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The Changing Face of Guy Fawkes Night


Regular contributor, L Katiyo  over the weekend enjoyed the many delights of the Blackheath firework display that can be often seen from the Island. The Island does not have a major bonfire display and the Blackheath display is one of the largest in London attracting crowds of over 100,000 people.


Most of the firework displays in London are well organised and  family friendly which can be enjoyed by everyone. However, when you consider the Guy Fawkes celebrations over the last century or so, you get a rather different picture.


Looking at various newspaper reports since 1885, it quickly becomes clear that Guy Fawkes Night was often an excuse to indulge in some less than acceptable behaviour. The first report from 1885 is interesting considering it seems very well organised and  features Lewisham and Blackheath.


On Wednesday, the Lewisham Bonfire Boys held their annual carnival in celebration of Guy Fawkes Day. At 6 o’clock a procession has formed outside the Lewisham-road station of the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway and with bands and banners flying, the bonfire boys started on their perambulation of the principal thoroughfares of Lewisham, Lee, Blackheath, Greenwich, and Catford. The cavalcade, which was about ha!f-a-mile in length, included many vehicles illuminate with coloured fires and a large number of mounted men attired in fancy costumes. The characters were, of a most varied description. The houses and shops along the line of route were all brightly illuminated with coloured fires and Chinese lanterns. The streets were thronged with people, and the motley procession must have been witnessed by some 40,000 or 50,000 persons.


By 1911, Guy Fawkes night attracted enormous crowds to big displays, one of the largest was on Hampstead Heath which attracted up to half a million people, our reporter is not very impressed by some of the antics of the crowd.

1911 Farrago of Fireworks, Folly, Farcical Frisky Foolery, and Female Underwear.
The Heath was turned into an absolute hell upon earth,  About half a million Cockneys of both sexes gathered to gorge periwinkles, guzzle bad beer, dance, and pull each other about with shameless abandon to the illumination of numerous  bonfires, and the accompaniment of a fizzle of Chinese fireworks, that stunk worst than a whole sewerage farm struck by lightning. It was a characteristic  Cockney carnal carnival, at which thousands of London louts and lassies lay around blazing bonfires in close company, with arms and limbs entwined,watching thousands of their fellow Yahoos deliriously dancing round the flames like dirty, debased, dancing dervishes, shrieking, screeching, and squalling…..a small army of lunatics had blown bladders attached to sticks (a very popular form of London “fun”this), and banged everybody, they met across, the head, and as no London holiday can take place without a mob of importuning bawling beggars—a number of young men and boys with blackened faces carried about effigies of  Guy Fawkes whining and begging for pennies. Frantic fools flung fireworks up girls’ clothes.  There were hordes of police on the spot to keep order, but the Loudon police are slow  to  interfere with a London mob on holiday bent  provided they stop short of outrage or murder.
In many ways, the two world wars had a quieting effect on some of the celebrations, however the 1950s saw the night often being used for an excuse for student high jinks and other anti social behaviour.
Guy Fawkes Night in London – Work For Police and Fireman
Firemen were called-to 160 bonfires which got out of control, and R.S.P.C.A officers to deal with 250 hysterical dogs, when Londoners celebrated the anniversary of Guy Fawkes with fireworks to-night 24 hours early. East End children unsuccessfully tried to cut the hoses when firemen doused several of their bonfires, while in the centre of the city, the police arrested a number of youths after rockets, jumping jacks and bangers were fired off amongst the traffic.
Wild Guy Night in London
London had its rowdiest since before the war when thousands of men and women, many  of  them university students went rampaging through the fashionable West End celebrating Guy Fawkes Night.
A fireworks battle in Parliament Square, next to the House of Commons, between rival gangs of students had to be broken up by mounted and foot police. At the end of the night, 100 revellers had been charged with various offences, ranging from assaulting and obstructing the police to using insulting language.
Thousand’s  thronged the West End hurling squibs and bangers into buses and taxis. One student tried to place a small box of explosives quietly under the helmet of a policeman. Around Eros God of Love, whose statue is in the centre of Piccadilly Circus, policemen linked arms as hundreds ran shrieking round the statue throwing fireworks as they went. The Daily Express says students threw fireworks  at the windows of No. 10 Downing Street.
In many ways, Guy Fawkes has lost its rebellious character when children and adults built their own bonfires and let off their fireworks. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing ! injuries to children and animals were commonplace and fires often got out of control putting a strain on the emergency services.
Many thanks to L Katiyo for the photographs.

1 Comment

  1. Jan Hill says:

    Great article! My mother, who was born in 1915, once told me that she remembered that a little boy was killed in the Island Gardens while watching a fireworks display in Greenwich. A rocket misfired and shot across the river.

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