Pioneering priest lights up Christian faith with a bang

This article appeared in the Ely Ensign in November 2004 on page 12.

Whilst I am not a great lover or loud noises, I have always loved fireworks. I can still remember, as a youngster, trooping up to the local middle school with my Dad to watch them. I would watch with awe as these wonderful colours lit up the sky. And would huddle into his big furry cardigan, when the bangers went off. Scared as I was of the noise, as long as Dad was there, I was safe.

I was in equal awe of this article about the Revd Ronal Lancaster, chaplain, chemistry teacher and pioneering pyrotechnic!

Sadly, in 2019, Ron Lancaster (88) announced that Kimbolton Fireworks had to cease trading.

Update: In June 2021 we moved to Great Staughton, just a few miles from Kimbolton. Yesterday was Bonfire night. So I wandered over the bridget next to our house and gazed in wonder across the field as the fireworks lit up the sky from Kimbolton castle.

You may also be interested in this companion article: A dozen things you should know about fireworks.

Many people love a good firework display, but it’s safe to say that few are as enthusiastic as former school chaplain the Revd Ronald Lancaster. He told Owen Spencer-Thomas how he combined his work as a priest with his childhood hobby to become a leading pioneer in Britain’s firework industry.

Ron Lancaster

Ron Lancaster was born in 1931 in the Yorkshire town of Huddersfield – the hub of the northern firework industry and home to two major manufacturers, Standard Fireworks and Lion.

As a boy, he soon developed an interest in pyrotechnics and started to experiment and make his own fireworks.

“I knew people who worked in the industry and I helped to put on displays for the local community during the war when firework couldn’t be bought,” he says.

“At this time I did a lot of original work, discovering the best kind of charcoal to put into the fireworks. It can make very different effects. I learned a lot in the process.”

After finishing school at Almondbury Grammar, Ron left his home town to read psychology at Durham University, serve in the army, and later train for the priesthood at Cuddesdon theological college, Oxford.

Although his passion for fireworks never waned, his active involvement took a back sat until he became a curate at Morley, near Leeds, in 1957. His opportunity to revisit his childhood hobby came when he was put in charge of a large youth group.

“They were short of funds and I decided to make our own fireworks,” he explains. “I remade contact with the two Huddersfield companies.”

Three years later, he moved to St Peter’s, Harrogate, where he set up his own laboratory and continued his pyrotechnic experiments in his spare time.

In 1963, Ron made a move which enabled him to carry on his research professionally. He became Chaplain of Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire, teaching chemistry as well as divinity.

“The Head gave me a garden with a huge brick wall around it and I built a small workshop and factory.”

With the wacky combination of religion and fireworks, he soon became highly popular with the boys who shared his passion for dazzling lights and loud bangs. “There was never any conflict between the two roles,” he says.

In 1966, he married Katherine and together they made Kimbolten their home.

Meanwhile, during the 1960s, the British media began featuring graphic accounts of serious injuries casued by fireworks, and highlighting the dangerous risks they posted. AS a result many companies went into severe decline and some, such as Lion and Brock Fireworks, went out of business.

“The demise of the industry played into the hands of those of us who weren’t in the retail trade, “ says Ron Lancaster. “I was pressed to put on more and more display work and, with help from the boys, I staged many out-of-term spectaculars, including the Henley Regatta.”

His first major triumph was in 1978 when he put together the display for the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation right outside Buckingham Palace.

Soon Kimbolton Fireworks became responsible for many other national displays, and before long what had started as a simple hobby became a thriving business.

“All the money I got from the display work, I ploughed back into the company,” explains Ron Lancaster. “We built a factory in the neighbouring village of Stonely where we now employ two dozen people”.

After a quarter of a century as Chaplain, Ron retired from Kimbolton School. His son Mark joined him to work at the factory, and the business is now recognised as a worldwide leader in the field of pyrotechnics.

Today Kimbolton Fireworks stages displays at royal occasions, corporate events and weddings, and is one of the few UK firework companies to use digital firing systems to synchronise and control effects for displays set to music.

They were responsible for the biggest pyromusical to date at the VJ Day celebrations on the Thames in 1995. A similar display marked the 1997 Hong Kong Handover.

In recent years, they have had a string of successes at major international competitions, culminating recently in the award of the Gold Prize as the Cannes International Pyrotechnic Festival.

“Nowadays I leave the high-tech stuff to the younger members of the team,” says Ron. “I want to spend more time developing new and exciting fireworks. I’m always experimenting with fresh ideas.”

Kimbolton Fireworks started from humble beginnings and even today the Revd Ron Lancaster can often be seen taking a Sunday service at Kimbolton Parish Church.

In recognition of services to the industry, he was mad MBE in 1993 and elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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