Working Class Life in the 1940s & 50s—Bonfire Night
Each November the fifth in England we remember the foiled plot of Guy Fawkes who plotted to blow up Parliament and the King.
Fortunately this plot was discovered and Guy Fawkes was arrested before he could put a match to the gunpowder that he had secreted below the Houses of Parliament.
As children we learnt the first two verses of the rhyme below
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Remember, remember the Fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!
A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A 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
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say old Pope is dead
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hung, Drawn, and Quartered
For those of you that don’t have weak stomaches and who want to know what the sentence for treason was in those day this is what the Judge would say as he passed sentence.
“That you be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being (still) alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”
The hurdle was similar to a piece of fencing made from thin branches interwoven to form a panel to which the prisoner was tied to be dragged behind a horse to the place of execution. Once there, the prisoner(s) were hanged in the normal way (i.e. without a drop to ensure that the neck was not broken) but cut down whilst still conscious. The penis and testicles were cut off and the stomach was slit open. The intestines and heart were removed and burned before them. The other organs were torn out and finally the head was cut off and the body divided into four quarters. The head and quarters were parboiled to prevent them rotting too quickly and then displayed upon the city gates as a grim warning to all.
The Gunpowder Plot
Guy Fawkes was arrested on the 5th of November 1605, and on Friday, January 31, 1606, Guy Fawkes, along with some of his co-conspirators was taken to the Old Palace Yard at Westminster to be hung, drawn and quartered.
Guy Fawkes was the last of the conspirators to face his punishment. However, when the noose was put around Guy Fawkes neck he leaped from the gallows breaking his neck in the process. He died immediately thus avoiding being alive for the drawn and quartered part.
Most people today think that the effigy that is traditionally burnt on the bonfire is Guy Fawkes but originally the effigy was the effigy of the pope as it was a papist plot. The plotters wanted to kill King James who was a protestant and replace him with a catholic.
This King James is the same King James who is responsible for having the Bible translated into English. This translation is known as the Authorized or the King James Version and it is still used in many churches throughout the world.
To celebrate the saving of the King’s life an act of parliament was passed for the lighting of celebratory bonfires throughout the land.
The first one of these celebrations took place on November 5th 1606 on the anniversary of the foiled plot, this was the beginning of a tradition that has lasted right up to the present day
Bonfire Night celebrated for over 400 years
Bonfire Night celebrations have been held in Britain for over four hundred years and for the first three hundred and fifty years these celebrations changed very little however, in the last fifty years things have changed a lot including how Bonfire Night is celebrated..
Bonfire Night in the 1950’s was a very different celebration to that which takes places in England today. Today nearly all the firework displays are organised and professionally done as are the bonfires themselves and it is illegal for children to purchase or have fireworks. Today these celebrations are choked by all sorts of rules and regulations and are subject to all sorts of health and safety stipulations.
I think that getting permission to build a bonfire in the street today would be impossible to obtain. Today the hands on individual participation in the Bonfire Night celebrations especially that of children is almost none existent relegating adults and children alike to the role of spectator rather than participator.
Bonfire Night in the 1950s
In the 1950’s things were very different bonfire night was a neighbourhood event in fact in working class districts it was a street by street event and there was great rivalry between the streets as to who could build the best bonfire.
The kids in the main were responsible for collecting the combustibles for the bonfire, neighbours used this opportunity to get rid of old furniture and old bits of wood etc., anything burnable would be saved for the bonfire.
Can you imagine a bonfire like the one that is in the photograph being built on a street in a densely populated area only yards from people's homes with no official intervention limited only by how much burnable materials could be collected and stacked?
You would know when bonfire night was getting close because the Newsagents shop on our street and in streets throughout the country would start displaying fireworks in their shop windows and by the end of October our Newsagent’s shop’s glass display counter would be full of fireworks for sale.
The Newsagent had all the usual stuff, penny bangers, sparklers, jumping Jacks, Catherine Wheels, Rockets, and Golden Rain and if you wanted something expensive or special the Newsagent would order it for you. I am not sure why the Newsagent’s shops were the ones to stock and sell fireworks I am sure that there must be a good reason for this.
Each street, at least in the working class areas, would have at least one bonfire and long streets like ours usually had as many as three. Weeks before Bonfire night all the kids would be busy collecting rubbish for their own particular bonfire. It was every kid's aim to have the biggest bonfire in the area. The one that I used to go to was only about five yards from my front door. The fire used to burn so hot that it used to melt the tarmac on the road and sometimes before the road was repaired you could see the cobblestones where the tarmac had been burnt off.
Our Personal firework display
I remember my dad used to let off our fireworks in our back yard early on in the evening and these fireworks were mainly what we called "pretties" as they were colourful and nice to watch. Dad would use an empty milk bottle to stand the rockets in when lighting them, most fireworks instructed you to light the blue touch paper at arm's-length and retire.
You had to be quick when lighting the fireworks as the blue touch papers were not very long at all and they would go off within seconds of being lit. Most of the time the fireworks went off as they should but occasionally we had our mishaps. Sometimes the milk bottle would fall over and then the sky rocket, instead of going straight up, would instead fly at ground level in whatever direction it fell in and at whoever was unfortunate to be in its path.
In our backyard, we had a wooden line post for our washing line and dad used to pin the Catherine wheels to this line post. One year dad bought a great big firework that shot great coloured balls up in the air that whistled then exploded sending showers of brilliant colours in the air.
Dad let this particular firework off on the pavement in front of our house because it was so special and he wanted everyone to enjoy it. We did not have a garden to stick the pointed end of this firework in so Dad stuck the pointed end into a plant pot full of soil.
Everything went well for the first few of these whistling explosions but then the firework unexpectedly took off like a rocket, still attached to the plant pot. We last saw it soaring over the rooftops and we never did find out what happened to the plant pot. So if you had a plant pot one Bonfire Night in the 1950’s land unexpectedly in your back yard now you know where it came from.
Penny for the Guy
A Penny for the Guy
In the week before Bonfire Night kids would make an effigy out of old clothes stuffed with screwed up newspapers this effigy was commonly called a Guy. They would then take the Guy and position themselves where there would be a lot of people passing by, on street corners, outside shops, pubs etc., and they would beg from anyone who passed by asking "A penny for the Guy, mister?"
All over the neighbourhood you would see kids out with their guys begging for money off of any adult who would listen. The guys were transported on anything that had wheels pushchairs old prams, trolleys, and sometimes old wooden wheelbarrows. It was usually good-natured and most of the adults didn’t seem to begrudge giving the odd penny or halfpenny to this army of kids.
We would sit our Guy on our trolley (like the Guy in the first photo) and we would wheel it round to the main gates of the Gun Factory ready for letting out time. We used to say the first verse of the rhyme ‘Remember Remember’ when asking for a penny for the Guy.
The pennies we collected this way were used mainly to buy bangers and jumping jacks which were small in size and cheap to buy. In the 1950’s you could buy a small banger for as little as a penny and they made a very satisfying loud bang when let off. We would stuff our pockets with these bangers and jumping jacks quite oblivious of the potential danger of having pockets stuffed full of easily ignited fireworks.
Enough to buy fireworks
We usually made enough money to buy plenty of jumping jacks and penny bangers. The jumping jacks were unpredictable. When you lit them you were never sure where they would go when they went off.
We use to think it great fun to light a jumping jack and just drop it between someone’s feet from behind and then watch them jump when it went off. It was not unusual for us to throw bangers at each other and we would see who could hold on to the lit fireworks the longest before throwing them it was all part of the fun. Many a time the penny bangers would go off in your hand. I wore my sheepskin mittens and they withstood most bangers quite easily.
After dad had let off our fireworks in the back yard then we would go out to the street bonfire and watch them put the guy on the top of the bonfire and then set the bonfire alight. All the Mums would take chairs out on to the street to sit on and watch the fire burn. Potatoes would be put in the fire to bake for us to eat later.
My mum would always make bonfire toffee and toffee apples. Dad had a garden allotment on which he had fruit trees and it was some of his apples that mum made into our toffee apples. I know it sounds funny and not right but I am sure that she made the toffee with a little vinegar in it. I know that they were the most delicious toffee apples that I have ever tasted and the slabs of toffee that she made were delicious. Mum never made toffee at any other time of year only on bonfire night.
The Best Bonfire
The bonfire would be built only the day before because you had to guard your bonfire from those who would steal your stuff for their bonfire. The risk of stuff being stolen was very real as everyone wanted to build the biggest and the best and so there would be somebody standing guard through the night usually some of the bigger boys to see this did not happen to our stuff.
To help you imagine how a street bonfire would look I have put the picture of the bonfire that I used earlier where it would have stood in our street as I have no actual photographs of a bonfire from this time and it does give you some idea of what it looked like before it was lit.
After watching our street's bonfire burn for a bit we would then go round the other bonfires in our area to have a look at theirs and to tell them how ours was bigger and better. The best bonfires that I ever saw I am sorry to say was not the one on our street but the one that was built on the street next to ours. In spite of all our best efforts they always seemed to collect more rubbish and pile it higher than ours.
The fire Brigade was called out regularly to their fires but the kid’s mums would arm themselves with sweeping brushes and chase the firemen off before they could get out the hoses to put the fire out. They would have old three-piece suites to go on the bonfire, which they would sit on until they were ready to throw them on the fire. Some how our mums did not have quite the same enthusiasm for the bonfire mayhem as the Goodhead street mums did.
Their fires always seemed more exciting because you never knew what was going to happen next especially with the police and the fire brigade when the fires looked like they were getting out of hand, which was most of the time because they were so large. The mums always won the day though and I can never remember the Fire Brigade actually putting a fire of theirs out.
Experimenting with gunpowder
The day after Bonfire Night most bonfires were still smouldering and we used to scour the streets looking for duds. Duds are fireworks that had fizzled out and hadn’t exploded the night before. We would collect all these up and we would take them down to a piece of waste ground that was known as the tips and we would experiment with them.
We would break them open to get the gunpowder as we called it out of the firework. When we had got enough we would try to blow things up with the gunpowder that we had collected. Some of the effects were quite dramatic and others were a great disappointment. We would sometimes try to blow up empty milk bottles. Sometimes they would shoot up in the air other times they would explode showering you with broken glass. How we didn’t kill each other or badly injure any one only God knows.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this little journey back to simpler times. If you are British and have photographs taken in the 1930s,1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s that I could use in my future hubs, I would really like to hear from you. Please email me using the contact link on my profile page.
All these Hubs have the common theme of coming from a Working Class perspective which differs quite a lot from that of the Middle Class and which has virtually nothing in common with the Upper-Class.