ONE of the most frequent questions that people ask the Revd Ron
Lancaster is whether there are other firework factories run by
priests. He thinks that "just possibly, there might be one or two."
Fireworks, he says, "have been associated with religion from the
Mr Lancaster is the founder and owner of Kimbolton Fireworks,
now the only manufacturer of display fireworks in the UK, and
responsible for the design and supply of the spectacular
pyrotechnics that lit up the London night sky at the opening and
closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games this
It was "the culmination of a lifetime's experience and
investment", Mr Lancaster says, which began when, as a small boy
living in Huddersfield in the 1940s, he started making fireworks
with materials bought from garden suppliers and pharmacies.
"When you got off the train at Huddersfield station, when I was
a boy, there was an enormous sign that said: 'Huddersfield: the
home of Standard Fireworks'," he says. During the Second World War,
the factory in Yorkshire, which once employed more than 500 people,
produced illuminated flares for signalling purposes. Mr Lancaster
remembers collecting the parachutes that floated down on to the
moor after testing.
Fireworks could not be bought during the war, but they could be
manufactured by a resourceful schoolboy.
"The quality of the charcoal for gunpowder is paramount, and we
had great fun making all types, by heating different woods in
closed treacle-tins," he says. "We were mostly interested in making
rockets, then." He says that, remarkably, by getting to know people
who worked in the industry, he never had an accident, or even a
MR LANCASTER's mother died when he was two, but he "adored" her
sister, with the result that he had "a very happy childhood among
three families". He recalls "very strong connections" with the
parish church, and had the assistance of the pharmacist and his
chemistry teacher in his explosive creations.
By the time he reached the sixth form, it was "difficult to know
whether to study medicine or be ordained", but the call to ministry
won, and, in 1950, he went to St John's College, Durham, as a
Seven firework-free years followed, including two years of
National Service, and another two at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. He
remembers struggling with Greek and Hebrew ("To translate Genesis,
and Book Five of the Psalms, is not much to read in English, but in
Hebrew. . ."). But he had a "great time", playing the organ for the
Student Christian Movement services, and rowing.
He will always be grateful, he says, to John Austin Baker, who
helped him with his Hebrew studies, and later became the Bishop of
Salisbury. He has never regretted "having a shot" at four
languages, and wishes the current Education Secretary, Michael
Gove, good luck in "tightening things up".
It was not until he was appointed Assistant Curate of St
Peter's, Morley, near Leeds, in 1957, that, on discovering that
there was not enough money for Bonfire Night fireworks at the youth
club, Mr Lancaster was tempted to reignite his passion for
The Vicar's spacious garage was commandeered as a temporary
laboratory-cum-factory to make up the shortfall. As ever (and no
doubt to the Vicar's relief), Mr Lancaster was very careful with
combustible substances: "Obtaining the right materials is quite
It proved a "threshold" for his eventual move towards making
fireworks professionally, and he renewed his acquaintance with the
Greenhalgh family, who had founded Standard Fireworks, to help with
HIS "covert small firework research" continued as he moved on to
become Curate of St Peter's, Harrogate, where it "did not cause too
much trouble", although one member of the choir, an insurance
assessor, "did occasionally raise an eyebrow".
In 1963, in response to an advertisement in the Church
Times, Mr Lancaster secured the position of chaplain at
Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire, an independent boarding school
based at Kimbolton Castle, formerly the home of the Dukes of
Once installed, he "wondered what the headmaster would say when
I asked where I could build a licensed laboratory", but found that
he "did not seem a bit concerned". He was allocated a place near
his house for the laboratory - the old Duke's vegetable garden,
which had "surrounding high walls". The castle had also been home
to Sir John Popham, the judge at the trial of Guy Fawkes; so
perhaps the headmaster was paying tribute to his predecessor.
In the course of a year, Mr Lancaster arranged the construction
of the licensed workshops, with help from Dr Jim Jeacock, a
high-explosives expert in the Health and Safety Executive's
Explosives Inspectorate. The "exceptionally co-operative" Dr
Jeacock was keen to learn about the specialist area of fireworks
from his young acquaintance.
THE 1960s were a "bad time for fireworks", Mr Lancaster says,
and several well-known firms closed down. Aided by colleagues,
including Roy Butler, the geography teacher (co-author of Mr
Lancaster's book Fireworks: Principles and practice), he
found himself conducting firework displays around the country.
"If school was in session, we would load the van after school on
Friday," he says. He would then "teach Saturday morning, leave for
the venue after lunch, get back at midnight, take chapel on Sunday
morning, unload the van after lunch, entertain the preacher for tea
for evening chapel and afterwards, and back to chapel and lessons
on Monday morning".
The only time when they requested leave was in 1978, when they
were commissioned to put on the firework display outside Buckingham
Palace for the 25th anniversary of the Queen's coronation.
Mr Lancaster married his wife, Kath, a teacher, in 1966, and she
became Senior Mistress at the school when it became co-educational.
They "could not have had a happier time", he says, and they retired
after 25 years' service. When his son, Mark, left school, he
"begged" Mr Lancaster to build a new factory.
Kimbolton Fireworks, a "very modern plant" in Huntingdon, now
employs about 25 people, and has put on displays all over the
world, and live on BBC at the Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh,
and the New Year's Eve celebration in London in 2011, which was
watched by the 250,000 people lining the Thames, as well as by 12.5
million television viewers.
Seeking a climax to this display, the Kimbolton team endured
months of negotiations, meetings, tests, and risk assessments in
order to get permission to use Big Ben. It was granted at the
beginning of December, leaving just two weeks to design both the
display and the bespoke firing rigs.
To music from the film Chariots of Fire, the display
opened with "a bombardment of ring shells, in the five colours of
the Olympic rings, bursting above the London Eye", followed by an
explosion of white strobes "literally filling the sky with
diamonds" to commemorate the 60-year reign of the Queen. It was
described in the Daily Mail as "eleven magical minutes
that dazzled the world".
THIS summer, 80,000 ticket-holders at the Olympic Stadium saw
thousands of rockets explode at the conclusion of the opening
ceremony, which was watched by 26 million people around the world.
This spectacle was the result of months of preparation by the team
The firework industry today, Mr Lancaster says, is far removed
from the one he grew up with in Huddersfield. "I am the man who
makes fireworks, but I leave it to the next generation to do the
complex electronic arrangements, which have become a fairly complex
"And so much of the credit for the Olympics is due to the next
generation. What really happens now is that people are expecting
big, massive, fast-firing displays, which are . . . very, very
expensive to pro-duce."
He still believes, however, that small displays - "just as we've
done them for donkey's years", and lasting for half an hour - can
be "just as exciting and satisfying as the big, massive jobs that
are all over in ten minutes".
On Wednesday of last week, Kimbolton Fireworks put on the annual
firework display at the site of his old workshop, Kimbolton School.
One disappointment, he says, is that the firm did not do a display
for the last Lambeth Conference, having previously donated
fireworks for those held by Archbishops Runcie and Carey.
Now 81 years old, Mr Lancaster was awarded the MBE for services
to the firework industry in 1993. The industry is "not one in which
to invest capital", he says. "We are seriously undercut by imports
from the Far East."
Standard Fireworks, founded by James Greenhalgh in 1891, was
acquired by a Chinese firm in 1998, and production ceased in the
UK. Mr Lancaster believes that the Greenhalgh family ("a good,
philanthropic Anglican family"), with whom he worked closely in the
late 1950s, would be "very sad" at this development.
Looking back, he reflects: "Nothing has been seriously planned:
things have just happened, and just a part of what opens up for us
in this life. Some might believe in a plan in life, but there have
been some interesting open doors." One of his greatest pleasures
was being awarded an honorary MSc. in 2009 at Durham Cathedral.
He is still steeped in the Bible, and is particularly keen on
the Psalms. "Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night
will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you," Psalm
139 reads. It is hard to think of a more vivid illustration of this
than the thousands of soaring sparks that illuminated the night sky
over London in July and August this year.