The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
In a nutshell, the Gunpowder Plot was an attempt to assassinate King James I. The plotters were a group of provincial English Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, whose ultimate aim was to restore the Catholic monarchy to England.
The plan was to blow up the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder during the State Opening of Parliament, on 5 November 1605. Someone snitched, via an anonymous letter, and in the early hours of November 5th, Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the explosives in the cellar of the House of Lords. The plotters' hopes of causing what would have been an enormous explosion had been frustrated.
At his trial, Fawkes, and seven fellow plotters, were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.
And so, every year on November 5th, the people of Britain, and some countries beyond, mark the thwarting of the gunpowder plot with bonfires and fireworks.
It is traditional to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes, to sit atop the bonfire. As a child, my friends and I would make such a figure, by stuffing old clothes with newspaper, just as children across the land would be doing.
A few days before the 5th, we would prop up our misshapen mannequin on the pavement outside the general shop at the top of our street. As customers entered and exited, we would regale them with the plea penny for the guy? In front of the dummy there was an old biscuit tin in which we collected whatever coinage was thrown.
The money we raised in this manner was supposed to go towards buying fireworks for the big night, but, given that our collection took place right outside a brightly lit shop window, behind which lay all manner of sweet delights, I must report that the funds were misappropriated annually.
Aside from that side-hustle, another exciting aspects of the run up to Bonfire Night, or Bonna Neet, as we say in these parts, was the gathering of as much wood as possible in a bid to have the biggest inferno in the area.
While legitimate sources, such as building sites and rubbish dumps, were scoured for any scrap wood that might be available, the biggest treasure often lay in a rival gang’s lumber stash. I only went on such raids a couple of times, but I did hear stories of other thefts from classmates who lived on a nearby housing estate.
Of course, our adversaries didn’t take kindly to having their bonfire fuel filched, and I clearly remember those childhood butterflies and adrenaline rushes as the urchin commando unit I was assigned to went about its mission. Older boys climbed a fence, and handed pieces of lumber to the rest of the unit, who carried it off like ants.
The threat of being raided was taken so seriously that there were sometimes crude (but dangerous) booby traps, trip wires and home made alarm systems awaiting would-be wood-whippers. My friend Jim and I once made a garden alarm system with string, two milk bottles and a dustbin lid. Another potential threat to raiders was the possibility of a dog being on guard.
As Guy Fawkes’ Night, cynically but justifiably called Burns Night by staff at the local hospital’s A & E department, approached, the streets came alive with speculation and rumour from a network of spies, double agents and fifth columnists.
These agents passed on intelligence as to where wood was stored and how tight or lax security was. Such information had to be treated with the utmost caution, however, as it may have been merely a set up for an ambush and a beating.
We stored our wood in a derelict house at the bottom of the street, and we were victims of theft a couple of times, although once we got a strong enough gang together to repel the raiders. The general rule was, if someone stole your bonfire wood then the best way to get even was to steal it back. And then some.
One mistake we never made was to set up our bonfire before November 5th. Anyone doing that ran the very real risk of seeing their efforts go up in flames prematurely, possibly lit by a thrill-seeking firebug on his way home from the pub late at night, when the stack was unguarded. This was viewed as a heinous crime to those who lost their bonfire, but it attracted little sympathy from the rest of us.
If our firewood survived, we would set up our bonfire after school on the big night, seating the unfortunate Mr Fawkes on the top. When it was ablaze, children from traditionalist families would place whole potatoes in the hot embers to bake.
There was usually one impatiently ravenous rascal, who would claw his potato from the fire after only thirty minutes or so. His feast would be jet black and cooked for only a quarter of an inch below the skin; beyond that it was as raw as an apple.
These turf wars provided genuine excitement for us, with a duffing-up being the worst that could happen. I don’t see nearly so many home-made bonfires these days; whether this is due to an increased awareness of health and safety, or a cautionary response to today’s where there’s blame, there’s a claim culture, I don’t know.
I’d like to think, though, that somewhere out there youngsters are setting up booby traps to protect their bonfire wood, while others are hatching plans to steal it. I’m sure the resultant excitement would better any that could be gained on a games console.