With bonfire night upon us, many of you will surely be going – or will have already been – to bonfires and firework displays, but how did we celebrate bonfire night, or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ in the 19th century?
Well, with a bit more zest, preparation and celebration than we do today, it seems, but other than that, not much has changed – effigies, fires and fireworks have been the order of the evening for many-a-year it seems.
I have taken the descriptions of “Guy Fawkes Day” from The Times from three years in a row; 1886, 1887 and 1888.
1886 appeared to be a good year for celebration in London, with the following two years being not as good in the capital, (perhaps the Queen’s golden jubilee in 1887 exhausted celebration funds for that year, and in 1888 the shadow of “Jack the Ripper” would surely have been clinging to east London – Whitechapel appears to have been an important location for the celebrations)
However, the celebrations took place with the same vigour in the rest of the country, onto the reporting of the events as The Times saw them:
Guy Fawkes Day 1886
Yesterday being the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, the occasion was observed in the usual manner in London. From an early hour in the morning a large number of men and boys Paraded the streets with " guys," Some were got up in a very elaborate manner but the majority of the shows were very poor, being carried on a chair instead of being conveyed in carts as the better made and larger effigies were. Some of the figures represented no known living celebrated or notorious personage, but were meant for the original Guy Fawkes, with his traditional fuse and lantern, while others of the larger effigies were intended for likenesses of one or other of the great statesmen who are unpopular with the promoters of the various shows…
…The carnival instituted nine years since by "The Lewisham Bonfire Boys " took place last evening at Lewisham. Despite the inclement weather thousands of persons congregated along the route of the procession ordinary vehicular traffic being stopped. Mr. Boucey jun., of the Portland Hotel, Greenwich, had charge of the arrangements. In the procession were numerous masquerade characters, military and naval officers, clowns, jockeys, courtiers of the time of the Georges and other English monarchs, volunteers, firemen, banners, several bands, and on either side were numerous torchbearers, and as the pro- cession proceeded there was a continuous blaze of red and green fire. Some of the public houses on the route were made gay with flags and Venetian lamps, and hundreds of residents displayed coloured lights from the windows or roofs of their houses. The route was from the Talbot Inn, Tyrwhitt-road, Loampit vale, High-road, Lee through High-street, Lewisham, High-road, Lee, Leo-road, Blackheath village, across Blackheath, to Hyde-vale, Greenwich, down Royal-hill, through Burney-street, King-street, Nelson- street, London-street, down the Greenwich-road, up Black- heath-road, into the Lewisham-road. through Lewisham High-street, to the George Inn at Rushey-green, thence returning to Lewisham-bridge, where the processionists dispersed. In former years the proceedings closed with a bonfire, but that has been discontinued the last year or two. The carnival is supported by a subscription of tradesmen and others, and after the expenses have been paid the balance will be handed to the treasurer of the Royal Kent Dispensary, Greenwich-road.
Last night the annual celebration of the Hampstead Bonfire Club attracted many thousands of persons to the Northern Height from various parts of the metropolis. Many of the shops in High-street, Heath-street, and other parts were decorated with Chinese lanterns, and coloured fires were burned from roofs and windows, producing a picturesque effect. The dangerous practice of discharging fire works in the streets was also freely carried on by some of the bystanders awaiting the arrival of the procession, a perfect fusilade going on in some quarters. The procession of the Bonfire Club, which started from its headquarters, the Hare and Hounds Hotel, North-end, about 9 o'clock, comprised representatives of mounted guards, a car on which was depicted by living agents Britannia receiving representatives of the colonies, and there were also a car manned by sailor, masqueraders on foot, torch-bearers bands of music, &c. The procession made a long tour of the neighbourhood and then returned to headquarters. On Hampstead-heath there was an immense bonfire and a grand display of fireworks. The usual bonfire carnival took place last night at Lewes, with all its boisterous pomp and revelry. Despite the heavy rains and unfavourable weather, the celebration attracted thousands to the town, and the whole business was got through with a minimum of damage. The "Bon-fire boys," clad in every conceivable disguise and presenting the most motley appearance, first promenaded their special districts with torches and tar barrels, and then burned their effigies at the bonfires lit in the outlying portions of the town. After the customary speeches of the "Lord Bishops," who once again commented in the most comically sententious fashion on current events, the ceremony of throwing a tar barrel over the bridge at the bottom of the School-hill over the Ouse then followed, preceded by the formal fraternization of the " Bonfire boys' "organization from each side of the river. This act is commemorative of some deed done in years gone by when a noted magistrate sought to put a stop to the carnival, but without success.
The grand procession then proceeded to the front of the County-hall in the High-street, where a gigantic bonfire was lit and speeches again delivered amid a scene rendered picturesque by the light from the flames burning effigies and tar barrels. Telegrams from correspondents in various towns show that the anniversary was observed in the customary manner. At Bridgwater the demonstration was witnessed by a large number of visitors. The carnival procession accompanied by several bands was of a very imposing character, its main features including two fire brigades with engines, an effigy of Guy Fawkes, a car representing Britannia, gangs of masqueraders representing Spanish cavaliers, brigands, Court minstrels, clowns, &c. A huge bonfire was lighted on Cornhill, and a pyrotechnic display followed. At Cambridge during the evening small cannons were frequently discharged, and a number of gownsmen and youths paraded the streets making discordant noises, but no disturbance occurred. Monster processions, with bands, banners, and coloured fires, marched round Eastbourne. Large bonfires were lighted and effigies were burnt. In Torquay, Teignmouth, Dawlish, and other towns in Devonshire, the celebration of the 5th was carried out on a more elaborate scale than heretofore: but at Plymouth, Exeter, and Dartmouth the demonstrations were comparatively insignificant. Features in the procession at Yeovil were a representation of the Camel Corps from the Soudan and chariots conveying representatives of all nations. In Cumberland and Westmoreland bonfires were lighted on the hills. GUY FAWKES DAY.
Guy Fawkes Day 1887:
Guy Fawkes Day. The increasing tameness which marks the Gunpowder Plot celebrations in the metropolis each succeeding year characterized those on Saturday. With an almost entire disappearance of political "Guys " which in former years were paraded, the display of effigies in the streets of London and in the suburbs was of the most commonplace description. In Irish quarters-at Bermondsey, Whitechapel, St. Giles, and Drury-lane-miserable attempts were made to caricature the Chief Secretary for Ireland – a double representation, the latter having by his side the Premier, being hawked about in some of the low thorough-fares of Southwark. A very clumsy presentment of Ir. Chamberlain was also drawn about on a donkey cart at Whitechapel.
A demonstration on a large scale took place at Salisbury by "The Salisbury Bonfire Boys' Society." At the Market-house a procession was formed; which comprised two bands, three cars, over a hundred torchbearers, and 40 bearers of Chinese lanterns. All sorts of characters were represented. On the first car were Guy Fawkes and conspirators, on the second characters representing England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada, India, and Australia, and the third was a comic car. After the city had been paraded there was a display of fireworks, and the Mayor lighted a great bonfire with an effigy of Guy Fawkes seated in a chair at the top of a pole placed in the centre of the fire.
At Lewes: the bonfire carnival, despite unfavourable weather, was carried out with the customary zeal and activity. The Cliffe Society started soon after 5 o'clock, and had their run to the Cliffe corner, where their bonfire was lighted and the usual ceremonies took place. At half- past 5 the Lewes Borough and the Commercial-square Societies entered upon their processions, which were characterized by special novelties, the latter having arranged a jubilee tableau representing Britannia surrounded by representatives of India and the colonies. The Borough boys lit the bonfire before the County-hall. A number of minor processions followed, and about 6 o'clock the Cliffe boys fulfilled the time-honoured custom of throwing a lighted tar barrel over the bridge at the bottom of School-hill, in protest against some past magistrate who sought to put an end to the celebration. At half-past 5 amid a downpour of rain the whole of the societies amalgamated in a grand procession to the central fire at the County-hall, the proceedings coming to an end about midnight. It is estimated that about 15,000 persons were in the streets during the evening. The accidents were very few, one young lady being burnt on the leg, and a few of the boys sustaining trivial scorchings.
At Bournemouth on Saturday 125 special constables were sworn in to assist the police should there be any street disturbances, and the ordinary police force augmented by a number of county constabulary. There was not, however, the slightest sign of any disturbance, and the special con- stables were dismissed at midnight, after standing about the streets for six hours in a heavy downpour of rain. In various other parts of the country the customary exhibition of effigies in the day time followed by fireworks and bonfires at right took place. GUY FAWKES DAY.
Guy Fawkes Day 1888:
Guy Fawkes' Day. In most parts of London Yesterday there were feeble attempts to celebrate the 5th of November by dragging through the streets shabby effigies, mostly of the Whitechapel murderer. In the country the day was observed in a more elaborate manner. At Lewisham a masquerade procession accompanied by bands and banners, left the Talbot Hotel, Tyrwhitt. road, opposite the Lewisham-road Station of the London, Chatham, and Dover Rail-way, about 7 o'clock, and proceeded through the principal streets of Lewisham, Lee, and Greenwich. Kings, courtiers, officers of the Army and Navy, Australian bushrangers, clowns, Ally Slopers, &c., were represented, but the most prominent were life guardsmen and jockeys. On the road coloured fires were shown from the roofs and windows of the houses with good effect, and many of the public houses were decorated with Venetian lamps and Chinese lanterns. The tradesmen closed their shops on the approach of the procession for the most part and a large body of police of the R and P Divisions kept order. In former years the proceedings terminated with a bonfire, but last night this was dispensed with. Lewes was again given over to the bonfire boys from an early time of the evening. The demonstration was in no way shorn of its accustomed novelty. and the characters introduced in the processions were as varied as ever. The Maories being on a visit to England, were duly laced in the processions, one of the bandsmen being dressed in New Zealand costume. The evening's proceedings culminated in a grand procession of the united members to the great bonfire erected close to the County-hall, where, amid the most excited manifestations, the celebration came to a conclusion. The town was thronged with visitors. No casualties are reported.
At Exeter the celebration was on a more extensive scale than has been the case of late years. "Young Exeter" and the guys marched in procession with lighted torches, and accompanied by a band. In the roadway facing the west front of the Cathedral a huge bonfire had been erected, and on the arrival of the procession in the Cathedral-yard the pile was soon ablaze. There was also a display of fireworks.
The proceedings in the principal streets of Cambridge were rather livelier than usual, large numbers of undergraduates parading the thoroughfares in strong bodies, while the town element was equally formidable. No serious disturbance, however, is reported.
The "Bonfire Boys" celebration at Yeovil was on an extensive scale. In the afternoon there was a grand parade of mounted masqueraders, followed by a balloon ascent in imitation of Baldwin's feat in London. The balloon ascended to a considerable height when a dummy man attached to a parachute was detached. Immense crowds from the surrounding districts witnessed the performance. In the evening there was a procession of masqueraders with five bands, followed by a huge bonfire and masquerade dance.
The torchlight procession of masqueraders at Bridgwater was the longest, the most picturesque, and the most attractive of anv that has preceded it. It comprised several bands of music, upwards of 30 representations on illuminated cars drawn by horses of the local industries, with groups of workmen employed at work, 200 torch bearers in military costume, a Naval brigade of 50 Blue-jackets, a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery with a mounted gun, capital representations of the old Eddystone lighthouse, one of the boats of the Royal National Lifeboat Society, and a huge effigy of Guy Fawkes. The fireworks were very good. The main thoroughfares of the town were thronged with spectators.
At Winchester last night there was a torchlight procession. The members of it were habited in motley costume, headed by the City Fire Brigade, and accompanied by a band of music. The procession traversed the principal streets, and was witnessed by immense crowds, the fineness of the evening bringing in many of the country people. The proceedings wound up with a display of fireworks.
At Eastbourne, a large procession, in which various nationalities and tribes were represented, paraded the principal thoroughfares. On the sea front bonfires were lit, fireworks discharged, and the effigies of unpopular personages burnt, amid the cheers and shouts of large crowds of people. There were also many illuminations, GUY FAWKES' DAY.