Historian Arthur Nicholls recalls a spectacular firework display in Kendal to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee


Whatever their shortcomings, the Victorians knew how to celebrate, and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee provided the impetus for celebrations in Kendal on a grand scale.

Not only were the streets decorated, there was a procession of local dignitaries, trades, societies, and fancy-dressed cyclists.

There was the reading of the loyal address to the Queen, followed by the starting of the new clock and its bells on the town hall.

The culmination of the day was seen on Castle Hill, where a gala was held with races, wrestling contests, jumping performances, and Punch and Judy.

At 9.30pm, the castle ruins and the trees were illuminated by fairy lamps, Chinese lanterns, coloured fires, and Crystal Palace lights in a glory of purple, silver, jade green, and amber.

At 10pm, there was a firework display to surpass all displays. It began in spectacular fashion, with detonating shells resonating all along the valley.

Altogether there were 62 kinds of fireworks, provided by Brock’s, of Crystal Palace fame. Many of the fireworks had evocative names: Shower of Cowslips, Will o’the Wisp, Writhing Cobras, Jewel-headed Tadpoles, Aerial Treasures of Sinbad’s Palace, Fiery Rip Rags, Fairy Glow-worms and Fiery Night birds.

There were spectacular set pieces whose names were self-explanatory, such as: The Niagara of Fire, Giant Chrysanthemums, Glowing Palace of the Tropics, Grove of Jewelled Palms, Star of India (the Queen had been named Empress of India) and the Girandole, a wheel of golden fire with rockets, and Roman Candles.

These displays ended with an explosion of Fiery Serpents, Cobras and Scorpions. There were Diamond Jubilee and large Commemoration Rockets exploding high in the night sky.

None of the effects were more striking than when a shell burst low and suffused the Castle Hill with just enough light to throw into relief, against the darkness, the crowds of people upon it.

The Grand Finale was a colossal Fire Portrait of the Queen and a National Emblematic Devise (each 30 feet tall) of flags, ‘VRI’ and the dates of her reign, encircled by the motto ‘God Bless Her’.

How they included all that in just one hour was amazing. Today, we are used to expensive explosive devices and spectacular displays in public parks, but those fireworks must have been equal to, or superior to, many even today. To the children at the time, it must have been unforgettable.

When it was over people did what Kendalians still do, they walked peacefully down into the town to see illuminations there.

The Westmorland Gazette reported afterwards that it was a dazzling phenomenon. “Fireworks the people knew and even limelight (in a magic lantern) but a strange radiance seemed to dye the sturdy beeches all the colours of the rainbow. The crowds were kept spellbound for the whole hour”.