Tag Archives: history

Instrument of torture

The Catherine wheel is a type of firework which is generally made of a spiralling tube filled with the pyrotechnic composition, or an angled rocket mounted with a pin through its centre. When ignited, it rotates quickly, producing a display of sparks and coloured flame and looks great at the bottom of the garden.

Epic Fireworks - Big Wheel by Standard Fireworks

So, now we know what a Catherine Wheel is, where did it get its unusual name from?

It’s a lot more gruesome than you may think, the family favourite firework is named after the instrument of torture, the breaking wheel, on which, legend has it St. Catherine was martyred. Although some legends say that as soon as she touched the wheel it broke (that must have put the willies up the pagans – not a euphemism)

The Catherine Wheel was a product of the Middle Ages, especially popular in Germany (no comments on this please, remember we’re all friends now, one Europe and all that). The victim’s limbs were brutally smashed with large blunt objects. His (or her) still-living remains were subjected to… the wheel. This meant the mangled arms and legs were threaded through the spokes. The wheel was then hoisted into the air using a long pole. Hungry vultures and crows picked at the body. Death came slowly, (like watching an Al Murray – Pub Landlord comedy routine).

A seventeenth-century chronicler wrote the victim looked like, “A sort of huge screaming puppet writhing in rivulets of blood, a puppet with four tentacles, like a sea monster, of raw, slimy and shapeless flesh mixed up with splinters of smashed bones.” Sleep soundly kids.

This was one of the most popular spectacles of the time. This, and similar methods of torture, took place in the squares of Europe from 1450-1750. The masses, both common people and nobles, watched in twisted fascination, cheering at a good wheeling (what made it good is unclear but we guess the messier the better). A woman (or a number of women in a row) brought even greater enthusiasm, similar to women in pro-wrestling nowadays, although for quite different reasons we assume.

The wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria from the early 4th century. She was believed to have been killed in this fashion during the rule of the Roman Emperor Maximinus (presumably Maximinus was upset about people commenting that his name was somewhat similar to that of a sanitary towel – citation needed).

St. Catherine of Alexandria

Catherine was born and raised a pagan, but miraculously converted to Christianity in her late teens (typical rebellious teenager). It is said that she visited her contemporary, the Roman Emperor Maximinus, and attempted to convince him of the error of his ways in persecuting Christians. She succeeded in converting his wife, the Empress, and many pagan philosophers whom the Emperor sent to dispute with her, all of whom were subsequently martyred. Upon the failure of the Emperor to win Catherine over, he ordered her to be put in prison; and when the people who visited her converted this must have really annoyed big Maximinus because she was condemned to death on the breaking wheel (the name at that time for the Catherine Wheel). According to legend, the wheel itself broke when she touched it, so she was beheaded.

You can just imagine the scene…

Sound effects: Splintering wood and crashing

Catherine: “Whoops, clumsy me, sorry bout that lads.”

First torturer: “oh, look, oh no, she has the power of God, her hand has broken the wheel, cower in fear, cower and plead for your life!”

Second torturer: “No probs, I’ll just lob ‘er ‘ead off.”

Sound effects: Swish, Splat, Thud, General Medieval style cheering.

(Dramatisation, may not have happened)


Catherine was remembered thereafter as a symbol of martyrdom, purity and knackering up the wheel she was named after. The Breaking Wheel, now known as a Catherine Wheel continued to be used for executions and all round nastiness for centuries to come and was still used right up till the 1700’s. When, thankfully, far more nasty ways of messing people up were evolved, which we will not go into here.

EpicFireworks.com - Giant Wheel

Please remember this is supposed to be taken lightly and in good humour, no-one was tortured during the writing of this article so please don’t write in. For all your Catherine Wheel needs, visit www.epicfireworks.com for the largest range of fireworks in the UK.


New Zealand Fireworks from 1903

It was late 1903. Already, those New Zealanders lucky enough to do so had witnessed fireworks spectaculars across the Tasman at Sydney and Melbourne since the turn of the new century. Some small displays had been offered before in Auckland but, so it seems, not at the Domain before now. For 28th October 1903, the Crystal Palace Fireworks Company promised Aucklanders a real treat.

“Mr T. Gaunt, the company’s expert, has given some very large displays in Australia. The first programme will consist of the bombardment of the Taku Forts in China by six battleships built entirely of fireworks. The ships will manoeuvre and fire broadside, finally silencing and blowing up the forts. In addition, there will be a general display, of fireworks, consisting of mechanical figures, such as performing monkeys on horizontal bars, flying pigeons, dovecotes, and cyclists riding, clowns on see-saw, etc. Then there are revolving wheels, small wheels, large wheels, and wheels within wheels, revolving suns, Oriental trees, Chinese pagodas, Niagara Falls of liquid fires, and innumerable designs, all in fireworks. The grounds will be brilliantly illuminated with Chinese lanterns and fairy lights, and a first-class promenade concert will be given during the evening by the First Battalion Infantry Band. The Cricket Ground is easily accessible from all parts of the city and suburbs, and owing to the natural formation, the displays cannot be seen without going inside. This will stop that class of people who dearly love a show for nothing.”

(Observer, 24 October 1903)

All, however, did not go entirely to plan. The display was witnessed by an estimated 10,000 people, “one of the biggest crowds which was ever seen on the Domain cricket .ground”, but some “disgraceful scenes” took place. “On account of the very inadequate arrangements made at the gates… the crowds taking charge and pressing past the Carrier at the main entrance … Altogether upwards of 25 per cent of those on the ground gained admission without payment. (Bay Of Plenty Times, 30 October 1903) That wasn’t the half of it. The Auckland Star later reported that the event had been “ruined by larrikins who invaded the grounds, smashed the fittings, and stole a great deal of the fireworks …” (Star, 28 November 1903) Well, I suppose they may have expected that they were asking for trouble, having such a display so close to Guy Fawkes …

“There was a dreadful rush to get on the Domain Cricket Ground on the night of the fireworks. Some people waited for nearly an hour before they could get tickets, and hundreds got so tired that they went in without paying, and through a gate, too. There were some police present, but their eyes were on the fences and not on the gates, as one stout lady found to her sorrow. Despairing of entering any other way, the dame, in company with another, boldly essayed to escalade the hedge. Her companion got through all right, but the obese dowager found herself suddenly seized by the foot. With a yell she turned round, and saw a most ungallant bobby tugging at her new prunella Number Ten. She raised her umbrella to strike, when she suddenly capsized and fell inside the fence. The sudden jerk caused her boot to slip, and the constable collapsed on the other side. The contesting parties did not meet again, and the lady saw the fireworks standing on one foot. What the policeman did with the boot is not recorded.

(Observer, 7 November 1903)

Undaunted, Mr. Gaunt soldiered on, offering we colonials another taste of his pyrotechnic magic in time for King Edward VII’s birthday on 9th November.

“Those who want to wind up the King’s Birthday appropriately, and at the same time secure an hour or two of pure enjoyment, will do well to visit the Domain Cricket Ground on Monday, evening. The Crystal Palace Fireworks Company, whose local representative is Mr. W. H. Hazard, have arranged to carry out in its entirety the grand programme that was somewhat wantonly interfered with on its first presentation, last week. Every precaution has been taken to suppress the exuberant larrikin, and the public may feel confident that their comfort will be conserved. The display includes a series of fairy illuminations, rockets, bombs, etc., in bewildering variety, and; will wind up with a realistic representation of the historic bombardment of the Taku Forts by the British and French some forty years ago. This is the battle in which the French admiral is alleged by a veracious bluejacket to have committed suicide by shooting himself, while the British admiral exhibited what appeared to be cowardice, but that is another story. There will be a musical concert with appropriate items and the Battalion Band will attend and play a number of selections.”

The promoters promised faithfully that “interference with the Comfort of Patrons or the Progress of the Performance will be promptly suppressed.”

I don’t have the reports to hand as to how this show went, but Mr Hazard and Mr. Gaunt were back again for another go on 27 November. This time, the police were definitely out in force. They reported success against the larrikins, but “not without considerable difficulty.

One John O’Brien (22) was charged the next day in the police court with “using threatening behaviour in the Auckland Domain with intent, to cause a breach of the peace, and also with resisting Constable Macartney in the execution of his duty.” Leonard De Courcy (18) was charged with “inciting persons to assault Constable Macartney”. The constable testified that several stones were thrown, striking him and others tasked with watching the fence around the display area. He saw O’Brien “leaning over the fence brandishing a piece of wood, and trying to strike one of the men inside.” O’Brien apparently legged it on being spotted by the constable, but during the chase threw several of the reported stones, joined in that sport by his companions as O’Brien struggled to avoid capture and arrest. “Stone the police!” came the shouts. O’Brien was offered a choice of £5 fine or a month’s hard labour – he chose the latter. (Auckland Star, 28 November 1903)

The Crystal Palace Fireworks Company went on to stage two more shows that year, and both appeared to be as successful but not so criminally dramatic as the previous ones. Despite the rocky start, Auckland’s love affair with public (free) firework displays at the Domain had begun.


Gunpowder in Warfare – A Brief History

Early Modern warfare is associated with the start of the widespread use of gunpowder and the development of suitable weapons to use the explosive. Gunpowder was first invented in China and then later spread to the Middle East. It then found its way into Eastern Europe following the invasions of the Mongols, who had employed Chinese gunpowder-based weapons to conquer parts of Europe and the Middle East.

Later it arrived into Central and Western Europe following the Crusades, when European forces discovered the substance from the Islamic forces they faced. Prior to the 15th century, gunpowder was used on a limited basis, but its use became the universal in the Early Modern Age, its apex occurring during the Napoleonic Wars from 1792 to 1815. It was brought to the Indian subcontinent by the Middle East as well during the early modern era.

Gunpowder and flame projector tubes were first invented and used in military combat in China before the technology was transmitted elsewhere, with advanced technological innovation during the Chinese Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279). The cannon later arrived in the Muslim world in the 13th century, where the explosive hand cannon was invented. These then reached the Iberian Peninsula, with gunpowder described in Europe by Roger Bacon in 1216 and 1248; however, for a long time European gunpowder weapons were unpredictable, unwieldy and difficult to deploy. As a result, they were mainly used for attacking castles and other defences, a task that was equally well suited to undermining or non-explosive weapons.