The Origins of Bonfire Night

by Frank E Earp

As a small child growing-up in 1950’s/60’s Nottinghamshire, I remember that the back end of the year and run up to Christmas was an exciting time. There appeared to be always something to look forward to and it seemed to be the anticipation of the event which caused the biggest thrill. Almost as soon as September had begun, no matter what the actual meteorological conditions, you would hear grown-ups greet each other with the phrase ‘It’s Goose Fair Weather’. Mysteriously the fair would appear overnight on the Forest Recreation-ground and just as mysteriously, three days later, vanish again.

With the Fair gone all childhood thoughts now turned to the next big event ‘Bonfire Night’, the 5th Nov. Bands of older children and young adults would begin the search for suitable flammable materiel for the building of bonfires to be ignited on the night. Piles of rubbish began to spring-up on waste ground and sometimes in urban back-gardens. The half-term school holidays brought this activity to a ‘fever pitch’ with rival groups going door to door asking for items for the firers. Such contributions were always readily available as everyone knew that this was the opportunity to clear the house and garden of unwanted rubbish.

I was fortunate to spend my early childhood on my grandfathers farm in Wollaton where there was both space and ample materiel for a bonfire. My earliest memories of Bonfire Night is of my older cousins building a great bonfire on the open ground next to the barn. But this was a family affair in the equivalent of our own garden. It was not until my parents moved to a house on the Southwold estate that I became aware of the fact that Bonfire Night and the building of bonfires was a truly ‘tribal’ event.

Southwold is a small Council estate bounded on one side by the A6514 Western Boulevard and Radford Bridge Road, with its side streets of old terrace houses, on the other. The first residence of the estate had discovered that the quickest route to Radford Bridge Road and its collection of shops, was a hole in the fence between houses on the estate and one of the streets off Radford Bridge Road. By the time my family had moved into the estate, the path had become an official public right of way, but going to the shops was still known as going through the hole by all residents young and old alike. For us children of the Southwold estate, ‘going through the hole‘ around Bonfire Night was like entering a different world. Here was the territory of two rival gangs who built their bonfires on waste ground at opposite ends of Radford Bridge Road.

With little regard to public or personnel safety the bonfires grew to a tremendous size in both height and girth. These were no mere piles of rubbish, but were always carefully constructed with enough space at the centre to contain a room or ‘den’ to be used by the builders as an ‘H.Q.’ and meeting place. To make the space more comfortable, these little rooms were kitted out with items donated for the fire including old carpets, mattresses and old armchairs.

The bonfires were always jealously guarded and more importantly, the inner space was used as a guard chamber to keep watch for ‘bommy robbers’ (bonfire robbers). Rival gangs were not averse to raiding the bonfires of others and stealing the best bits of burnable rubbish from unguarded piles and in extreme cases prematurely igniting them a few days before the big event. As close to Bonfire Night as possible and weather permitting, the inner space was cleared and packed with old newspapers, cardboard boxes and other kindling to give the fire a quick and easy ignition point. The old carpet, mattresses and furniture was carefully added to the pile. After weeks of preparation, the bonfire was now ready for the big occasion, Bonfire Night.

What of course I now know, is that Bonfire Night was that the rituals and customs observed ‘through the hole‘ were a small part of a ‘National sport’ and were being duplicated throughout the Country.


‘Typical Bonfire Builders’.

No matter how good the bonfire, no Bonfire Night party would be complete without a ‘Guy’, – a stuffed effigy of ‘Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes’, – and of course a box of fireworks. Even the humble back-garden bonfire needed its Guy and fireworks. The creating of a Guy was as much an obsession as the building of the bonfire and spawned its own begging custom known as ‘A Penny for the Guy‘. A few weeks before Bonfire Night a rummage for old cloths would produce suitable items to make a scarecrow like figure stuffed with straw, rags or more usually newspaper. Often, as much care and attention would be lavished on the ‘Guy’ as on the bonfire, for it was to form a part of the means by which the third element of Bonfire Night, fireworks, were obtained.

Almost as soon as the Guy was finished, it began its work of raising much needed funds to buy fireworks. Bedecked with a cardboard sign around its neck with the words ‘Penny for the Guy’ inscribed upon it, the Guy took to the streets. Transport was usual provided for the effigy in the form of a home-made cart, but any form of wheeled transport could be used ranging from a wheelbarrow through to a pram or pushchair. In the week before the 5th November dozens of Guys appeared on street corners, by bus stops and outside shops, – in fact anywhere it would attract the most attention. The objective of this exercise was to display the Guy to passers-by and ask or rather beg for a few coppers to add to the firework funds. The rule was the better made the Guy, the greater the expected contribution. It was not just the large bonfires like those of the Radford Bridge Road gangs that had their Guys. Families too came together to make a Guy for their own back-garden Bonfire Night party. It was not unusual for younger children to be supervised by an adult on their Penny for the Guy excursions.

On the night itself, no matter how well-made the Guy, its fate was always the same. Sometimes seated in an old armchair like a king on a throne, or more often tied to a stake on the top of the bonfire, it was ritually consumed by the flames when the pier was ignited.

I was never invited to the lighting of either of the two Radford Bridge Road fires. I was not a member of the gang as I came from the wrong side of ‘the hole’. However, most years my father would gather enough rubbish for a small back-garden fire and my mother would sometimes make a Guy from my old out-grown school cloths. Together with friends and family we would celebrate Bonfire Night with fireworks, baked potatoes and bonfire toffee.

Sadly, we are all to aware of the dangers of children being alone in the streets, especially after dark and the Penny for the Guy custom is all but extinct. With the ever growing awareness of health and safety, increasing lack of waste ground and the restrictions on the lighting of bonfires imposed by the ‘Clean Air Act’, most public bonfires and certainly the back-garden fires are a thing of the past. Families are content to celebrate the 5th November at home with just the fireworks or more likely to attend an organised Civic firework display.

The bonfires of Bonfire Night have all-but disappeared along with the traditions and customs of building them. But how and why did this National obsession with the lighting of bonfires to mark the night of the 5th November begin?

‘Bonfire Night, the stars are bright,

All the little Angels are dressed in white’

Children’s Rhyme. Anon.

In the run-up to Bonfire Night it was not unusual to see bands of children parading through the streets with their Guy singing the little verse quoted above. It was almost mandatory to sing it around the fire on the night itself. I suspect that the little ditty is not confined to Nottinghamshire. The inclusion of the reference to Angels is no accident but a residue of the religious event the occasion once was.


‘A Guy and his transport (1933)’.

Having look at how Bonfire Night is celebrated, the third part of this article was intended to simply explain the origins of the occasion. However, as sometimes happens when an historian sits down to write, their story is overtaken by events in the ‘real world’. I find myself in just such a situation.

The first verse of the old song, – quoted above, – urges us to ‘Remember the 5th November’. In fact at the time it was written it was not so much a reminder to remember, but rather a command from the King – James I, – and his Parliament. As the reader will discover, the events which commanded the commemoration of the 5th November 1605, – an infamous date in our Nations history, – have chilling parallels in our own times.

When James VI of Scotland came to the throne of the United Kingdom as James I of England, a climate of religious intolerance had existed since the time of his great grandfather, Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation. James made every effort to reconcile the Country’s Protestant majority with its Catholic minority. But their were many Catholics who were not satisfied with his efforts.

On the 26th October 1605, the authorities in the form of William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter informing them of a plot to assassinate the King and the ruling Protestant elite. Led by Robert Catesby, the plot was hatched by a group of young Catholics, who feeling they had become disenfranchised, had become radicalised in their faith. It was later revealed that the plan was to explode a bomb, in the form of 36 barrels of gunpowder, in the cellars under Westminster during the State opening of Parliament on 5th November. This would have resulted in not only in the death of the King and most of the Royal House, but the annihilation of the entire Government. It was planned that the resulting power vacuum would initiate a popular Catholic uprising which would restore England to what the plotters considered the true faith.

In order to carry-out the main part of their plot, Catesby recruited Guy Fawkes who had military and explosives experience. It is at this stage that the modern parallels become strikingly obvious. Fawkes was born into the Protestant faith in York around the 13th April 1570. However, his maternal grandparents were ‘recusant’ Catholics, – (refused to attend compulsory Protestant church services). Fawkes’ father died when he was eight years old and his widowed mother latter married a Catholic, Dionis Baynbrigge. For Fawkes, the exposure to the Catholic doctrine continued in his schooling at St. Peter’s School in York. Here he was heavily influenced by the headmaster John Pulleyn a member of a noted Yorkshire family with recusant tendencies. It is little wonder then that by the age of 20 he had converted to Catholicism. That Fawkes had become what we would term radicalised is attested to by the fact that he sold his inherited estate and travelled to the Low-countries to join the armies of Catholic Spain in their 8 year war against the newly established Protestant Dutch Republic. It was whilst in Europe that Fawkes was to change his first name, Guy, to the more Catholic sounding, Italian equivalent, ‘Guido’.

With Fawkes as a new recruit, Catesby’s gang of radicalised young Catholics had become what we would now recognise as the archetypal terrorist cell. In another modern parallel, had their plan succeeded and the explosion taken place, we would be speaking of Britain’s ‘9/11’.


A 1605 ‘Terrorist Cell’.

By the end of October 1605 Catesby and his fellow plotters had completed their preparations for the execution of their plans to blow up the King and his Parliament. They had previously rented a property adjoining Westminster through which they had gain access to the cellars bellow the ‘House of Lords’. Under Fawkes instructions a bomb or mine containing around 36 barrels of gunpowder had been laid. The intention was to explode the bomb when the King and both Houses of Parliament, – Commons and Lords, – met in the chamber above for the State Opening of Parliament on 5th November. It was Fawkes’ task to detonate the bomb. The conspirators were unaware of the fact that much of their plan had been revealed in the anonymous letter to Monteagle and State security forces were on high alert.

Just before midnight on 4th November, Fawkes was arrested by soldiers searching the cellars. He was immediately taken to the Tower of London for questioning but refused to betray his comrades. As soon as they realised their plot had been discovered, most of the conspirators, including Catesby, fled London hotly pursued by the authorities. Catesby was famously shot and killed whilst making a last stand against the Sheriff of Worcester and his men at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. At their trial on the 27th January, Fawkes and seven surviving members of the gang, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Unlike his companions, Fawkes escaped his awful fate by jumping from the scaffold and in the fall, braking his neck. However, his lifeless body suffered the public humiliation of dismemberment.

On the morning of the 5th November, news of the plot quickly reached the people and spontaneous celebrations erupted on the streets of the Capitol. A mixture of ant-Catholic sentiment and genuine loyalty to the crown was a powerful cocktail which at this point could have turned to terrible violence. However, a clever use of propaganda and State diplomacy held public opinion in check. Much of the blame was directed at one man, Guy Fawkes. At the next session of Parliament in January 1606 King James gave the Nation a safety valve and a chance to vent their anger. A bill was passed declaring that hence-forth the 5th November would be a public ‘Holy Day’ in remembrance of what had become known as the Gunpowder Plot. As a Holy Day the occasion was marked with a mandatory church service followed by general celebrations.

How did a religious occasion turn into a celebration marked with bonfires, fireworks and the burning of an effigy? Although he has always been targeted as the prime villain of the Gunpowder plot, Fawkes suffered a traitors death and was hung, drawn and quartered. Why is it then, that we customarily burn Guy Fawkes on a bonfire? Burning at the stake was a punishment reserved for ‘Heretics’. The answer to these questions is once again to be found in the old rhyme ‘Remember Remember…..’.

As we have seen, the first verse is the command from the King and State to remember the date. The second verse tells us of why we should remember. The third verse gives us a clue as to why bonfires are significant and who it is that the burnt effigy represents. Some folklorist believe that the burning of an effigy on a bonfire on a date close to the 1st November, Samhain, is a relic of pre-Christian human sacrifice believed to have taken place around this date. However, I believe that there is a far simpler explanation. Bonfires, have been and still are a very popular attraction at any outdoor celebration, particularly in the winter. Even today, street protest of every kind are often accompanied by an effigy of the supposed villain of the piece carried through the streets with a nose about the neck and ceremonially set alight.

As verse three indicates, the 5th November with its strong anti-Catholic origins has it own reason for a fire; ‘A penny loaf to feed the Pope, farthing o’cheese to choke him. A pint of beer to rinse it down. A faggot of sticks to burn him. Burn him in a tub of tar. Burn him like a blazing star’. In the mind of the people, the real master-mind behind the Gunpowder Plot was the Pope and as a heretic in the eyes of the Protestant Church, his fate should have been burning at the stake. In an effort to avert further unrest the attention was later diverted from the Pope and Guy Fakes was placed on the fire. From the beginning, the very nature of the plot with its involvement of explosives gave rise to the use of primitive fireworks in the form of ‘penny poppers’, small chargers of gunpowder used for artillery. We now have all of the elements of the Bonfire Night we know today. In the final part of this article we see how Bonfire Night was celebrated in Nottinghamshire.


‘Anti Catholic propaganda. Title page of the Broad Sheet. ‘

It is not until the 1609, some three years after the establishment of the holiday marking the 5th November, that we find a reference to its observance, or rather lack of observance in Nottinghamshire. Court records show that the compulsory attendance of church was not always received favourably amongst the general population of the County:

1609: Robert Vessie of Norton Cuckney pleaded guilty to the charge of failing to observe the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. Was Vessie a Catholic or had he better things to do with his time on this enforced holiday?

1613: Court records show that six inhabitants of Cotgrave certainly found other things to be doing on the 5th November. All six were found guilty of failure to observe the holiday. Among the charges levelled against one of the accused was ‘….suffering (allowing) his servant to threshe for pallinge, (and) for weavinge, (and) for thackinge and for suffering his wye (wife?) and wyd to winnow corne.’ Can this account in archaic language be reinterpreted to include all six individuals, a master, his wife and four servants together carrying on with everyday work about a farm on the holiday? This makes more sense when we list the various tasks as: threshing, paling (fencing), weaving, thatching, and winnowing. Here we have a total of five working tasks carried out by four servants and the masters wife, with the master himself being charged for allowing or ordering the tasks to take place on a holiday.

1618: William Gervise of Ruddington was taken to court accused of working on the holiday.

Given that the good folk of Nottinghamshire are particularly noted for their compliance to the new law, It is a little ironic that it is the records of none observance of the holiday which appear first in the public records. It seems that it was not so much the ‘keeping of the holiday’ which was important but the attendance of the officially State sanctioned commemorative church service. It was all very well for the State to enforce the additional holiday, but the service had to be paid-for either out of public funds or private donations. The first reference to an endowment to a Nottingham church comes from records for the year 1630. It is not a native who makes the donation, but a Londoner with clear anti-Catholic sentiments:

1630: Luke Jackson gave an endowment to St. Peter’s Church Nottingham, for the annual reading of a ‘Gunpowder Plot’ sermon on the nearest Sunday to the 5th November. The original bequest document contains the line; ‘ …. acknowledging God’s mercy and giving thanks for the deliverance of this land and people from the invincible Armada in 1588 and from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605′.

Another record, this time of a prominent Nottinghamshire native making an endowment clear demonstrates how an annual income for a sermon to be read in church was generated. Thomas Charlton, Lord of the Manor of Chilwell purchased a ‘close’ (a small enclosed field) called Ashflat in Bramcote. The income generated from the use or rental of this field provided for the reading of a sermon at Attenborough Church.

The great and the good of Nottingham did not just give funds for commemorative church services. There are at least two references to bequests made for more practical purposes in the form of ‘doles’ for the poor of the parish: Henry Sherbrooke of Arnold provided an annual sum of £3 to purchase bread to be distributed amongst the poor of the parish. In Edwinstowe the poor received a cash payment from the bequest of Christopher Sudbury.

To avoid putting unnecessary strain on the parish purse, there were other ways in which benefactors might finance the cost of an additional religious holiday. Just as those today wishing to marry in church have to pay if they wish the church bells to be wrung, so it was with the 5th November services. Records show that special payments were made to the bell at East Bridgeford, Holme Pierrepont and Worksop. There is no reference as to who provided the funds.

1708: A meeting of representatives of the three towns of the parish of Gedling on 22nd November 1708 agreed that there should be an allowance ‘….at the common usage of ye parish for ringing of three shillings for ye fifth November’. – A shilling per town, not a bad way of shearing the cost.

1747: In 1747 bell ringers in Nottingham were given 2s to ring the bells for ‘Gunpowder Treason’ and a further 6d for the provision of candles.

1859: In 1859, Parliament rescinded the act providing for the celebration of the 5th November as a National holiday. However, as we know, people continued to mark the date and Bonfire Night as we know it was born.


‘Bonfire Night, Windsor Castle 1776. Paul Sandby’.


About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
This entry was posted in Nottinghamshire Folklore, Nottinghamshire Traditional Customs and Ceremonies. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Origins of Bonfire Night

  1. James Attenborough says:

    Having been brought up in Hyson Green in the 50’s and early 60′ prior to joining the Armed Forces, I have a love of the history of the City and County having seen huge swathes of interesting buildings destroyed in the name of progress.

  2. Paul says:

    I grew up in Tollerton, Notts in the 50’s & 60’s and it was very similar with rival group’s building bonfires. Mum’s would do soup and baked potatoes. At the end of the evening we would go round the village throwing bangers in the gardens of adults that had caused us problems, like throwing ashes down to stop us sledging or didn’t appreciate us sampling their apples over the last 12 months.

  3. Jan Ware says:

    I read that with interest. I grew up in Bilborough in the 1950s-60s and I remember singing the ditty and also Goose Fair weather. My Husband from SW London thought I’d lost it! Were you, by any chance, related to the Earp Family who lived on Chingford Road – the name Colin rings a bell! We always used to hope and pray that the thick fog would roll in and then we’d be let out of school early and the buses stopped running! Seems light years away now but – Basford Wakes and Parkin and those pale gingerbread cakes and the remnants of Goose Fair on the Glebe field in Bilborough with a Church service on the dodgems on the Sunday night after Sat night on the Forest.

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