Today (April 27) in London History – Fireworks Extravaganza

The premiere of Handel’s Fireworks Suite – and the background to it – is the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.


It’s largely forgotten now. Though perhaps it shouldn’t be.

It’s arguable that it was the first-ever world war.

It took place in the mid-18th century. It’s known as the War of Austrian Succession. It lasted from 1740 to 1748. Seventeen countries or territories were involved. There were five “theatres”, as they say in military parlance. Namely Europe, North America, South America, South India and the High Seas.

When it was all over, the body count came to 450,000 military dead and 300,000 wounded and missing. That’s the total. That’s both sides. What came of it? When it was all over, France was the dominant power on the continent, Britain on the seas. For good measure, the conflict marked the rise of Prussia as a major power. 

It ended with the treaty of Aix-La-Chappelle. Which nobody was much satisfied with – apart from the little people, who, as usual, did most of the dying.

Less than a decade later the major combatants were at it again in the so-called Seven Years War. 

Now to London. There may have been a peace treaty signed in Aix-la-Chappelle but there was war after a fashion on the streets of London. 

Lots of riots and general mayhem in other words. London was, in the words of historian John Richardson, becoming more anarchic and volatile. A couple of examples. A cancellation of a race at the Tothill Racecourse sparked a riot. Even more extraordinary was the trashing of the Haymarket Theatre. That was the London response to a hoax. The hoaxers had put it about that a man squeeze himself into a quart bottle. Sing a song was he was tucked up inside the bottle. And the audience would be allowed to handle the bottle. Now I’ve hit this theme several times previously. London loves a spectacle, London loves the novel, London loves the outrageous and unusual. So, sure enough, a huge and expectant crowd gathered at the theatre to watch a man cram himself into a quart jar. They were kept waiting an hour. Whereupon they were told the exhibition would not take place because nowhere in London were the promoters able to find a bottle of exactly a quart size. That announcement didn’t go down well. The audience wrecked the theatre. Trashed it. 

So all of that’s the general background – the tenor of the times and the place – for what happened, in Green Park, on April 27th, 1749.

A concert and a fireworks show.

Some concert. Some fireworks show. And, yes, the extravaganza was put on to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, the treaty of which had been signed, a couple of days earlier, by Britain, Holland and Austria on one side and France and Spain on the other. Notice in passing – by the way – the religious divide there. Catholic Spain and Catholic France on one side and Protestant North Europe on the other side. Martin Luther in Germany and Henry VIII marrying Ann Boleyn in that room in Holbein Gate at Whitehall Palace – that may have been the important marriage in European history – those three protagonists really started something. A set of conditions and divisions that in many respects we’re still living with today, hundreds of years later. History matters. Don’t let anyone tell you different. 

Anyway, our April 27th event in Green Park. A large wooden pavilion was erected. It was made to look like stone. Thus permanent and grand. The entertainment consisted of – I’m quoting here – “a grand concert of war-like instruments.” There was a royal salute of 101 brass cannons, 11 separate rocket displays, air balloons and over 32,000 fireworks. 

To add to the fun, the wooden pavilion – painted to resemble stone – caught fire and burned down. And – best of all – and most lasting of all – that event, on April 27th, 1749, was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.

And that surely is a pretty good takeaway. Maybe summon it up the next time you listen to Handel’s Fireworks Suite. What a year that was for Londoners – they got the Fireworks suite and they didn’t get a man squeezing into a quart bottle. 

A recommendation: yeah, sure, go on a walk that starts at Green Park Underground Station. The Old Palace Quarter, for example. It starts there in Green Park itself, by the refreshment stand. Just outside the Green Park exit of Green Park Station. The park’s interesting in so many. The only royal park without flowers – there’s a good story there. The smallest royal park. As you take survey of it maybe bear in mind that it’s almost exactly the same size – acreage-wise – as Buckingham Palace Gardens. You want a measure of privilege – of royal privilege – imagine having a garden, in central London, the size of Green Park. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And don’t just take it from us.

Take it from that American convention of walking tour guides a few years ago. As they put it:

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. In the words of that American filmmaker, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, with London Walks, uniquely, you 

get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, historians, the former Editor of Independent Television News, 

Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, 

elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. 

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that note, see ya tomorrow. 

Nothing else to add, except Good Londoning, one and all. And so glad you’re back. You were sorely missed.

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