodsley (1703-64) was a writer and was one of the most important publishers of his day, publishing works such as Thomas Gray's Elegy and helping to fund Johnson's dictionary. Dodsley set him self up as a bookseller at the Tully's Head in 1735 with the help of his friend Alexander Pope who lent him £100; his shop became a meeting place for the leading poets of the day. William Bowyer (1699-1777) known as "the learned printer" is also an important figure in the history of printing. Bowyer was printer to the House of Commons, Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Society and the House of Lords.

Interestingly, there are two notices printed on the first page – the first is an order declaring that the principal officers of his Majesty's Ordnance have authorized only Mess. Gaetano Ruggieri and Joseph Sarti to publish this description of the intended fireworks. The second – records that Ruggieri and Sarti have appointed William Bowyer to print the pamphlet and warns “whosoever else shall presume to print or abridge the same, shall be prosecuted according to law.” This suggests that there was a real problem with printers producing unauthorized merchandise. However, the fact that the Scots Magazine chose to reproduce the description, suggests, that the threat of prosecution was not that great.

All in all this is a fascinating document which touches on several aspects of cultural history.

Kirsty McHugh, Archivist