Kimbolton Fireworks Article

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    Credit Pyrotechnics Magazine

    Kimbolton Fireworks The past, present & future.
    An article by The Reverend Ron Lancaster MBE CChem FRSC. Chairman of Kimbolton Fireworks Ltd.

    Originally published 2016.

    I was born in 1931 and as a young boy always enjoyed fireworks in the garden on November the 5th. Huddersfield, our home town was the northern centre of the UK firework trade with three manufacturers in the town, the oldest factory only a few miles from our house. At the highest point of the town, there is a memorial tower to Queen Victoria and I vividly remember a display for the Coronation of the King in 1937. Interestingly fireworks have not played a great part this year for the 90th birthday of HRH Queen Elizabeth II.

    During the war years, along with a cousin, a big hobby was distilling our own charcoal to make gunpowder type mixtures. We had no interest in its explosive properties but rather used it to make rockets, learning which charcoals made the best sparks or the fastest propulsion. Potassium chlorate from pharmacies was quite expensive but we were aware of the problems and knew that potassium chlorate throat tablets could be ignited on a safety matchbox. Nevertheless, we did occasionally make our own chlorate from sodium chlorate weedkiller which was unadulterated in those days.

    Universities and National Service occupied the next ten years until I was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1957, after deciding against a career in medicine. It was also an opportunity to renew contacts within the firework trade where I was actively encouraged to start undertaking research in the post-war trade, which had restarted after a five year period focusing on munitions. I am eternally grateful to the Greenhalgh Family of Standard Fireworks who employed as many as 600 personnel on four sites at one period and there was a need for some changes. In 1963 I moved to Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire to work at Kimbolton School as Chaplain and to teach Divinity and Chemistry, with permission to build a laboratory. This was in effect utilising the old ‘Small Factory Licence’ of 1875 which required at least two workshops and a gunpowder store. These empty buildings are still extant, but only just. It was also the move south which prompted a decision to work with Pains Fireworks and stay with them through their move to Salisbury until they ceased making fireworks about 1978, concentrating entirely on signals etc.

    This experience of a whole range of pyrotechnics has been quite fascinating and satisfying. The real enthusiast needs to know everything, not just for its own sake, but this has not been without the occasional problem when intellectual business knowledge has to be safeguarded. Amateurs (like me in the earlier days) find this hard to accept.

    Friendships with firework people in the EU and USA have contributed to a vast change in fireworks when compared to that post-war period. In particular the change to perchlorate and magnalium whose higher temperature flames have given us a better range of colour and effect. I recall a sample of titanium arriving from ICI in about 1964 and Pains were certainly the first to use it commercially in the UK. In fairness to China I think that they exploited the use of magnalium quicker than the west, but just when we thought that we had discouraged the addition of sulphur to perchlorate mixtures, it has become present again in some dangerous flash compositions made more frictionally sensitive by gritty magnalium particles.

    Undoubtedly the biggest change in the firework industry has come about from EU policy which favours big business and disadvantages small and medium enterprises. Control and the categorisation of fireworks as F1, 2, 3 and 4 has driven a coach and horses through an industry which is essentially small and medium. There is much logic in controlling what can be sold to the general public at categories F1, 2, and 3 but even then differences of culture and language make it expensive to conform. An example of this in the UK is the November 5th common use of smallish boxes of mixed fireworks. The back of this box used to just have the British Standard number ‘BS 7114:1988’. Today it has as many as 12 pictograms and 8 varied instructions.

    How many will read it? In some instances a cone is not a cone, it is a straight fountain in a hollow cone tube! I mentioned this to a German friend who replied that they do not sell mixed boxes! More importantly, we all know how many EU manufacturers there used to be and we all know how many are left. We have argued that F4 must not be CE marked and should only be used by trained, licensed professionals with specialist knowledge. The actual cost of CE marking is not justified for manufacturing many items where only hundreds are made in any one season. Professionals also need to buy from manufacturers they know and trust for quality.

    It is clear that the decline of EU manufacture is because it does not justify employing people all the year round, certainly if we cannot sell to other professionals. On the other hand, we have a large growth of – not Pyrotechnists - but Pyrotechs, who use imported material and even break it down to suit their own purposes. Even more costly are the testing organisations and those people selling software to cope with the bureaucracy. It seems that anyone can make money out of fireworks except the people who wish to manufacture them. In the UK attention has been very much focused on the decline of the steel industry due to the ‘dumping’ of foreign imports. This is big business which the EU seems to support to the detriment of small business enterprises to which firework manufacturers belong. The consequence of this is that the bureaucracy interferes increasingly, with little knowledge and experience of the nature of the business. Manufacturers have enough problems whether it is the seasonal nature of the business or complaints from the public about noise or pets being upset. Any seasonal business is bound to have problems with its wages bill if it employs people all the year round. Surely it is the duty of Civil Servants to make sure that manufacture is satisfactory and have a positive and helpful role for their country’s businesses. There is a general view that CE marking for F4 cannot be completed by 2017 and this ought to be postponed for a few years to establish what ‘professional’ should entail.

    My 60 years in fireworks continues to keep me going in old age. I have to admit that I was happiest when we used to make the Italian style cylinder shells up to 200mm in diameter and Roman Candles have always been an interest and speciality.

    I fondly recall the annual display at the Cowes regatta required a break in the display to fire repeating 125mm cylindrical repeating coloured shells. After the second break, the huge audiences started to count each break and clap by the time five breaks had been achieved. The large shells required sturdy lifting charges where a six break was thought to be a risk because of the length. We were however persuaded to try it and I decided to shorten the first fuse in order to start the breaks on the way up as well as down. In fact, the last break even then was rather low and we were upset to see stars bouncing on the deck of a yacht. We heard of no consequences fortunately, it was more than 40 years ago and it would not happen today. In those far off days, I also recall the first attempt at making girondolas. As these items need end burning rockets all made from the same batch of powder, this is not easy if you do not make your own Blackpowder. One item was memorable where with an adequate distance from the audience, the Flying Saucer as we called them, rose 3m and then turned 90 degrees towards the audience. As it lost weight it soared above their heads and headed for the huge marquee selling drink. It burnt out before it reached the marquee, but the crowd loved it and wondered how we managed to make a firework-like that. That was also many years ago!!

    My prime interests have always been in manufacture, but I did not grow up with IT and so I have to leave the new huge expensive spectaculars to others. Although magnificent they can be comparatively short in duration and we are beginning to feel the need for something different. It is fine for the general public who do not see many very large displays or even have the special experience of being present which you do not get on TV. Fireworks seem to be alive and there are some countries where it is obvious that the audience needs to get as close as possible; the further south you go the more obvious this seems to be.

    There are only a few ways in which single shot fireworks can be displayed exciting as they can be. Some cultures have a tradition where the exhibitions are much slower with opportunities to look at especially beautiful items.

    I shall always look back to the Hong Kong Handover display in 1997, a triumph in monsoon rain, the VJ displays on five barges, with five music barges on the Thames in 1997, winning the Vestale D’Argent and then Vestale D’Or in Cannes and of course the Olympics as a triumph for the Kimbolton Team. To maintain a firework factory these days is a challenge and we hope to survive.

    I can honestly say that profit has been incidental but our motto has been ‘Ex Luce Lucellum’ which we translate as ‘Out of light, a little profit’.

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