n 1879, St John’s Eve was celebrated as usual in Penzance. In the morning, a couple of lads were up in court after being caught prematurely setting off their home-made fireworks on the Promenade – “just putting off a few”, they claimed, “to test them”. The Mayor (and later conservative MP) Charles Ross reminded them that the Explosives Act had been entered into statute “entirely irrespective of local eccentricities and old customs”. Anyone who let off fireworks in the street risked a £5 fine. Nobody, the mayor sternly reminded the accused, was allowed to make their own incendiaries without a licence.
As the accused were “respectable young men” they were let off with a shilling fine plus costs (the modern equivalent of the total, according to conversion websites, is around £35)– but Mayor Ross no doubt hoped that his words would be repeated about the town. He recognised that letting off fireworks on St John’s Eve was an “old custom”, but made clear that it was, nonetheless, illegal. And then there was the “danger of indulging in this sort of sport on the highways”. Although he denied it publicity, Mayor Ross probably had in mind a call issued three days previously by an “enthusiastic antiquarian” to “keep up the old custom with spirit”.
In the evening, there was “a grand display of fireworks of various descriptions”, with bonfires and “monstrous tarry torches”. As night fell, youths gathered, “vainly endeavouring to assume a very careless air” but with “an anxious manner” and “mysterious protuberances” beneath their coats. As the numbers gathering to defy the law increased, confidence grew – and soon “hundreds of handrockets” were blazing in the Greenmarket. As midnight approached, the whole area was “engulfed in one deluge of fiery rain”. There were colours, “Greek fire” and – to the dismay of any ladies unwise enough to be present – “crackers” (jumping jacks) firing off at ankle level.
Thus the Cornishman made the most of the 1879 event. But there is a telling sentence: the celebrations were damned with faint praise as “not below the average”. This, coupled with the exhortation to “keep up the old custom”, suggests a sense of decline. And sure enough, the Cornishman made nothing of any bonfires or fireworks which may have taken place in 1880 when their big news of the day was the laying of the foundation stone for St John’s Church, although the Cornish Telegraph reported a large-scale St John’s Eve event and lamented “roughs” and the misuse of firecrackers. Nor did the Cornishman have anything to report in 1881 (when according to the Telegraph two lads making fireworks narrowly escaped injury, and a dress was set on fire), or 1882 (although a Londoner writing in the Telegraph was impressed by the proceedings).
But even the Telegraph was disappointed by St John’s Eve 1883, despite its falling on a Saturday. There were no more than “a few small bonfires” (St James Street at least stepping up to the mark) and “one or two boys” with torches and firecrackers, but ”the whole Green market part of the programme was left out”.
The former firebrands? According to the Telegraph, one had joined the Salvation Army. Others had married, and used this an excuse – with or without good reason - to curtail their involvement. The rest “refused to subscribe and work because so many in former years whilst quite willing to let off and burn what others had paid for and collected, would not give nor labour beforehand”. The Telegraph reports in previous years also suggest an increasingly cavalier attitude to risk, and participants may have been alarmed by this – and by the 1883 Explosives Act, passed in April that year, which threatened heavy terms of imprisonment for illegal use of explosives.
Cornishman 26th June 1879 page 4. The Telegraph did not cover the 1879 event at all –it had not yet adjusted to the competition offered by the new Cornishman, and retained more of a serious news, and national and county-wide, focus
Cornish Telegraph 30th June 1880 page 6, 30th June 1881 page 5, 29th June1882 page 4
Cornishman June 28th 1883 page 4 (Quay Fair), Cornish Telegraph June 28th 1883 page 4.
http://www.banksr.co.uk/images/Statutes/D-E/explosive%20substances%201883.pdf (accessed May 21st 2017)
We hope to publish a Penwith Paper on Penzance’s midsummer celebrations in June 2018