Arthur Brock

Arthur Brock, The Ivies, South Norwood (c:1890).

Guy Fawkes’ Day, according to some, is a dying festival; while others
. . . Don’t see no reason,
Why Gunpowder Treason,
Should ever be forgot;

Even although the original significance of the pyrotechnic commemoration that takes place on the 5th of November, has somewhat faded from memory. In one respect Guido de Fawkes may be considered a national benefactor, since from the annually recurring date of his ignoble attempt has arisen the pyrotechnic art of today; an industry, the effects of which startle and delight equally the civilized and savage, throughout the world. South Norwood is especially identified with pyrotechny.

The Firework Manufactory of Messrs. Brock was originally commenced in London, nearly one hundred and seventy years ago; Mr. Arthur Brock, the present head of the firm, claiming to represent in his own person, “the concentrated essence of seven generations of fire-work manufacturers.”
Until a recent period the making of fireworks was a mere hole and corner affair, recklessly carried on amid crowded thoroughfares, with frequent loss of life, and grave damage to property. But all this is altered; and, through the Explosive Act of 1875, an d the searching supervision of the Explosive Department of the Home Office, firework making has now become comparatively as safe as undoubtedly it is a healthy occupation. By an Order in Council of June, 1894, the use of firework compositions containing chlorate of potash and sulphur was prohibited; and thus, danger has been finally reduced to a minimum.

The connection of the firm of C. T. Brock & Co. with the Crystal Palace dates from the year 1864.

Messrs. Brocks firework manufactory at South Norwood occupies about fifty acres of land; the firm have another large work at Harold Wood in Essex, besides quantities of explosives stored in magazines elsewhere, and in the floating hulks off Gravesend. Scattered over the South Norwood acres, referred to, are numerous small wooden, brick, and corrugated-iron buildings, of peculiar construction; at some distance apart from each other.

A large portion of the field is carefully fenced off; for here are the magazines; strongly built iron structures, each protected by a screen. The remaining widespread area is more closely dotted over with slightly-built wooden sheds, each averaging in size 16 feet by 12. Their interiors are varnished, and the floors covered with lead or linoleum, fastened by copper nails. Any artificial light they may require is to be obtained only from gas jets, burning outside their windows. Throughout, the most scrupulous cleanliness is enforced, so as to avoid grit.


Every precaution also is taken with the work-people. On entering the factory each person undergoes a search; and dons a non-inflammable guernsey, and overshoes of brown leather without nails. Government regulations, exhibited by the door of each shed, indicate the number of persons allowed in it; and prescribe the kind of work, and quantity of composition, permitted. If the work-people want anything they must hang out a red flag, and an attendant comes. Hydrants, and buckets of water, are in every direction. The Magazines are supplied with carefully tested lightning conductors. Both Magazines and forwarding departments are connected by a system of tramways. All is silent; save a low tapping sound, emanating from some of the sheds.

In the paper stores may be seen shells twenty five inches in diameter, and upwards of two and a quarter hundredweight. Paper cylinders, of all sizes, from tiny tubes used for squibs and crackers, to the massive cases of the largest rockets, are made in the rolling sheds.

Close by are the carpenter’s and fitter’s shops. In one building the ingredients are cautiously mixed; in others, various kinds of rockets are filled; the composition being driven home by taps from a box-wood mallet. At one shed are made those brilliant stars that tall in showers from rockets and shells; they consist of small cubes of composition, moulded with methylated spirits and shellac; and afterwards hardened.

Another hut is devoted to the manufacture of quick-match; this is simply cotton wick, steeped in a mixture of gunpowder and starch; it is the necessary link between the coloured lights in set pieces.

In the trenches of the Crystal Palace are the mortars, fired by means of slow matches, whence arise the huge shells, fabricated at this factory, which hurtling through mid-air, and bursting at heights of from 700 to 1,000 feet, finally descend in showers of corruscating stars. For large set-pieces a huge framework is first constructed, and divided into convenient square sections. On this the artist makes an immense design, the same being outlined in lath and cane. With the aid of wire nails, many thousand coloured lights are then arranged along the design; all being connected by quick-match. The set-piece having been hoisted into position, by means of an ingenious hydraulic contrivance, amid the darkness of night, is then fired; when, to the delight of gazing thousands is revealed, it may be ” Jack and the Bean Stalk,” wherein figures the cow, sold to the artful butcher for a sack of beans, which, duly sown, a giant bean-stalk springs upwards and burns, whilst Jack, a real man, clad in asbestos and enveloped by lighted fireworks, nimbly climbs to its summit. Perhaps the set-piece may turn out a huge fiery Chrysanthemum; or, greater
pyrotechnic achievement still, a colossal sea-fight,— “The Battle of Trafalgar,” or “Battle of Manila Bay.” These, the largest set-pieces ever made by Messrs. Brock, each measured about an eighth of a mile in length. In the set-piece of the Battle of Yalu River, between China and Japan, the engagement was represented to scale, the masts being 105 feet high; whilst the entire tableaux measured 600 feet across.

A very considerable amount is annually spent in fire-works. At the rejoicings attendant on H.R.H.The Prince of Wales’ tour through India, in 1875, Mr. Brock visited that country, in order to let off the fireworks, of which some hundreds of tons were then used; ten separate displays being given, at costs varying from £1,000 to £2,500 each.

Of Historic Displays, the largest ever prepared by this or any other firm, was that, given at Lisbon, in 1888, on the occasion of the visit of the King and Queen of Sweden. The fireworks were let off on the river Tagus, when three iron-clads with ten other craft, drawn up in a line extending a mile long, were placed at Mr. Brock’s disposal. The display cost £3,500. But this amount was much exceeded on the marriage of the Duke of Braganza, when no fewer than 10,000 large rockets were simultaneously discharged. Roughly speaking, a Crystal Palace display, on an ordinary night, costs 10s a minute; and on a benefit night, about £10 a minute ; the display usually lasting half an hour. After witnessing one of Messrs. Brock’s Crystal Palace Displays, Li Hung Chang declared that the fireworks for which China is famous were completely eclipsed by the splendours of English pyrotechny.

It is not only for purposes of amusement however that fireworks are formed, since here were made those rockets utilised by the Niger Company during their late African War. These require no match; a string is merely pulled; and the rocket, reaching its destination, fastens on whatever it touches, and sets alight all within reach. For the same expedition also, was invented, and made at South Norwood, a peculiar kind of friction light. Attached to these is, a long string which can be stretched across a path, so that an enemy approaching in the dark, and pressing the string, ignites a fire, which lights up the surrounding country: or, hung on trees, at some distance round the zareba, at sound of the enemy’s stealthy approach, the string of these friction lights can be pulled in camp, when the blacks are instantaneously lit up, and effectually surprised.

As if in contrast to such murderous devices, at South Norwood are manufactured enormous quantities of lights and rockets to be used as distress signals by ships at sea, or in cases of shipwreck, by the coast-guard, and the brave fellows who man our Life-Boats. Five hundred tons of fireworks is the ordinary annual output of the South Norwood Manufactory.

The average number of persons employed here is two hundred, of whom about seventy are females.

Arthur Brock

26th April 2016 @ 16:20

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