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Squibbing Disasters

The squibbing tradition possibly goes back to the early 1600’s but at least to 1716 and an incident with John Taylor.  He was a local manufacturer of squibs but the event is recorded only because of the tragic circumstances surrounding his name.  Taylor failed to take the necessary precautions in handling the explosives and blew up himself and two of his children. The practice of making fireworks was carried out in many homes and gave the local authority great cause for concern.  A similar but less tragic incident occurred in Mr. Stacey’s shop in 1865.  Three young lads were grinding powder to make squibs.  A quantity of powder was spilt and fell over the mill.  Unwisely one of the boys took a lighted taper to see how much had been spilt and where.  The question became academic as the powder ignited.  Three young lads, with minor injuries and smoke burns, walked out through the front of the shop – which no longer existed!

The traditional squibs were very simple affairs.  They varied in size, up to two inches in diameter and twenty two inches long.  The case, made of rolled up paper, was drawn in one inch from the top to form a choke of half an inch diameter.  As the squib burned, this choke widened increasing the size of the illuminated area as it went.  Various forms of metal and glass filings were mixed with gunpowder in varying proportions but typically totalling three pounds in weight.  The bottom end of the squib was then packed with two ounces of rock powder to give the final loud report.

In 1892 a Chief Inspector from the Home Office visited the town and declared that the practice of making home made squibs was illegal.  He threatened the carnival committee that he would fine them £100 per day for each day that illegal fireworks continued to be manufactured in the town.  The committee’s response was to declare the end of the carnival.  The carnival community had a different attitude.  They distributed posters advertising the forthcoming event and declaring that only Bavarian squibs would be used and not locally made ones.  Everyone knew what was meant by ‘Bavarian’.  The carnival continued and a minor revolution took place within the committee.

Prior to 1881, squibs were let off spontaneously throughout the day as and when the owners felt the urge.  Smaller fireworks were often hurled indiscriminately into the crowd.  The formation of an official committee helped to control and organise this element of the festivities into a popular public spectacle.  The committee squibs were purchased from reputable suppliers and brought with them a higher cost than the home made ones.  Since the clubs at the time squibbed in competition with each other, they preferred to make their own squibs to ensure that theirs were the biggest and the best.  Consequently it was some while before proper control over the manufacture of squibs became common practice.  Competition squibbing, where each club provided a team of squibbers who provided ‘synchronised’ squibbing, lasted until 1972 when Ramblers became the last club to win the Winslade Cup for the squibbing competition.  Indeed I took part in one myself before the competition aspect was dropped in favour of being able to complete the evening’s revels an hour or so earlier.

But back to the 1900’s when the illegal, but bigger and better squibs were still home made.  Fearing a repetition of the John Taylor disaster, in 1909 a raid took place on the home of Mr. W. H. Kitch in Angel Crescent. There the Inspector of Explosives, assisted by the Borough Police Force and a search warrant, found 164 squibs weighing over a third of a ton. Each squib was two feet in length and weighed seven pounds.  Other paraphernalia was found; thirty nine pounds of gunpowder and a coffee mill to grind it; iron fillings; a ram rod; the roller and paper to make the squib cases. The evidence presented by the Town Clerk for the prosecution on the following Monday was overwhelming and appeals to release the materials went unheeded. The court heard how, if an explosion had taken place, not only would the garden shed in which they found the material have been destroyed, but the whole of Angel Crescent including its residents.

This particular haul had belonged to just one gang and included all the equipment needed to produce these enormous squibs.  The guilty householder was fined £10 with £3 1s 6d costs.  In the true spirit of carnival, a collection was taken to pay his fine and totalled £18 1s 6d.  The £5 surplus was donated to the Soup Kitchen.  The police agreed to release the confiscated squibs on the understanding that they were used for a public display to raise funds for the hospital.

Text Copyright © 2008 Roger Evans

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