Maurice Evans at Compton Verney
At the end of last Winter, when the snowdrops were out, I went down to Steyning in Sussex to meet Maurice Evans who, at eighty-three years old, has amassed the most comprehensive collection of fireworks in Britain. Upon my departure, we shook hands in the cellar beneath Maurice’s house where he keeps his precious secret hoard and I did not know if we should meet again. Yet such was my delight in the encounter that – now the leaves are falling and as we begin another Winter – I travelled up to Warwickshire this week to attend the opening of the exhibition of Maurice’s fireworks organised by the Museum of British Folklore.
Gravel crunched beneath the wheels of the car as it swept along the curved drive approaching Compton Verney, travelling through grounds laid out by Capability Brown – where an ornamental lake glinted in the last rays of the sun and giant cedars loomed from the shadows – delivering me to the portico of the great mansion in the dark. I hurried through stately rooms, hung with fine old paintings in golden frames, to enter a magnificent hall designed by Robert Adam, where champagne was being served to a crowd of local worthies in all manner of gold chains, and flaunting badges of office.
At the centre of the gathering, I found Maurice Evans, dapper in a mid-grey lounge suit, clinking glasses with Simon Costin who masterminded the show, dressed up like a dandy coster. Although attended by his wife Kit and their grown up children – all amazed at the places fireworks can lead you – Maurice was as restless as a mischievous imp, demonstrating the liberated soul of one who has spent his life doing what he loves, which is collecting and setting off fireworks. So, once the speeches were out of the way, we set off along passages and up staircases to enter the midnight blue rooms where Maurice’s collection was displayed.
“It all started when I was a little boy, I had asthma and couldn’t go out to see the fireworks,” Maurice reminded me, as if simply to explain it away, before he walked into the exhibition that is the culmination of his lifetime of collecting.
Earlier this year, Maurice first showed me his box of exploding fruit that he has kept safe for decades in a niche in his cellar, crowded among hundreds of other dusty old fireworks that tell the history of pyrotechnics in this country – because, since the firework companies never held archives and their creations vanished into smoke each Bonfire Night, it was left to Maurice to become the self-appointed custodian of this beloved yet largely unacknowledged area of our culture.
Coming upon Maurice’s exploding fruit displayed in a glass museum case, we exchanged a glance of wonder. Then I followed the line of Maurice’s tender gaze to his treasures, nestling there in their original box. “Those are just like mine,” he said, placing a hand affectionately on the glass and looking back to me with a twinkle in his eye. “They are yours,” insisted Kit as she arrived, and Maurice gave me a complicit smile, turning and gazing in pleasure upon the huge firework posters on the walls. Slowly, we walked among the cases of fireworks, some designed like crates of gunpowder, others like roman candles and rockets, yet Maurice did not look too closely because the contents were familiar to him. “I’ve got a lot more than this at home,” he confided to me in a pantomime whisper, a little baffled as he cast his eyes around at the excited throng flocking into the gallery behind us.
Unable to resist looking at a case of indoor fireworks, I stepped away through the crowd and then my attention strayed from one item to another, until an attendant warned me it was time to go outside for the firework display. The blue rooms had emptied out when Kit asked me if I had seen Maurice, so we did another circuit of the exhibition together but he was not to be found. As we descended the stairs, Kit was concerned lest Maurice miss the display in his honour. “This is a very important day for him,” she assured me. Joining Maurice’s children, we all walked around the side of the mansion in the deep darkness to the wide lawn where, we were advised, we should enjoy the most advantageous view of the fireworks.
Maurice was already there, eagerly waiting on the grass at the front of the crowd, looking over his shoulder with a cheery smile to welcome us late-comers. Once, Kit and her children would have stood alone while Maurice ran around in the dark with the fuse, through the years he organised displays for a living. Now they stood together -after all this time, still enraptured by the fireworks that have never lost their magic.
Maurice & Kit at the firework display.
Maurice Evans, firework collector extraordinaire, and Simon Costin of the Museum of British Folklore.
You may also like to read my original profile of Maurice Evans, Firework Collector