Woolwich used to be the royally approved fireworks provider for all sorts of occasions - coronations, celebrations of peace treaties, and royal jubilees. It'll come as no surprise that this is why we call our main space the Fireworks Factory!
Woolwich Works stands on a historic site where the first recorded house was Tower Place, built in the 1540s during the Tudor period. It stood near to where the Royal Military Academy, built later during the 18th century, stands today. In the late 17th century, the Board of Ordnance purchased the Woolwich site to expand its operations from Woolwich Dockyard.
In 1695, the Royal Laboratory was set up as an ammunition laboratory and for the storage of ordnance and fireworks, all overseen by the Comptroller of Fireworks. As part of its activities, there were public demonstrations of its work, often in Hyde Park and by the mid 18th century, it was customary for the Royal Laboratory to provide official firework displays on occasions such as coronations, the celebrations of peace treaties, and royal jubilees.
A famous occasion was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1749. It was held in Green Park with sets and fireworks devised by Italian designers, although controlled by the Comptroller of Fireworks and chief fire master from Woolwich. One hundred and one canons were used. A full rehearsal in Vauxhall Gardens attracted a public audience, each paying two shillings and six pence, claimed to be over 12,000 people and causing traffic jams of carriages on London Bridge. It was said to be a brilliant success.
A Disastrous Display
The display itself was a famous disaster as the weather was poor, causing rockets to misfire and in the middle of the performance one of the main pavilions caught fire. Clothing was set alight and both audience members and soldiers were injured. The Italian and English fireworkers began fighting, and one of the Italians challenged the Comptroller of Fireworks to a duel. He was arrested but released the next day.
Horace Walpole recorded that “one explosion particularly which they say was of Six Thousand was beyond all Imagination, and excepting to poor Mrs Talbot who was frightened out of her Wits…”.