These celebratory fireworks in Britain went awry

I have already heard plenty of comments on the Grand Illumination from my friends who attended. Some report that much of the entertainment was a pale shadow of past years, and in some respects a disaster, while others say that it was a success equal to any previous year. Here is a short story about a real fireworks disaster from more than two and a half centuries ago.

Peter Harrison (1716-1775) was the architect of my home, Newport House. In 1744, he was a prisoner of war of the French at the fortress of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. While there, he invented the world’s first practical flush toilet (thank you!), and he surreptitiously copied down and smuggled out the complete plans of the fortress so that Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts was able to capture the place in 1745.

Shirley was fond of saying that his capture of Louisbourg prevented the French from executing their plan to capture all British colonies around the world in order to solve their huge national budget deficit. Thus, we speak English today and not French because of what Harrison did.

Shirley brought Harrison to London in 1748 to meet George II, Prime Minister Pelham, London Lord Mayor Beckford, London High Sheriff Cleeve and other dignitaries, all of whom commissioned Harrison to design important buildings for them.

Among those were the British Museum (Harrison’s elegant design was not built because the committee was unable to come up with the money until 70 years later, when a different design was used), and Earl Spencer’s “Spencer House” on Green Park near Buckingham Palace, where Princess Diana spent her early years some two centuries later.

Before Harrison left London to return home to his wife and infant daughter in Rhode Island, he learned of an ambitious plan to celebrate the recent peace treaty with France by means of a giant fireworks display in Green Park. George Frideric Handel was engaged to write the “Royal Fireworks Music” to accompany the display. The Italian-born French architect Jean-Nicolas Servandoni was engaged to design the huge Roman-style triumphal arch from which the fireworks would be launched and where Handel’s orchestra would be seated.

Harrison hastened to tell Servandoni that he could save a lot of money if he built the arch out of wood painted to look like stone rather than using real stone (a technique extensively developed by Harrison elsewhere), and so he did.

Harrison was already back home when the celebration took place. One of the fireworks misfired and lodged in an unreachable niche in the arch. Flames quickly destroyed the entire arch, and Handel’s musicians escaped being burned to death by the skin of their teeth.

Fortunately, nothing like that has ever happened at Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination.

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