Home » Cultural Life » Laureen’s Bonfire Night

Laureen’s Bonfire Night


After surviving Halloween, we now celebrate Bonfire Night. I have often wondered what people from overseas think of this rather peculiar British custom. Fortunately to help to answer this question I have enlisted the help of Zimbabwe born Laureen.

Laureen who has lived on the Island for a decade, in words and pictures gives us her impressions of one of our most longstanding traditions.

To me, Bonfire Night signifies the advent of winter, along with the cold and darkness that comes with it.  It brings a bit of cheer and a celebration that has not always been part of my life.  Being from Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa, it was not an event I had celebrated before until I moved to London ten years ago.  I knew about the ‘Gun Powder Plot’ after reading about it in a history book.  As a former British colony, Zimbabwe adopted its fair share of British customs but Bonfire Night never made it to my part of the world.  I had never heard of it, although I have recently learned it is celebrated in South Africa, but probably only by a minority.


 In the first two years of my life in London, I did not go to any Bonfire  Nights even though Tower Hamlets probably held them in the borough.  I had no idea such a peculiar custom existed. I assumed the fireworks in early November were a continuation of overzealous Halloween celebrations because the two events take place within a few days of each other.  One evening, while watching the BBC news, there was a piece about Bonfire Night celebrations all over the country with a special focus on the ones in East Sussex and Devon.  The sight of men rolling barrels on fire seemed quite bizarre but was unlike anything I have ever seen before, coupled with the burning of an effigy.  I put it on my list of things to do.  I had no idea that most London boroughs have their own firework events to commemorate until I read about it in the East End Life newspaper.  I have been a fan ever since.


 I usually like to go alone, with my camera for company to capture the moment and share with friends all over the world.  It is usually cold and sometimes a very miserable wet evening, but that does not put me off or any of the local families.  Children seem to enjoy it the most.    There is usually an atmosphere of expectation as everyone stands there wearing their warmest clothes to ward off the cold.  Other friends from the southern hemisphere think I am mad to brave the cold for fireworks but I love the atmosphere.  It brightens up an otherwise bleak period leading up to Christmas.  The symbolic purpose of Bonfire Night is probably lost on some people but who cares when everyone acknowledges it is tradition! It has become a tradition for me too over the years.


Last year I watched the fireworks held on the Isle of Dogs at Millwall Park when the Council decided to spread them out.  This year, I decided to enjoy the Blackheath fireworks from the bottom of the island at Island Gardens.




  1. jan says:

    As a child in the 1950’s, Bonfire Night was a highlight of the year. I would be given a bit of money by parents, older siblings, uncles etc and then head to the shop where fireworks were sold individually, not boxed, Threepence for a Snowstorm, fourpence for a Roman Candle etc. On the night, we’d go to my cousin’s prefab (corner of Stebondale St and Seysell Street) and let them off in their garden. I remember my cousin and I would climb over her wall and explore the debris of ruined houses which would have been on the west side of Seysell Street. This would be around 1955/6. My father would often choose not to come to my aunt’s house on the basis that he was worried that a rocket might fall on his garage (we lived in Kingfield St) and he wanted to be there just in case. I think, maybe, it was just his excuse for not turning out on a cold night!

    • Hi Jan,

      Thanks for your memories, I remember the fireworks sold separately you could get Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels, Jumping Jacks, Bangers, Fountains. I think more people had a little bonfires in their back garden in those days.
      I love the story about your father, they came up with some great excuses didn’t they ?
      Although there are more public displays now, it is nice to see that the tradition is still kept up and people still get that sense of excitement,even when as in Laureen’s case she didn’t really understand what it was all about.

  2. John Webb says:

    Laureen, I enjoyed your experience of bonfire night and you are correct in assuming that it is mainly for children, one important part [from the child’s point of view] however seems to have faded and has been eclipsed by the Americanized Halloween, and that is the custom of children to build the effigy of Guy Fawkes and parade him through the streets calling for “A penny for the Guy” any donations going towards fireworks. There was usually a competition between us kids as to who would make the best ‘Guy’ with the winner’s getting pride of place on top of the bonfire.
    There was also rivalry between different [village] parts of the Island as to which district had the biggest and best fire, these fires were vigorously guarded in the run-up to bonfire night by us kids to prevent rivals burning them before the 5th ; of course our fire on the bombed site between Cahir street and Harbinger road was by far the best. ………………………………………… Circa late 1940s early 1950s.

    • Thanks John for the comment will pass on to Laureen.
      I have to agree with you that the competiveness of Bonfire Night has sadly died.
      Unfortunately there were children who set fire to Bonfires before the day to scupper their rivals.
      Children also spent a lot of time making there guy because it was a bit of a money maker in the days leading up to Bonfire Night. A good pitch for Penny for the Guy was outside the pubs.
      I suppose we should be grateful that unlike many other traditions it still going strong which is a reason to celebrate.

  3. jan says:

    Re my earlier posting about Bonfire Night in the 1950s, I’m happy to report that last night (5th Nov 2013) we had a very traditional Bonfire Night at my son’s house in Sussex. We had a back garden bonfire, fireworks, sparklers, jacket potatoes and of course a Guy (made by me and the grandkids). I even had the grandkids recite “Remember, remember the fifth of November etc”!

    • That’s wonderful Jan, I am sure that everyone had a great time. Making a Guy always was a lot of fun, it is a great way to involve kids into the celebrations.
      I know there are reasons for it, but I am not a great fan of Bonfire Night celebrations that are not on November the Fifth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: