Friday, 4 November 2016

A Good Old-Fashioned Bonfire Night

I mentioned recently that when I was younger, way back in the 1950s, we'd barely heard of Halloween. A reader commented that down in darkest Devon they had been in the habit of carving out large turnips to make jack-o-lanterns and I remember reading that in Somerset they celebrated Punky Night at this time of year which involved going from door to door demanding sweets and doing something very akin to trick-or treating. But in East Anglia - nothing.

Even if there had been a celebration of Halloween, recorded on calendars and mentioned on the radio, we'd have been too busy to join in. From the last week or so of October we had other things on our minds.

Fireworks were appearing in the village shop. These were not the super-duper pyrotechnical whizz-bangs of today but modest little cardboard tubes with innocent names like Golden Rain, Roman Candle, Catherine Wheels and Jumping Jacks. Then there were rockets, which simply fizzed up into the air and died quietly in a shower of sparks, penny Bangers and of course Sparklers. These could all be bought for modest amounts of pocket-money and didn't require a second mortgage like some of the display fireworks sold today.

You weren't supposed to buy them when you were six of course and had to persuade parents to get them for you. Some boys at school though used to go and visit old Mr Gundlestone, a shop-keeper blissfully unaware of rules and regulations, health and safety, or even food-hygiene come to that.

Then there was the business of building a bonfire. Small boys scoured the gardens and sheds to find anything which might be remotely considered flammable - wet branches, still green hedge cuttings, soggy cardboard boxes - and pile them up in a corner of the garden, till father came home from work and pointed out that it would probably set fire to next-door's pig sties if you left it there, so it would all have to be moved next morning.

More constructive endeavour was required to make the Guy. Here's how you do it:
  • Collect together as many of Dad's worn out work clothes as possible. 
  • Tie up the ends of the legs and arms with baler twine. 
  • Stuff with newspaper or straw. 
  • Try to join up the legs and the torso. 
  • Fail. 
  • Get Dad to do it when he comes home. 
  • Make a head from an old feed-sack. 
  • Ask Dad if he'd got any old wellington boots for the feet. He always had - I think he must have put them aside specially.

The end result, due to the provenance of its attire, always bore a striking resemblance to my father but we called it "the Guy" nevertheless. We occasionally had a go at collecting "a penny for the Guy" and sometimes got a few pence from a visiting uncle, but I never remember us making a nuisance of ourselves out on the street.

Then came the big day. Morning school would be spent learning about who Guy Fawkes was and hearing the story of the attempted gunpowder plot. Then in the afternoon we would usually make a painting of fireworks or bonfires. Sometimes we would dry our paintings in front of the iron pot-bellied stove in the corner of the classroom, often the evening's events would be anticipated by someone "accidentally" setting fire to their work of art. Then we all had to go and sit down till the end of school.

In the evening everyone had a bonfire and fireworks in their garden. We'd often be joined by young men who worked with Dad on the farm. They'd usually contribute a box of fireworks, often more expensive ones than my parents could afford, and sometimes brought a few bottles of beer with them as well. There was always laughter around these lads, Mick, Francis and Graham, they'd tease us and make jokes till we couldn't stop giggling.

The fireworks would be lit, one by one, by my father while we all stood at a safe distance, Oo-ing and Ah-ing at the modest display. Rockets were fired from milk bottles and Catherine wheels were pinned to the post that held the clothes-line. All too soon the firework box was empty. Then Mick would say, "I'll see if I can find any more" and would return within seconds bearing the biggest rocket of the night!

As the fire was dying down my mother would produce "Taters-in-their-jackets" and we all ate hungrily, butter dripping down our chins, before us children were put to bed, tired but happy.

Next morning we sought to wring the last vestiges of excitement out of the celebration by kicking around in the still warm ashes of the bonfire to see if we could find anything which had survived the blaze, usually an old bolt or a handful of bent nails. Then we made a thorough search of the area to see if we could find the scorched wooden sticks from spent rockets - all that was left till next year. 

Take care.

                                                                                 (images borrowed from the internet)


  1. Lovely post (as usual). Recreated the memories of the old times brilliantly.

  2. Great post! Love the old traditions!

    Newfoundlanders still celebrate Guy Fawks night, often with community bonfires, though backyard ones are still common. We didn't have the Guy but the celebration was great! Loved this post!

  3. Great post, John. That strikes a chord with my memories too - just a few local differences, but essentially similar. I remember badgering dad in the days before to get the fireworks out so that I could look at them. I recently did a bit about the origins of Hallowe'en (which mentions Punkies) - I think it still takes second place to Guy Fawkes' Night.

  4. Wow...those were the days my friend! I daresay you remember the paper masks that were probably bought from Woolworths in those days, we used one for the Guy and wore one ourselves, elf and safety would have a fit these days!
    A great post John with happy memories rekindled, thank you.

    Enjoy the 5th of November.

  5. Back in those days folk could be trusted with fireworks for little garden displays. A couple of nights ago here, some local chav threw a firework into an Indian restuarant packed for Diwali

  6. The good old days, John. Great memories!

  7. Great story John. Sounds like fun was had by all back in the day.

  8. The year I married the farmer (1993) was the last year there was a grand child young enough to enjoy a bonfire on the farm. My husband's parents were still alive then. Everyone came - all the family - the husbands built the bonfire in the paddock, the wives baked cakes and scrubbed potatoes to slip into the bottom of the fire. Then we had the fireworks. Afterwards everyone trooped into the farm kitchen for a feast which included hot potatoes, straight from the ashes.

  9. In many ways I envy you the Guy Fawkes tradition (we have our bonfire at midsummer, when it is hardly dark at all - much more fun in the dark).
    Once I spent Guy Fawkes night in Manchester. It was a strong gale and heavy rain, and we had to stay indoors and watch the fireworks go haywire

  10. I guess Guy Fawkes outdid Hallowe'en. Nice to think a history lesson outdid candy collecting!

  11. We didn't ever celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with such enthusiasm, but always acknowledged it. Our prairie Halloween consisted of gathering apples (Halloween Apples) from neighbours - this was in depression days and there was never a thought of candy!! But we did raid the costume trunk and dressed as pirates, or tramps - none of the fancy store-bought costumes that Halloween inspires these days.

  12. Brilliant post John - caught the mood as I remember it ... scrunchy leaves, freezing cold, well wrapped up, bonfire piled high, my father setting up the fireworks and the catherine wheel ... I suppose we had a guy - though the lads and lasses from the village wheeled theirs around ...

    I have always 'hated' bangs ... balloons to start with, and fireworks .. but love the colours ...

    Fantastic post - memories .. cheers Hilary

  13. John-- It appears that Guy Fawkes Day has many versions in your area. In the U. S. Halloween comes close to your celebrations. We did much the same as you but had a devil's night the night before Halloween when the "bad kids" would go about the streets with a chunk of wax and scribble over the car windows. I found your descriptions most fascinating -- barbara

  14. I had a good time reading this post, John. Memories from my own childhood hold similar innocent pleasures. Sometimes, my grandchildren want to know about the "olden" days when I was a child. I'm happy to pass on the old stories.

  15. This brings back so many happy memories John! Sitting on the corner shouting penny for the guy and then going home with quite a hefty haul (standing outside a railway station was the best spot and coverted by many!). Half the money would go towards fireworks, the other half towards Christmas presents. Happy days that would probably get you arrested now!

  16. Thanks for the trip down memory lane John - I remember Guy Fawkes' night well; a lot of innocent (and mostly safe) fun and fellowship.

  17. What wonderful memories John and told as always with humour and.. panache ☺ Bonfires sound like a lot of fun, unfortunately not allowed in this sunburnt country!


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