China Seeks a Guiding Hand from Brock’s – August 1896
The firm of C.T. Brock’s 'Crystal Palace' Fireworks had millions of devoted customers around the world and although independent, the firm's high standards also ensured a successful symbiotic relationship with the British state in the 19th and early 20th century.
Taking a leaf from the old Roman Emperors who famously kept their peoples happy with "bread and circuses" the British Empire employed Brock's to write across the skies and capture the hearts of its peoples. Long before Faraday's discovery of electricity had brought anything like the mass entertainment of later times, the huge crowds found the talented Brock artists in pyrotechny, compellingly charming – results almost beyond their imaginations.
At home the company entertained many world leaders at the Crystal Palace, usually in the company of members of the Royal Family, particularly HRH Prince Edward Prince of Wales, later to be King Edward VII.
Abroad, when the royal princes undertook a tour of the Empire, Brock’s invariably accompanied them with several display teams, so that each entrance to a new city could be heralded by a great display. In India there were stories of locals waiting in a prime position for a week before the displays, just to make sure of their place.
Following the death of Alexander III, his son and heir, Tsar Nicholas II was crowned Emperor of All The Russias in May 1896 and leaders from around the world were invited to the coronation.
The Emperor of China sent his representative Li Hung Chang and Peking decided that such an opportunity should not go to waste. While in Europe, Mr. Li, the Emperor’s viceroy, should take the opportunity to visit other leading countries and in August 1896 he came to London with an embassy of diplomats in attendance.
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, (now called HSBC) pulled out all the stops and gave Mr Li a wonderful evening at the Crystal Palace. As the newspapers reported: “Of all the numerous functions which China’s great statesman has attended during his journeying in Europe, none has probably given him more pleasure than the entertainment provided for him . . . at the Crystal Palace on Monday.”
The Times reported: “After dinner Li Hung Chang was conducted to his lifting chair, in order that he might be conveyed to the balcony, there to witness a grand pyrotechnic display.”
The Daily Telegraph picks up the story: “Some novelties had been specially provided by Messrs. C.T. Brock & Co. One of them was a great set piece, conveying, in Chinese characters, greeting and good wishes to his Excellency.
Li Hung Chang was invited by Mr. Brock to fire the set piece. He did so by pulling over an electric lever, and immediately the Chinese characters, which Li remarked were especially well-formed, blazed in magnesium light. The Chinese pagoda, which was very successful, and the bicycle race also, interested Li Hung Chang so greatly that he rose from his seat.
With Mr. Brock he had some conversation. He was particularly curious to learn how the change of colour was effected, and he repeatedly congratulated the manufacturer on his skill. He had, he said, seen displays in Germany but they were not ‘half as good as these at the Crystal Palace.’ Mr Brock asked him how the latter compared with firework displays in China and Li said they were very much superior in England, and he invited Mr. Brock to come over and teach his countrymen ‘in the tenth month’.
The Daily News concluded: “The Chinese visitors were delighted and they could talk of nothing but the fireworks as they journeyed back to town.”
Li Hung Chang, the Chinese Emperor’s viceroy and his embassy at the Crystal Palace with Arthur Brock – August 1896
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