Fireworks on Blackheath are part of a long traditional on the heath; the current ones go back to at least the 1980s. However, they were certainly not the first fireworks on the heath, there were several Victorian instances – the best recorded are probably those that celebrating the fall of Sebastopol (now generally referred to as Sevastopol) following a year long siege in September 1855 during the Crimean War. The news had reached London on the evening of September 10 1855 and in Woolwich there been a ‘salute of 62 guns was fired, and flags hoisted. The greatest enthusiasm and excitement prevail though the town.’ (1) There was also raising of flags in Deptford dockyard and the local church of St Paul (2).
In Blackheath though the Victorian locals went a little further (3)
..at a late hour at night a grand and spontaneous display of fireworks in celebration of the glorious event took place on Blackheath; the bells from the steeples of every church in the district ringing joyous peals. A great illumination is expected.
The ‘great illumination’ was part of a much bigger celebration just over three weeks later (4).
The loyal people of Greenwich, Lee, Lewisham and Blackheath would on Thursday, October the 4th, by a grand allegorical procession during the day, and a brilliant display of fireworks at night to celebrate the downfall of the Russian stronghold
‘The Illustrated London News’ & ’The Standard’ covered the events of the day – the morning procession (see below (5)) was beset with rain, but cleared for a repeat of it by torchlight in the evening.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 attended the bonfire (6) which was a mixture of brushwood and 300 tar barrels. The bonfire was lit at around 9:30 pm and the evening concluded with a very ‘beautiful display of fireworks of all descriptions – the asteroid rockets were particularly brilliant.’ (7) One of the reporters had ‘seldom witnessed anything more impressive than the scene spread before us.’ Health and safety was less in evidence than as some brought their own fireworks ‘squibs and crackers were flung about in all directions; and although some danger was apprehended, yet we are not aware that any accident occurred.’ (8)
The events were ‘captured’ as an engraving by the Illustrated London Press (9)
They weren’t the only Victorian fireworks on the Heath, there was another display for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee on 20 June 1887. Throughout Kent giant bonfires were to be lit and the great and the good of Blackheath attempted to compete with the higher altitudes of Honor Oak, Knockholt and nearby Shooters Hill – the bonfire ‘vied with any of them for distance at which the ruddy glow was visible.’ (10)
The fire wasn’t lit until 10:00 pm when ‘the dusk rapidly becoming more pronounced.’ Fireworks were set off soon after with large rockets, Catherine wheels and bomb shells – the falling rocket sticks caused some alarm amongst the crowd although the local press reported that no one was hurt. The bonfire contained oil barrels and by 11:00 they were alight, the scene at the bonfire was described in the local press as ‘Mephistophelian’ throwing a ‘rich, ruddy glow onto the face of spectators.’ (11)
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England) Wednesday, September 12 1855; Issue 27679
- Sebastopol Rejoicings.—Procession and Fire Works at Blackheath.” Illustrated London News [London, England] 13 Oct. 1855: 429.
- The Standard (London) Friday October 5 1855, Issue 9719
- Sebastopol Rejoicings op cit
- . Woolwich Gazette 24 June 1887