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.

* * *

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.

* * *

Compton Verney, the Warwickshire country house and art gallery about which I've blogged before, is holding an exhibition of fireworks until 11 December.

17 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

Your excellent post reminded me of what I once thought the best banger- a Brocks Cannon. This led me to discover the UK Pyrotechnics Society (www.pyrosociety.org.uk)where they discuss things like fuses and old labels.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Thank you. I seem to remember that Brock's were a mainstay for bangers and other delights when I was young.

Incidentally, Compton Verney are doing an exhibition of fireworks at the moment. I'll add something to the post when I have a minute. I've not seen the exhibition yet, but it should be a graphic feast, I should think.

Gawain said...

Pub names: oh, my Antigallican (Tooley St SE1)of long ago.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Gawain: Yes! There's another Antigallican in Charlton (SE7?), near the overground station.

Peter Ashley said...

We found the Antigallican in Charlton on our pilgrimage to Marion Park. I've subsequently found out that the Antigallican Society was formed in 1745 as a protest against the import of French goods and culture. Anti Gallic, in fact.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Absolutely. Our journey in pursuit of Blow-up. The pub seemed big, late-Victorian, and noisy as far as I recall.

Hels said...

The reason Guy Fawkes Night was soooo beloved in Australia, right up until the early 1960s, was because fathers planned the fun (built the bonfire, dressed the guy, bought the crackers etc) for their children and participated in all the activities. Normally mothers did all the child rearing.

It was a terrible shame that the Australian government banned fireworks to ordinary families, on health and safety ground. It used to be my favourite night of every year.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: That's a shame. It's easier here, although there are more restrictions on the sale of fireworks than there used to be. If anything, fireworks are more common here than they used to be, because they're now used at more times during the year. As well as celebrations such as diwali and Chinese New Year, now widely celebrated, there's been over the last decade or so a fashion to celebrate New Year with fireworks - I think this gained momentum with the Millennium. Guy Fawkes is still special, though.

ChrisP said...

The Antigallican in Charlton was my local 20 years ago. I left off going after the bloke in front of me in the queue for the bar was complaining to his mate that he had to go to court for some knifing, and the bloke behind me was complaining to his mate about the cost of decent dope.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Those, as they say, were the days. Peter Ashley and I passed this place on an expedition to find one of the locations of Antonioni's film Blow-Up. If this pub was your local, you'll know all about that I'm sure. Somewhere on Peter's Unmitigated England blog there's a post about this walk, with an atmospheric photograph taken by me in the park. If you blow it up, you will, of course, find something rather odd.

James Russell said...

Doesn't Iain Sinclair's book 'Lights out for the Territory' have a bit in it about the 'Blow-up' park?

When Eric Ravilious and Jim Richards were putting together their 1938 book 'High Street' they sent off for a Brocks catalogue, which was a rather splendid document; Ravilious included 'Fireworks' among his shops - you can find the image online very easily. Come to think of it, maybe I should do a post...

Philip Wilkinson said...

James: Yes, the Sinclair book does mention Maryon Park - there are several pages about the park and the film near the end of the book. Sinclair mentions that the eerie whistling of the wind in the trees in the film is genuine, which is true: you hear that very sound when you go to the park.

I know the High Street image, but didn't know that Ravilious used a Brock's catalogue. Thanks for the info.

Bucks Retronaut said...

Not too au fait with yer graphics and assorted Big City Ways down that London,but what I do know is that there is a bridge called Blow Up Bridge on the Regent's Canal.It's a replacement for a bridge that was blown to hell and gone by a gunpowder-laden narrowboat which did the predictable in I think 1874.
Sadly no sign of Vanessa Redgrave,Sarah Miles or Jane Birkin when I was last there.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bucks: Yes, gosh, Blow-up Bridge, I'd forgotten about that – used to pass it regularly in my St John's Wood days. (This talk of Ms's Redgrave, Miles, and Birkin will have me getting my Blow-up DVD out again...)

Vinogirl said...

Very appropriate...love it!

Ron Combo said...

Love those manufacturers' names, so redolent of younger days. Do any of them still exist? Wish I could go to that exhibition.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ron: The names I remember from my youth are Astra, Pain's, Brock's , and Standard. Astra has vanished, Brock's got taken over by Standard, who in turn got absorbed into Black Cat fireworks, who still use Standard as a brand. Pain's still exists.