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Maurice Evans, Pyrotechnician

November 5, 2022
by the gentle author

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Maurice Evans collected fireworks since childhood and at over eighty years old,  he had accumulated the most comprehensive collection in the country – so you can imagine both my excitement and my trepidation upon stepping through the threshold of his house in Shoreham. My concern about potential explosion was relieved when Maurice confirmed that he had removed the gunpowder from his fireworks, only to be re-ignited when his wife Kit helpfully revealed that Catherine Wheels and Bangers were excepted because you cannot extract the gunpowder without ruining them.

This statement prompted Maurice to remember with visible pleasure that he still had a collection of World War II shells in the cellar and, of course, the reinforced steel shed in the garden full of live fireworks. “Let’s just say, if there’s a big bang in the neighbourhood, the police always come here first to see if it’s me,” admitted Maurice with a playful smirk. “Which it often isn’t,” added Kit, backing Maurice up with a complicit demonstration of knowing innocence.

“It all started with my father who was in munitions in the First World War,” explained Maurice proudly, “He had a big trunk with little drawers, and in those drawers I found diagrams explaining how to work with explosives and it intrigued me. Then came World War II and the South Downs were used as a training ground and, as boys, we went where we shouldn’t and there were loads of shells lying around, so we used to let them off.”

Maurice’s radiant smile revealed to me the unassailable joy of his teenage years, running around the downs at Shoreham playing with bombs. “We used to set off detonators outside each other’s houses to announce we’d arrived!” he bragged, waving his left hand to reveal the missing index finger, blown off when the explosive in a slow fuse unexpectedly fired upon lighting. “That’s the worst thing that happened,” Maurice declared with a grimace of alacrity, “We were worldly wise with explosives!”

Even before his teens, the love of pyrotechnics had taken grip upon Maurice’s psyche. It was a passion born of denial. “I used to suffer from bronchitis and asthma as a child, so when November 5th came round, I had to stay indoors.” he confided with a frown, “Every shop had a club and you put your pennies and ha’pennies in to save for fireworks and that’s what I did, but then my father let them off and I had to watch through the window.”

After the war, Maurice teamed up with a pyrotechnician from London and they travelled the country giving displays which Maurice devised, achieving delights that transcended his childhood hunger for explosions. “In my mind, I could envisage the sequence of fireworks and colours, and that was what I used to enjoy. You’ve got all the colours to start with, smoke, smoke colours, ground explosions, aerial explosions – it’s endless the amount of different things you can do. The art of it is knowing how to choose.” explained Maurice, his face illuminated by the images flickering in his mind. Adding, “I used to be quite big in fireworks at one time.” with calculated understatement.

Yet all this personal history was the mere pre-amble before Maurice led me through his house, immaculately clean, lined with patterned carpets and papers and witty curios of every description. Then in the kitchen, overlooking the garden lined with old trees, he opened an unexpected cupboard door to reveal a narrow red staircase going down. We descended to enter the burrow where Maurice has his rifle range, his collections, model aeroplanes, bombs and fireworks – all sharing the properties of flight and explosiveness. Once they were within reach, Maurice could not restrain his delight in picking up the shells and mortars of his childhood, explaining their explosive qualities and functions.

But my eyes were drawn by all the fireworks that lined the walls and glass cases, and the deep blues, lemon yellows and scarlets of their wrappers and casings. Such evocative colours and intricate designs which in their distinctive style of type and motif, draw upon the excitement and anticipation of magic we all share as children, feelings that compose into a lifelong love of fireworks. Rockets, Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels, Bangers, and Sparklers – amounting to thousands in boxes and crates, Maurice’s extraordinary collection is the history of fireworks in this country.

“I wouldn’t say its made my life, but its certainly livened it up,” confided Maurice, seeing my wonder at his overwhelming display. Because no-one (except Maurice) keeps fireworks, there is something extraordinary in seeing so many old ones and it sets your imagination racing to envisage the potential spectacle that these small cardboard parcels propose.

Maurice outgrew the bronchitis and asthma to have a beautiful life filled with fireworks, to visit firework factories around Britain, in China, Australia, New Zealand and all over Europe, and to scour Britain for collections of old fireworks, accumulating his priceless collection. Like an old dragon in a cave, surrounded by gold, Maurice guarded his cellar hoard protectively and was concerned about the future. “It needs to be seen,” he said, contemplating it all and speaking his thoughts out loud, “I would like to put this whole collection into a museum. I don’t want any money. I want everyone to see what happened from pre-war times up until the present day in the progression of fireworks.”

“My father used to bring me the used ones to keep,” confessed Maurice quietly with an affectionate gleam in his eye, as he revealed the emotional origin of his collection, once that we were alone together in the cellar. With touching selflessness, having derived so much joy from collecting his fireworks, Maurice wanted to share them with everybody else.

Maurice with his exploding fruit.

Maurice with his barrel of gunpowder

Maurice with his grenades.

Maurice with two favourite rockets.

Firework photographs copyright © Simon Costin

Read my story about Simon Costin, The Museum of British Folklore

4 Responses leave one →
  1. November 5, 2022

    There is not much left to say because the article describes EVERYTHING — wonderful!

    Love & Peace

  2. November 5, 2022

    Wow! Incredible! What a collection!

  3. Cherub permalink
    November 5, 2022

    I have always been terrified of fireworks, I think it goes back to those bonfire night safety infomercials we used to get on TV when I was a child. I never used to like being taken to bonfire night displays.
    Now I’m living in Switzerland and fireworks are a huge thing here, they love them. As you can imagine, my worst nightmare!

  4. Mary Laiuppa permalink
    November 5, 2022

    What a fabulous collection. It is history and it is art. There must be a museum somewhere that would love to have that collection for display. It is so unique but also so English, you celebrating Guy Fawkes day and all.

    We have nothing like that in the U.S. It has been a long time since the average citizen has been allowed to shoot off fireworks and even then there were restrictions. Some states allow it but more and more don’t in favor of community displays by licensed professionals. I remember lighting sparklers as a child and running around the yard. I’m sure my Dad kept a garden hose at the ready, just in case a spark lit some dry grass. July the Fourth is fire season in California.

    If there were some sort of museum or collection somewhere this would be a marvelous addition. especially now with the modern technology. Computers that set them off in time with music and now drones that fly around in coordination.

    I love the artwork on the Wilder’s Fireworks box.

    I don’t quite understand the significance of the exploding fruit. I see it twice, he’s holding one box and there is another different one below.

    I have been lucky in that no dog I’ve ever owned has been afraid of fireworks (or thunder or sirens, or earthquakes for that matter.)

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