The History Of UKFR

Where it all started and why!

Sometime in 1997 I decided that I wanted to put on a back garden fireworks display for November 5th. I’m not sure exactly why, I think I might have been reliving my childhood or otherwise in that fatal position we find ourselves in from time to time: between hobbies and with disposable income. But I do remember it was in the summer, a distinctly odd time to think about fireworks. Clearly I needed plenty of time to plan!

I knew that I didn’t want to buy the smaller stuff the newsagents at the end of the road stocked around bonfire night. So I turned to Yellow Pages (you’ll need to Google what that is if you’re under 30 years old!) and found a whole category devoted to fireworks! Remember back in 1997 the internet was still in its infancy, you didn’t simply search on Google back then. You used real books with actual printed phone numbers.

So after a couple of phone calls and a few days later I was leafing through a number of brochures all filled with big boys’ toys. Fireworks costing up to £50! Huge barrages! Lots of terms I had never heard of such as cakes, mines and lancework! All of these were described in various enthusiastic terms and according to the descriptions, every firework would thrill the audience. With absolutely no independent source of fireworks information I had to effectively buy blind, trusting the catalogues.

Months later and having spent well over £500 (original budget: £100) I was running around my back garden like a headless chicken letting off a sequence of fireworks all of which had been set up beforehand. The results were pretty good for a back garden but I was struck by something and it wasn’t a firework: Some of the £10 candles outperformed some of the £50 barrages! Why did some of the cheaper items get a bigger cheer and why was the £60 finale firework rubbish when the catalogue said it was brilliant? And why wasn’t there any source of information I could have used to tell me all this before I spent my hard earned cash?

Birth of UKFR
A video still from the original display that led to UKFR.

The birth of UKFR

At about the same time as this display I was tinkering with web pages. In those days the fad of the time was “personal home pages” where you used a web page or two to tell the world about yourself. Just like a Facebook page today. Naturally I had a section on fireworks, my new hobby.

Over the next year or so I realised the amount of information I wanted to share about fireworks warranted a site all of its own. I wanted to review all the fireworks I had tried and to tell people “This one is the best one to buy” and to tell people how to let fireworks off safely. If I could let off £500 of fireworks without a hitch then so could anyone else.

After a period of web designing, tinkering and lots of coffee, UKFR was born in February 1999. When it was launched I used the very catchy title of “Pyro Pete’s Independent UK Firework Review 1999″. The year was included in the title as I had no idea it would last beyond the coming Guy Fawkes season and then the Millennium celebrations. I was wrong and the rest, as they say, is history!

UKFR 1999
The original website!

The growth of UKFR

The site was first picked up by journalists in 1999 searching for fireworks information for their articles. A website that actually reviewed fireworks was unheard of back then and a fantastic source for researchers. Suddenly there was no need for time consuming tests, just quote UKFR! The site was mentioned in a number of places in 1999, the best one being the Guardian.

Two firework retailers saw the potential for having their products reviewed and I have fond memories of boxes of fireworks – for free – arriving from HFM Pyrotechnics and 1st Galaxy. With fireworks feeding UKFR it grew exponentially, new reviews bringing in new readers and new readers encouraging even more retailers to send review samples.

Once the Millennium had been and gone, I concentrated on two areas in the years that followed: Video and reviews. In those days there was no YouTube and not even any good ways to compress video clips. So surely it was a crazy idea to upload fireworks video? Well I did and by 2003 UKFR was producing not only reviews of fireworks but video clips of them in action too. Quite an achievement considering I ran the site on an old laptop and dial-up connection.

It has to be said the use of video was met with some resistance from the fireworks trade. Although some companies could see this was the future (Firework Emporium being the first to invite me to a fireworks review night in 2002) many were less enthusiastic because consumers could see their fireworks warts and all. However empowering the consumer to make an informed choice was my overriding concern and I was not going to give up!

With the reviews growing in number I needed a better way of organising them. A new review framework for UKFR was coded and at the time it felt state-of-the-art. It was now possible to present reviews dynamically, by brand, price or duration and to filter them by Editor’s rating (I gave the best fireworks a “BEST BUY” award).

Because UKFR was becoming more well known, I was able then to start visiting firework companies and events to feature them on the site. This produced a significant amount of content in addition to the reviews with a favourite assignment of mine being a behind the scenes look at a professional show.

Away from consumer fireworks, I also reached out to local professional display companies, with the idea of featuring their displays on UKFR. Apart from giving consumers a look behind the scenes, it was also a great excuse to see how the professionals do things. This led to many great days with Skyscenes Pyrotechnics, the first one (mid-2000 from memory) being a wedding at Wensum Valley Golf Club and one of my photos is shown below:

Wensum Valley Fireworks

The membership years

Due to the spiralling costs of running UKFR not to mention the amount of spare time it was taking, I took the decision in 2001 to charge a membership fee to access most of the content. Priced at £23.88 a year (so I could quote the monthly cost as being “just £1.99”) this stayed in place right the way though to 2009.

I do miss some aspects of the membership site, mostly the great sense of community it fostered. However with a membership framework also came a responsibility to produce content and a pressure to update the site regularly, something that was not always possible due to personal circumstances. It also excluded a lot of passing visitors who needed help but didn’t want to pay.

The rise and passing of the firework reviews

The glory years for UKFR focusing just on consumer reviews was 2004-2006. I had a lot of time on my hands and was able to output a lot of content. That time was needed since the effort involved in a typical review was considerable: Photos, timings, a written review and of course a fully edited and compressed video clip.

There were growing challenges however. The number of fireworks on the market had increased exponentially since 1999 as more and more retailers turned to importing their own. It was becoming clear that fireworks were changing each year – even exactly the same firework could have wildly different effects from one year to another if the importer changed factories in China. I started to struggle to keep up with even the fireworks from just one brand, let alone the dozens on the market.

There was also an increasing feeling that reviews of individual items – to the precise and detailed level I was doing it – were becoming redundant due to retailer video clips. The use of product video on UKFR eventually forced retailers to see the light and not to be frightened of letting their customers see their fireworks in action. Over the years the number of retailers having product video increased from just a couple to the vast majority. These days there is no excuse not to have product video with the likes of YouTube making it easy to share footage.

Because fireworks are aesthetic and therefore highly subjective, in the end UKFR was spending huge time and effort filming and reviewing fireworks when the reader could watch them – for free – on the retailer’s website anyway. And so, the days of reviewing fireworks in this manner were numbered and eventually came to an end in 2008.

I’m really pleased to have reviewed as many fireworks as I have and at the right time too. UKFR helped countless consumers in the noughties to find the best fireworks well before retailers offered product video. Over 1100 reviews were published and according to the database stats this covered a staggering £27,524 worth of fireworks at RRP! And that’s RRP in those days too – they would cost significantly more today.

A new decade: 2010 to 2020

At around the turn of the decade and leading into 2010, I spent a great deal of time and effort giving UKFR a major makeover. This lead to a few years of productive content in the form of articles, visits to retailers and reviews of some non-firework products such as firing systems.

However even by this point, the time burdens of an increasingly busy Forum meant it became much more difficult to find the spare hours to write lots of articles let alone get out and visit retailers or attend displays. As a result, whilst the online community went from strength to strength, I struggled to keep the main site (what you are reading now) fed with new material.

2020, lockdown and beyond

Towards the end of 2019, with the passing away of my mum (caring for sick parents being one of several non-firework issues conspiring to keep me away from publishing significant new content) I took a long hard look at UKFR and how best to continue with this wonderful project I started back in 1999.

Above all I wanted to ensure UKFR remained faithful to its roots with a comprehensive set of guides for complete novices – which is how I was when I started out on my pyro adventures. Now we have an established community in the Forum pushing out a great deal of content on its own (reviews, YouTube channels, retailer visits and so on) plus most retailers doing a fine job filming their own gear (and getting very good at it), there is less of a need for UKFR to cover these areas. But, good quality guides to the basics – what consumer fireworks are, how to set them up and how to fire them – is still a neglected area. So this now, moving forwards, is my focus.

I also want to reassure the public that fireworks are still legal and still a loved tradition; with a small but vocal minority of killjoys trying to spoil things and spreading saddening amounts of “fake news” to the contrary, it’s vital to counter this with a pro-fireworks view.

There was however the small matter of getting the entire site updated. From a blank sheet of paper given that some articles were a decade old. And making it all mobile friendly. 

Ironically, despite depriving me (as it has countless thousands of others) significant income in my day job, Covid-19 and the lockdown gave me plenty of time to work on updating UKFR. And this is where we stand today.

I really don’t know what the future will bring to UKFR’s doors and I prefer to remain open-minded. If you’d said to any of us in early 2020 that a virus would come along and change society beyond recognition, we wouldn’t have believed you.

So I will raise a glass of my favourite tipple (Leffe Blonde), thank you for reading about UKFR, and toast to the future, whatever it brings.

Pyro Pete, UKFR founder and Editor.