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‘I am the man who makes fireworks’

09 November 2012

Ron Lancaster made them in his vicar's garage as a curate in the 1950s. This year, his company's displays have lit up the Diamond Jubilee, and the ceremonies for the Olympics. Madeleine Davies reports


The sky's the limit: above: part of the display fired by Kimbolton Fireworks for the Mayor of London's New Year's Eve display, 2011

The sky's the limit: above: part of the display fired by Kimbolton Fireworks for the Mayor of London's New Year's Eve display, 2011

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 earliest times".

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 year.

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 "near miss".

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 theological student.

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 pyrotechnics.

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 crucial."

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 explorations.

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 Manchester.

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 at Kimbolton.

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 computerised skill.

"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.



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