Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fireworks come to the Auckland Domain, 1903

These days, Aucklanders almost take for granted that, each year, there will be spectacular fireworks shows in the volcanic crater of the Domain, the cricket ground beside the War Memorial Museum. I’ve been to a couple myself, for one wrapped in a warming blanket gazing upward at a brightly illuminated night sky. (My friend Mad Bush will surely back me up that the walk back to the city across the Grafton Bridge, from that one, in a massive tide of people at 11 o’clock at night or so is an experience as well!) But, more than a hundred years ago, such events were still a wondrous novelty.

It was late 1903. Already, those New Zealanders lucky enough to do so had witnessed fireworks spectaculars across the Tasman at Sydney and Melbourne since the turn of the new century. Some small displays had been offered before in Auckland but, so it seems, not at the Domain before now. For 28th October 1903, the Crystal Palace Fireworks Company promised Aucklanders a real treat.
“Mr T. Gaunt, the company's expert, has given some very large displays in Australia. The first programme will consist of the bombardment of the Taku Forts in China by six battleships built entirely of fireworks. The ships will manoeuvre and fire broadside, finally silencing and blowing up the forts. In addition, there will be a general display, of fireworks, consisting of mechanical figures, such as performing monkeys on horizontal bars, flying pigeons, dovecotes, and cyclists riding, clowns on see-saw, etc. Then there are revolving wheels, small wheels, large wheels, and wheels within wheels, revolving suns, Oriental trees, Chinese pagodas, Niagara Falls of liquid fires, and innumerable designs, all in fireworks. The grounds will be brilliantly illuminated with Chinese lanterns and fairy lights, and a first-class promenade concert will be given during the evening by the First Battalion Infantry Band. The Cricket Ground is easily accessible from all parts of the city and suburbs, and owing to the natural formation, the displays cannot be seen without going inside. This will stop that class of people who dearly love a show for nothing.”
(Observer, 24 October 1903)

All, however, did not go entirely to plan. The display was witnessed by an estimated 10,000 people, “one of the biggest crowds which was ever seen on the Domain cricket .ground”, but some “disgraceful scenes” took place. “On account of the very inadequate arrangements made at the gates… the crowds taking charge and pressing past the Carrier at the main entrance … Altogether upwards of 25 per cent of those on the ground gained admission without payment. (Bay Of Plenty Times, 30 October 1903) That wasn’t the half of it. The Auckland Star later reported that the event had been “ruined by larrikins who invaded the grounds, smashed the fittings, and stole a great deal of the fireworks …” (Star, 28 November 1903) Well, I suppose they may have expected that they were asking for trouble, having such a display so close to Guy Fawkes …
“There was a dreadful rush to get on the Domain Cricket Ground on the night of the fireworks. Some people waited for nearly an hour before they could get tickets, and hundreds got so tired that they went in without paying, and through a gate, too. There were some police present, but their eyes were on the fences and not on the gates, as one stout lady found to her sorrow. Despairing of entering any other way, the dame, in company with another, boldly essayed to escalade the hedge. Her companion got through all right, but the obese dowager found herself suddenly seized by the foot. With a yell she turned round, and saw a most ungallant bobby tugging at her new prunella Number Ten. She raised her umbrella to strike, when she suddenly capsized and fell inside the fence. The sudden jerk caused her boot to slip, and the constable collapsed on the other side. The contesting parties did not meet again, and the lady saw the fireworks standing on one foot. What the policeman did with the boot is not recorded.
(Observer, 7 November 1903)

Undaunted, Mr. Gaunt soldiered on, offering we colonials another taste of his pyrotechnic magic in time for King Edward VII’s birthday on 9th November.

"Those who want to wind up the King's Birthday appropriately, and at the same time secure an hour or two of pure enjoyment, will do well to visit the Domain Cricket Ground on Monday, evening. The Crystal Palace Fireworks Company, whose local representative is Mr. W. H. Hazard, have arranged to carry out in its entirety the grand programme that was somewhat wantonly interfered with on its first presentation, last week. Every precaution has been taken to suppress the exuberant larrikin, and the public may feel confident that their comfort will be conserved. The display includes a series of fairy illuminations, rockets, bombs, etc., in bewildering variety, and; will wind up with a realistic representation of the historic bombardment of the Taku Forts by the British and French some forty years ago. This is the battle in which the French admiral is alleged by a veracious bluejacket to have committed suicide by shooting himself, while the British admiral exhibited what appeared to be cowardice, but that is another story. There will be a musical concert with appropriate items and the Battalion Band will attend and play a number of selections.”
(Observer, 7 November 1903)

The promoters promised faithfully that “interference with the Comfort of Patrons or the Progress of the Performance will be promptly suppressed.”

I don’t have the reports to hand as to how this show went, but Mr Hazard and Mr. Gaunt were back again for another go on 27 November. This time, the police were definitely out in force. They reported success against the larrikins, but “not without considerable difficulty.

One John O’Brien (22) was charged the next day in the police court with “using threatening behaviour in the Auckland Domain with intent, to cause a breach of the peace, and also with resisting Constable Macartney in the execution of his duty.” Leonard De Courcy (18) was charged with “inciting persons to assault Constable Macartney”. The constable testified that several stones were thrown, striking him and others tasked with watching the fence around the display area. He saw O’Brien “leaning over the fence brandishing a piece of wood, and trying to strike one of the men inside.” O’Brien apparently legged it on being spotted by the constable, but during the chase threw several of the reported stones, joined in that sport by his companions as O’Brien struggled to avoid capture and arrest. “Stone the police!” came the shouts. O’Brien was offered a choice of £5 fine or a month’s hard labour – he chose the latter. (Auckland Star, 28 November 1903)

The Crystal Palace Fireworks Company went on to stage two more shows that year, and both appeared to be as successful but not so criminally dramatic as the previous ones. Despite the rocky start, Auckland’s love affair with public (free) firework displays at the Domain had begun.

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1 comment:

  1. Tsk tsk, naughty lads!
    Sounds like an event no one would have missed :)