GENERAL ARTICLES

Their Fires Are Fun

ANGUS McSTAY May 15 1947
GENERAL ARTICLES

Their Fires Are Fun

ANGUS McSTAY May 15 1947

Their Fires Are Fun

Now that Hands' flares no longer light the Ruhr Canada again can celebrate the 24th with firecrackers

ANGUS McSTAY

ON THE evening of May 25, in 1874, the people of St. Catharines, Ont., on foot and in carriages, headed for Montebello Gardens where Professor William Hand, that celebrated English pyrotechnic artist and manufacturer of fireworks and balloons of all shapes and sizes, had promised to present the first fireworks display ever seen in Canada.

The event had been advertised for weeks and it is not known whether the thousands went to celebrate the 54th birthday of her Most Gracious Majesty, Victoria, or to witness the “grand illuminations” that had been promised in huge and lurid posters pasted up on barns for miles around the countryside and extolled in newspaper advertisements.

The police patrolled the roped-off areas for carriages and buggies and, when not chasing youngsters who dodged the 25-cent admission fee by clambering over fences smeared at the top with fresh tar, went about warning the drivers of vehicles to watch their horses and keep a good grip on the reins once the fireworks began.

The show was a great success. There was the grand ascent of 12 illuminated balloons, all released at one time by “12 selected ladies.” There was The Grand Flight of the Fiery Pigeons. Then came the ascent, to 400 feet, of The Mammoth Balloon bearing the flags of all nations and discharging fireworks of all descriptions; The Ascent of the Flying Pigs (“very novel”); the “curious people of China sending forth an inimitable change of color and magic delusions”; a “superb charge of 46 Variegated Snakes, 46, headed and tailed by five-pointed stars.” There were also “refreshments at reasonable prices; no intoxicating liquors sold on the grounds.”

When the newspapers came out the following day Professor Hand’s fame and fortune were made. Like his fireworks, the praise of his show was sky-high.

The Professor decided to stay in Canada.

As a result of that decision the T. W. Hand Fireworks Co. is now the oldest and largest manufacturing firm of its kind in the Dominion and business competition in recent years has been practically nonexistent. The business was founded in 1873 and is one of the few firms in this country conducted by third-generation members of the family. Grandfather Hand started out with a small shed and five employees; today the firm occupies a 100-acre site and has over 200 workers. They annually turn out some 50 million fireworks items ranging in cost from a cent to $20 apiece.

Grandsons Run Firm

DURING the war the plant converted to make Very lights, smoke bombs, signal cartridges, sea markers, and parachute flares to drop in advance of bombing raids or photo reconnaissance flights. Despite this interruption in the company’s activities there is hardly a city or a town in Canada that has not been lit up at one time or another by the Hand family’s fireworks.

The firm has put on the nightly fireworks show at the Canadian National Exhibition for 60 years except during the war years. In addition, they

have staged several big Continued on page 46

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shows in U. S. cities holding “world fairs” or important conventions, and have presented the fireworks displays at the Calgary Stampede for some 30 years. The Hand brothers now have three motorized caravans, complete with living quarters and “ammunition” supplies, whose crews make transCanada tours from the Maritimes to the West Coast with the rigid schedule of road shows.

The business is seasonal, of course, but the biggest celebration of the year is still the 24th of May even in the Province of Quebec. There the other big event celebrated with fireworks is St. Jean de Baptiste Day on June 24. The Maritimes enthusiastically hail Guy Fawkes Day every Nov. 5; and the people of the Atlantic Provinces and of British Columbia are the biggest buyers of firecrackers on Halloween. The Hands also supply Canada’s various Chinatowns and the Italian groups with huge supplies of fireworks on religious observances. Despite the free shows put on by aurora borealis, the Eskimos and northern Indians are fireworks enthusiasts and large shipments are sent to Hudson’s Bay Co. posts. Exports go to the Bahamas, Bermuda and Jamaica where the big fireworks celebrations are staged on Christmas and New Year’s Days.

Running the firm today are the two grandsons of the founder. Hugh Hand, the president, directs the administrative end of the business; William R. Hand, namesake of his grandfather, is vice-president and heads the domestic and export sales activities. Both are in their early forties.

Grandfather William T. Hand, who had worked in the explosives department of the famed Woolwich Arsenal in England, came to Thorold, Ont.,in 1872 to pioneer fireworks manufacture

in Canada. He started in a shed on the outskirts of the town with five workers. While the manufacture of fireworks is today a specialized branch of chemistry with its own closely guarded trade secrets, the fundamental principles and ingredients of chemical fire since ancient times have remained fairly constant. Wartime developments in light intensity and timing are already noticeable in peacetime fireworks.

William Hand taught his workmen to mix sulphur, charcoal and nitrate of potash in the proper proportions. Using various copper salts he made up the color effects himself and several of these formulas are still used in the manufacture of Hand fireworks today.

Ambitious Productions

Professor Hand kept a hefty scrapbook which is now in the company’s vault. Here it can be learned from the Toronto Mail of July 2, 1874, that the fall of Sebastopol was spectacularly enacted, the newspaper proudly stating that “the fireworks were all manufactured in Canada by a sound British subject.” The Hamilton Spectator of Sept. 10, 1874, reported that “Professor Hand’s success was beyond the expectations of the audience, particularly the grand triumphal arch in the centre of which was Lord Dufferin’s coat of arms, arranged in brilliant and inspiring colors, creating frequent and hearty applause.”

What more could the Professor do? He moved from Thorold to Hamilton in 1876 because he needed better shipping facilities. His two daughters joined the firm and started rolling the paper cases for the fireworks. His son, Thomas W. Hand, also went on the payroll. Now the firm had 20 workers —12 of them girls. As the scrapbook reveals, the fireworks industry in Canada continued to expand. Across Canada and the U. S. and as far south as Atlanta and St. Louis, the Professor

presented his brilliant explosions of pyrotechnic art.

He staged the Storming of the Bastille, the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Bombardment of Alexandria, Niagara Falls on Fire, the Relief of Lucknow, the British Victory at Ornei urman, the Battle of Paardeberg, the Siege of Mafeking all the mimicry of wars in the current headlines. These were big sets using from 400 to 500 men drawn from garrison troops or militia; if the sets now and again looked a little familiar, the public never complained. The staging of these pageants required frequent trips to England on the part of Thomas W. Hand, son of the founder, to obtain authentic costumes for the huge casts.

The founder and Walter Thiele, a workman, were killed by an explosion while the two were mixing a batch of powder. There was the usual investigation but the cause of the accident was never determined. Until the latter days of the war years these were the only two casualties at the plant.

As Hamilton expanded, the Hand family continued to move their powder magazines farther and farther from the city’s former limits, but, eventually, the city grew around the plant’s units. The situation became more complicated when Westdale Collegiate was built within 100 yards of the company’s most important powder magazine. Inducements were offered to have the company—and its payroll—remain in the Hamilton area but, in 1930, the T. W. Hand Fireworks Co. moved to Cooksville, a pleasant hamlet some 10 miles west of Toronto’s western limits.

All matches and lighters must be left at the gatehouses by workers orvisitors. Naturally, no smoking is allowed,except in the recreation rooms provided for the men and women, but this is no handicap to older men who have spent their lives in the fireworks industry. They chew tobacco.

Naturally there is little room for frivolity among employees during working hours. As a matter of fact, many of the workers are alone or in small groups of two, three or four in the some 150 small, white-painted buildings that are mathematically spaced in the 100acre grounds. All of these buildings, in checkerboard layout, are one story high and of very light wooden construction. They are joined by wooden walks, some four feet off the ground, that are carefully swept so that sand or other abrasive material is not carried from building to building on the soles of shoes.

Outside each small building is a box, about half the size of an orange crate, from which the worker obtains the powder charge for the fireworks. In this, for safety purposes, the mixture capacity is never more than three pounds and, as the contents go into rockets, bombs or sparklers, the supply of these small magazines is constantly replenished by men with wheelbarrow loads of the mixture.

Hands Started Young

In this highly decentralized setup, all danger zones are surrounded by high protecting walls that look like thick billboards and are intended to localize any explosion. The locked warehouses and powder magazines are isolated. The latter, set far apart from the plant proper, resemble those old forts in blockhouse style which, complete with earthen redoubts, attract historically-minded tourists to older parts of Canada.

Everything is scrupulously clean and as dustproof as possible; not even the use of hand waste is permitted for fear of spontaneous combustion. The most unusual feature, apart from the scores

of small, white buildings that make the plant look like a gigantic chicken farm, is that series of small protecting walls which, even if flattened by the forte of an explosion, would absorb the explosion’s energy. These asbestos-covered “billboards” are eight inches thick, filled with sand, and strongly braced.

While 80% of the workers are girls, the powder mixing, the filling of fireworks t ubes and the connecting of the charges with fuses are done by men, often in their little, one-man plants. The women make the cylinders, wrap and paste the identifying labels around the various items the firm has its own small printing plant and package the various types of Roman candles, pin ¡ wheels, firecrackers, lawn lights and j rockets that light, up the scene during j patriotic or religious celebrations.

In this network of small isolated structures, linked together by the high boardwalks, all the doors are left open. This not only permits the workers to get out quickly at the first sign of danger —on which rare incidents world sprint records for short distances undoubtedly have been broken—but the open doors minimize the explosive force of any blast that otherwise would be confined. The little buildings are warmed in the winter months by heavily insulated heating pipes that emanate from a central heating plant.

The Hand brothers, Hugh and Bill, who run the plant today, broke into the fireworks industry early. They are still addressed by their first names by the older employees who remember when, as youngsters in short pants, they had the run of the Hamilton plant and were constantly in mischief.

They watched their father mix metal j or chemical salts into powder recipes; J learned that, calcium gives red fire; barium gives green; sodium produces | yellow; strontium gives fiery crimson; j copper produces blues and greens; that, j sparks and star effects are the result of j using various metallic; filings that, are coated with gums and spirits and then dusted with gunpowder.

Hugh later devoted most, of his time | to the manufacturing details of the business. Bill went to McGill University where he specialized in chemistry. When their father was 63, and feeling in need of a rest, he made the boys directors of the company. Bill was 26 and Hugh was 23. A couple of years j later he made Bill the vice-president | and Hugh the secretary-treasurer. The elder Hand kept the presidency.

Made Signal Flares

Nobody asked the T. W. Hand Fireworks Co. to make the Very lights and star shells used in the 1914-18 war. They were manufactured in Great Britain and in the U. S. However, in the late ’30’s Hugh Hand accurately read the Nazi and Fascist smoke writing on the European skies and began to study the war uses of pyrotechnics. Less than a year after September, 1939, the Hand brothers had completely dropped the manufacture of peacetime fireworks.

Scientists and brass hats from London and Ottawa visited the Cooksville plant throughout the war. A censorship was clamped on news from the plant. Up went high wire fences and armed guards patrolled night and day. The company’s testing grounds were in constant use and Cooksville’s puzzled citizens listened to great explosions and were bewildered by spectacular fire displays that lit up the night skies.

Hugh Hand was appointed to the National Research Council. The company’s first flares were us(xi by Montgomery’s troops at El A la mein. Knowing that a war with Japan was coming Australian military experts

came to Cooksville to study pyrotechnic manufacturing developments and methods. The Hand brothers started shipments to Australia. The Cooksville plant, stepped up to 500 workers, was now turning out safety signals for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

.Seven men were killed at the plant during the war years. Censorship for the usual morale purposes kept the incidents out of the newspapers. Most of these accidents occurred in that department devoted to the manufacture of smoke bombs. There would be a sudden explosion in which the victim was either blown to pieces or fatally burned. Accidents occurred in spite of the presence of Federal government inspectors, safety regulations that employees were supposed to follow, and the fact that all mixing drums and ball mills, used in the mixing processes, were const ructed of such non ferrous and nonsparking metals as brass, copper and bronze.

Strangely enough, in these individual accidents, the men had been mixing the same war-needs explosives formula for nearly three years without mishap; and, ironically, three of the fatalities occurred shortly before V-E Day. The usual investigations were conducted but the causes of the fatal blasts were never revealed.

At that time, explosives manufactures came under the new regulations of the Department of Munitions and Supply. Since the war ended this has reverted to the explosives bureau of the Department of Mines and Resources, Ottawa. These heavy explosive mixtures need no longer be compounded at the Cooksville plant.

There are laws in some states in the U. S. prohibiting the sale of fireWorks but such statutes do not appear on the books of any of the provincial legislatures in Canada. Some years before the war the Ontario Fire Marshal’s department, after studying fireworks laws brought in by some states, made a survey of fireworks damage. They found that, of the average $16 million annual fire loss in Ontario, only a trifling $3,000 might be attributed to fireworks causes.

It was decided that any provincial control of fireworks would require a network of licensers and inspectors whose cost to the taxpayers would be about a hundred times the cost of that annual $3,000 fire loss. No action was taken.

The largest fireworks show ever staged in Canada was the one the Hand brothers put on for the international Shriners’ convention in Toronto in 1930. This was called The Journey to M ecca i n which a score of camels, brought in special railway cars by the California contingent, were paraded across a brilliant desert while a huge volcano in the background erupted crimson lava. This was staged on four successive nights. Something as spectacular will probably be presented at the first postwar C.N.E. this fall.

How these spectacular effects are obtained are trade secrets. The finest twelfth of July fireworks displays in Canada, incidentally, have been supervised for 35 years by a Roman Catholic.

Plans are now being completed for a big Roman Catholic conference to be held in Ottawa Lansdowne Park at midnight, Sunday evening, June 22. The Hand brothers will erect a 100foot figure of the Virgin, together with four major set pieces depicting the childhood of Christ.

That’s the sort of pyrotechnic job the old Professor would have loved. ig

The great secret of success in life is to be ready when opportunity comes. —Benjamin Disraeli.