Screaming along the ground for 100 yards emitting white sparks before exploding at ground level, the Battel Rouser was the brainchild of William Longley, and the stuff of pyrotechnic legend.
The Battle/ Battel Bonfire
The Battle Bonfire has been running for fast approaching 400 years, having been recorded as early as 1646. As far back as 1676, there’s a Longley associated it, when Thomas Longley was one of the church wardens tasked with allocating church funds to the event.
Fast forward a few years, and a Longley is once again part of proceedings in 1870, and then again in 1885 when he performs his own display as part of the broader event.
It’s in the mid 1880’s that things start to get interesting for my namesake. William Longley had previously worked for a firework manufacturer, before returning to Battle. He opened a hair-dressers opposite the Kings Head pub – his father Charles having previously run a hair-dressers on the High Street.
Having got the necessary paperwork signed, he opened “William Longley Pyrotechnics” – an odd bed-fellow for the hair salon, but each to their own. Shunning more modern, and arguably safer, construction materials, he set his business up in wooden sheds, and went about making his products.
For a period from 1888, Longley Pyrotechnics supplied and set-off the fireworks for the Battle display. It’s worth remembering that this is over 200 years since Thomas Longley was first involved in the event.
The Battle Rouser
My favourite part about this story is his creation of the Battle Rouser.
Innocent enough to look at, this was no ordinary “fire it up into the sky” item. It’s USP was that, rather than reaching for the stars, it would fly along the ground for up to 100 yards, emitting white sparks as it went, before exploding in a maelstrom of incredible light and sound!
Made in a “controlled and safe” environment was one thing, but where was the fun in that? This was a time when gunpowder could be bought over the counter, and Longley’s workforce set about making their own supplies, and soon one of the most memorable parts of the evening was hundreds of these creations being loosed off.
The Battle Rouser finally brought the long arm of the law to Longley’s door in 1891, though with some quick thinking and persuasive talking, he is fined only a shilling.
Loosely connected to the bonfire, tragedy strikes Battle in 1937 when there is a gun-powder explosion, killing a man, and injuring Charles Longley.
The Rouser grew in infamy, and finally came to the attention of the BBC in 1951. The bonfire committee member who represented the event took some Rousers with him, and to everybody’s amazement, set them off in the BBC car park. Impressive it certainly was, but the end of the line for this iconic firework was fast approaching.
Larger firework manufacturers complained to the authorities and the Firework Act 1951 was swiftly introduced as a result. The Longley’s could go to jail, or cease production. They chose the obvious path.
The design and manufacturing process behind the Rouser has never been revealed, and the last survivor of the family involved in its’ manufacture (Fred Longley) has always declined to reveal the secrets.
It’s quite something to be involved in an event for approaching 300 years, and quite possibly longer. Based on what I’ve read, it could be argued that the Longley family, albeit accidentally, were partly or fully responsible for the introduction of the 1951 Firework Act.
Chance of a family connection? Who knows. Slim I’d imagine.