Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Nunhead Green, London
Whizz and bang
Now we’ve got over Hallowe’en, it’s time to look forward to a festival I’ve more time for: Guy Fawkes’, the night of bangs and whizzes. I’ve always liked a firework, and I’ve been to some memorable Guy Fawkes’ dos in my time, which have ranged from occasions of Handelian gentility to some raucous, politically incorrect, and highly enjoyable displays in Sussex and Kent. And they remind me of something else. Long ago I lived in southeast London, not far away from Nunhead, an area on the edges of SE4 and SE15 known, if it’s known at all, for being the home of one the capital’s great Victorian cemeteries. Nunhead is also notable for Soper’s, one of London’s best fishmongers, and for the pub that has one of my all-time favourite names: the Pyrotechnist’s Arms.
The Pyrotechnist’s Arms is named in homage to Brock’s, probably Britain’s oldest fireworks manufacturers, who used to have their factory nearby. Brock’s began in Islington in the early 18th century and moved south of the river, where they had factories at various locations including Sutton and Nunhead, in the 19th century. They supplied fireworks to the relocated Crystal Palace as well as producing more serious explosives (they sold cartridges to the French army during the Franco-Prussian War). The company seems to have left London in 1910, but lasted until 1988, when it was bought up by Standard Fireworks.
This pub name seems to be the only visible link between this little known part of London and its former industry. I like the group of plotters on the sign – especially the way the artist went to town on their outrageous headgear and the fact that they’ve placed their risky candle on top of the barrel of gunpowder. It’s a reminder that many pub names and signs have links to bits of local history. But few as incendiary, or as unusual, as this one.
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My overseas readers may find it helpful to be told that Guy Fawkes’ Night, otherwise known as Bonfire Night or simply November 5th, commemorates the foiling of a plot hatched by a group of Catholics who planned to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605, when the Protestant monarch James I was in attendance, before installing the king’s nine-year-old daughter as a Catholic head of state. Celebrations involve fireworks and bonfires.
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Compton Verney, the Warwickshire country house and art gallery about which I've blogged before, is holding an exhibition of fireworks until 11 December.