meaning and origin of the phrase ‘to light the (blue) touchpaper’

CONTENTS
MEANINGS
LIGHTING INSTRUCTIONS
THE PHRASE TO LIGHT THE (BLUE) TOUCHPAPER
FIGURATIVE USES OF TOUCHPAPER

 

MEANINGS

 

The noun touchpaper denotes:
a strip of paper impregnated with nitre, used to set off fireworks;
and, figuratively:
a cause, a catalyst, especially one that precipitates a dramatic change.

The phrase to light the (blue) touchpaper means to set a course of exciting or dramatic events in motion. It is frequently used in reference to an action that is likely to cause anger or controversy.

 

LIGHTING INSTRUCTIONS

 

The phrase to light the (blue) touchpaper refers to the lighting instructions found on fireworks. For example, on Thursday 21st January 1897, The Standard (London, England) reported on a court case brought against the Crystal Palace Firework Manufactory by a person who had been injured while handling a firework called “volcano”; the defendants declared the following:

The directions attached to a “volcano” were to the effect that it should not be held in the hand, but tied to a post or rail about breast high, and that when a light had been applied to the blue touch-paper the person attending to it should retire.

A later mention of such instructions occurs in the Manchester Evening News (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 4th March 1903, which reported that one “Mr. Robert Ramsbottom, sportsmen’s outfitter, of Market-street, Manchester”, had been charged with “having stored explosives in a receptacle in a public passage off Market-street”:

These [fireworks] included a number of “maroons,” or imitation cannons, which, according to the instructions printed on them were to be placed 20 yards from a building before being fired. The firer must “light the blue touch-paper, and stand clear immediately.”

Naturally, instructions such as light the blue touchpaper and retire (immediately) have been especially used in reference to Bonfire Night, i.e., the 5th of November, on which bonfires and fireworks are lit in memory of the Gunpowder Plot.

This is illustrated by an anonymous essay titled Rocket Attack, published in the Rochdale Observer (Rochdale, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 10th November 1945; the fireworks that have just been used in the author’s locality during the first postwar Bonfire Night remind him of the bombs that were dropped during the Second World War; he then finds used fireworks in his garden and writes:

I examined one. “Standard Sky Rocket” was printed thereon, and the following instructions: “Stand upright in a bottle; light the blue touch paper.” Memories again! Was it of pre-war days this time Listening to Arthur and “Stinker” in Band Wagon: “Light the blue paper and retire immediately!

This is a reference to Band Waggon, a BBC radio comedy series, broadcast from January 1938 to December 1939, and starring the British comedians Arthur Askey (1900-1982) and Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch (1907-1990)—as explained by the Scouse author and broadcaster Nigel Rees (born 1944) in Very Interesting . . . But Stupid! A book of catchphrases from the world of entertainment (Unwin Paperbacks – London, 1980) [see footnote]:

light the blue touchpaper and retire immediately! The firework instruction used as a catchphrase by Arthur Askey in Band Waggon on Guy Fawkes Night and used subsequently when withdrawing from confrontation with Mrs Bagwash.

However, I have found no other allusion to Arthur Askey’s use of the firework instructions, which seems to indicate that light the blue touchpaper and retire (immediately) and variants were associated with fireworks in general rather than with Band Waggon. The following, for example, is from The Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, Warwickshire, England) of Tuesday 4th November 1952:

Tips for Accident-Free Bonfire Night
Guy Fawkes night always provides good fun, but every year in Coventry many people are treated at the hospitals for burns and the City Fire Brigade is called out to fires started during the celebrations.
In most cases a little common-sense could avoid these injuries. Despite the warning: “Light the blue touch paper and retire immediately” some people will hold fireworks in their hands until they are ready to explode.

Likewise, an article about Bonfire Night, published in The Rugby Advertiser (Rugby, Warwickshire, England) of Friday 4th November 1955, told the readers:

So prepare to light the blue touch paper and stand well away.

The instructions light the blue touchpaper and retire (immediately) and variants have become set phrases. For example, Peter Bloxham used Light Blue Touch Paper and Retire (with capital initials) in You’re in for fireworks!, published in the Evening Express (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland) of Saturday 1st November 1952:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We’ll need more fireworks soon
For the second of June.
So don’t let ’em all off in one lot.”
The jingle above might be the eve-of-Coronation-year version of a familiar old rhyme.
It carries a message to gladden the heart of every small boy who is now preparing, with seasonal relish, to Light Blue Touch Paper and Retire.
For it means — should the significance of the date have escaped you — that fireworks are officially on the programme twice next year. (Fathers and other Saturday-sixpence providers please note.)
The crowning of Queen Elizabeth II. is to be the signal for a joyous firework flare-up that will fill Britain’s skies with rainbow fire as no Bonfire Night jollification ever did.

Noel Whitcomb used light the blue touchpaper and retire immediately as part of an extended metaphor in Oh boy…what a cracker!, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Tuesday 15th May 1956:

After all the Roman Candles we’ve had flaring up on the screen in the last few years—Lollo1, Loren2 and Co.—the film boys are now tipping a South American entry for the title.
This babe, Lilia Prado3, who knocked ’em for a loop at the Cannes festival, has been christened the Mexican Firework.
So I rang up a pal of mine to see whether this title was anything to do with lighting the blue touch-paper and retiring immediately.

1 Gina Lollobrigida (Luigina Lollobrigida – born 1927), Italian actress
2 Sophia Loren (Sofia Scicolone – born 1934), Italian actress
3 Lilia Prado (Leticia Lilia Amezcua Prado – 1928-2006), Mexican actress

Jim Walker used light the blue touchpaper and retire figuratively in Ralph ‘demolishes’ holder Thornhill, published in the Belfast Telegraph (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Saturday 20th January 1962:

Ralph Gunnion, the bespectacled Liverpudlian, […] provided the big shock of last night’s play in the Irish Open Table Tennis Championships in the Dufferin Hall, Bangor, when he blasted the holder, Mike Thornhill, of Middlesex, out of the men’s singles quarter-finals in two straight sets. […]
The tall, gangling lad from Lancashire produced the fireworks. All Thornhill could do was “light the blue touch paper and retire.”

 

THE PHRASE TO LIGHT THE (BLUE) TOUCHPAPER

 

The earliest metaphorical use of to light the touchpaper that I have found is from the account of a speech delivered to the Tewkesbury Rotarians by Mrs. Jane Rawlings, “a past president of the Cheltenham Business and Professional Women’s Club and a part-time instructor at St. Mary’s Teachers Training College”—account published in The Tewkesbury Register and Gazette (Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England) of Saturday 3rd September 1955:

“Equal pay for women” was an unfortunate and misleading slogan. The ideal way was for the rate for the job to be fixed, “and then let the best person be appointed to do the work.”
This speech lit the touchpaper for fireworks from Mr. A. R. Jackson, who, while proposing a vote of thanks, had this to say:
“It seems to me that the professional training of women tends to kill, somewhat, the emotional side of their life and make charming young girls extraordinarily like charming young boys. I feel as though the emotional side of women’s lives does not need squashing.”
Mr. Jackson said that he had found that generally speaking, women “could not stand the rough and tumble of professional life.”

The phrase to light the blue touchpaper clearly means to set a course of events in motion in the following from Rugby League: St. Helen’s Final Flourish, by Stanley Hyland, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 29th April 1956:

St. Helens suddenly realised how Rugby football should be played on a bright, dry day, and the ball was thrown about. The full-back, Moses, lit the blue touch-paper. He burst through inside his own “25” and passed to Howard who took a tackle that knocked him unconscious. But before Howard passed out, he got the ball to Carlton. Carlton’s run along the left-wing was unbeatable. He covered the 70 yards or so in what seemed like a couple of dozen strides, and scored between the posts. Rhodes (who was in the side mainly because he has kicked 130 goals this season) kicked the goal after having missed four penalties, some of them easy ones.

The phrase to light the blue touchpaper occurs as part of an extended metaphor in This is a damp squib, the review of the 1956 British thriller film Eyewitness, published in the West London Observer (London, England) of Friday 10th August 1956:

The overall effect is rather like waiting for a thunder-flash to explode, only to discover after much cracking, spluttering and fizzing, that the firework is a dud. In “Eyewitness” the ‘blue touch paper’ is lit, but the thunder-flash fails to go off bang.

On Wednesday 8th January 1958, the Eastbourne Gazette (Eastbourne, Sussex, England) reported on a “Council rumpus over flats colour”:

Golden buff bricks used to build a block of flats at the junction of Spencer-road and South-street, instead of flint grey bricks said to be stipulated in the building plan, caused a rumpus at Eastbourne Town Council meeting on Monday. “That building ought to be pulled down,” was the comment of Ald. Commander A. L. D. Skinner.
[…]
Touch paper to Monday’s explosive session was lit by Ald. Miss Gladys Parker, who said, “Once again we are faced with the dilemma in which, it seems, we always give in.”

 

FIGURATIVE USES OF TOUCHPAPER

 

The earliest figurative use of touchpaper that I have found is from the column Scrutiny, by ‘Vigilant’, published in the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Thursday 7th June 1956:

Ever since they [= fireworks] were restored after the war, their “season” has been growing steadily longer and their abuse more blatant.
It has even seemed possible that they would ultimately become all-the-year-round ammunition for anyone who wished to make a nuisance of himself.
But the manufacturers (subjected to some gentle persuasion from the Home Office no doubt) have now agreed to make no more “bangers” after next Guy Fawkes Day […].
They have been wise to take notice of the glowing touchpaper of public impatience before someone suggested legislation.

Angela Milne used touchpaper figuratively in the review of The Homecoming Game, by Howard Nemerov, published in The Sketch (London, England) of Wednesday 26th March 1958:

There is poetry all over this delightfully funny and unexpected story; it gets into the corners and finally flares up in the splendid drunken vision which Mr. Nemerov bestows on his hero, a wryly enlightened college professor, at the end of an exhausting day when the ploughing of an ace footballer, who thus can’t play in The Match, becomes a moral issue, a revealer of character, a touch-paper setting off campus conflicts, changing destinies and some nicely adult Love.

 

Sad Fireworks Tragedy at Doncaster—illustration for Fireworks Tragedy: Two Little Children Blown to Pieces by a Premature Explosion—published in The Illustrated Police News (London, England) of Thursday 6th November 1913:
Sad Fireworks Tragedy at Doncaster - The Illustrated Police News (London, England) - 6 November 1913

Note: Nigel Rees explains that very interesting . . . but stupid! (pronounced verry and with a thick German accent) was Arte Johnson4’s catchphrase when playing a German soldier in Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In5.

4 Arthur Stanton Eric Johnson (born 1929), U.S. comedian and actor
5 Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a U.S. sketch comedy television programme (1968-73)

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