Alan Crosby: Gunpowder, treason and plot

By Jon Bauckham, 5 November 2015 - 6:10pm

During some recent research, Alan Crosby discovered an interesting account of how Bonfire Night was celebrated in 19th-century Lancashire

Dr Alan Crosby is the editor of the Local Historian and a columnist for WDYTYA? MagazineThursday 5 November 2015
Alan Crosby
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One place where Bonfire Night is still taken very seriously is Lewes, East Sussex, which hosts a procession of local bonfire societies every year (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

One place where Bonfire Night is still taken very seriously is Lewes, East Sussex, which hosts a procession of local bonfire societies every year (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Bonfire Night or 'Guy Fawkes Night' has been celebrated with bonfires and fireworks for 410 years, although some historians suggest that early November festivals go much further back, perhaps even to the pre-Christian era. Maybe it was good timing on the part of the 1605 conspirators to choose a time when gunpowder was likely to be around!

I’ve been reading the diary of John O’Neill, a weaver from Clitheroe in Lancashire in the mid-Victorian period. On 5 November 1856 he observed that “… tonight the boys have a large bonfire in one of the Master’s fields. Some say it is for Gunpowder plot and some says it is for the second anniversary of the Battle of Inkerman” (one of the first battles of the Crimean War – the British and French, heavily outnumbered, thwarted a Russian attack). Whatever the reason, John was not interested in the bonfire: “I will not go near it”, he stated firmly.

The following year the local people celebrated “with the firing of guns, pistols, squibs and crackers”. After that John lost interest – he was not over-fond of his fellow man (in fact, he was a grumpy old man) and he doesn’t mention the celebrations again until 1874, when the Volunteer Fire Brigade held a torch-lit procession: “they burned blue lights and red lights and sent a few rockets up”.

By and large, therefore, not an occasion for really wild merrymaking... that sort of excitement came later, when cheap fireworks became available for anybody to buy. But fireworks were part of all sorts of other celebrations, such as royal births, birthdays and marriages and military victories.

Now, their purchase is strictly controlled, and the great firework festival is not 5 November but New Year’s Eve. How times have changed!
 

Alan Crosby lives in Lancashire and is editor of The Local Historian. He is an honorary research fellow at Lancashire and Liverpool universities

 

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