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Then and now: fireworks at Alexandra Palace

James Manning

Sixteen days after the original Alexandra Palace opened in 1873, it was gutted by a huge fire. Undaunted, the owners quickly rebuilt the ‘People’s Palace’ and marked the grand reopening with – what else? – a massive fireworks display. It was the first in a series which has been drawing Londoners in their thousands to Ally Pally ever since.

Alexandra Palace fireworks, 1900

The immensely popular Victorian fireworks shows took place all year round and were devised by James Pain, whose firm supplied pyrotechnics to Ally Pally until the 1970s. Displays were accompanied by military bands, opera singers and ‘variety entertainment’, and cost a shilling for the day.

Alexandra Palace Fireworks, 2014
Photograph: David Cotter

By the twenty-first century, Bonfire Night at Ally Pally had become a free, council-funded display. Government cuts killed it off in 2010, but it returned as a privately run event in 2013, expanded to two nights in 2016, and is now entrenched as one of the city’s best Guy Fawkes nights – partly thanks to being visible across swathes of north London, partly to canny curation of street food trucks, a German beer festival and circus acts plus big music names. Tradition is great and all, but we’ll take Norman Jay (who’s DJing this year) over a military band any day.

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