Bonfire Night in Penistone

Bonfire Night History
2011 fireThis is a national event but Penistone always has a good 'Guy Fawkes Night' ('Bonfire Night'), with the focal point of a huge bonfire and fireworks display. The whole point of the event is to commemorate the anniversary of what was called 'Gunpowder Treason Day', the foiling of a terrorist plot and arrest of Guido 'Guy' Fawkes on 5th November 1605 for attempting to blow up Parliament.

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason, Why gunpowder, treason,
Should ever be forgot.

"Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent,
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below,
To prove old England's overthrow.

"By God's mercy he was catch'd,
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king."

... So the saying goes. And we still do remember, more than four centuries later.

The Current Rules
In 2014 (HMG Press Release), the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, The Right Honourable Sir Eric Pickles said:

"Bonfire Night is a great British tradition, and it continues to have resonance as we give thanks for the longevity of our Parliamentary democracy and the British Monarchy.

"This new guide challenges the municipal killjoys and health and safety zealots who want to stop bonfires and fireworks. The public should be encouraged to celebrate this day in the traditional way, together with some common sense tips to ensure a safe and fun evening.

"Important occasions like this bring people together across colour, class and creed. Britain is stronger as a nation when we celebrate these ties and traditions that bind our country together."

The rules below are from the HMG 'Celebrating with bonfires and fireworks - A Community Guide' (pdf, updated March 2015), referred to above. The Guide has links to a 'Can Do' Guide (link) for the larger community bonfires and links for firework safety. Don't forget to keep a bucket of water handy.

1. Most shops have permission to sell fireworks only on or between these dates:

2. Fireworks cannot be let off between 11pm and 7am, except on:


The 'Gunpowder Plot', Bonfires and Church Bells.
This event remembers the 'Gunpowder Plot' on the anniversary of Guido 'Guy' Fawkes' arrest by King James's men on 5th November 1605. In a time of religious upheaval, the plot was regarded as a 'papish plot' of Catholic terrorism and treason.

The oppressed Roman Catholics had become rebellious and a terrorist plot was hatched by Robert Catesby and 13 others to blow up Parliament. The plotters smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into a rented cellar under Parliament and the huge explosion would have killed King James I and his associates in Parliament. The plot leaked out and Guy was arrested in situ, under the alias of 'John Johnson'. He was tortured at length with increasing intensity until he finally confessed. His steadfastness gave the others a chance to flee. He was eventually hung, drawn and quartered in public outside Westminster Hall, London on 30th January 1606. Most of the plotters were dealt with the same way but some were shot as they tried to escape. Had it succeeded, the Plot would have changed the whole course of British history.

When asked why he had so much gunpowder, he replied that his intention was: “to blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”. His steadfast manner earned him the praise of King James, who described Fawkes as possessing "a Roman resolution".

Following the outrage, the The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 (3 Jac. I, c. 1) was drafted and introduced by Edward Montagu on 23rd January 1606. This required compulsory church services and sermons being given throughout the land to remember the Gunpowder Plot on each 5th November.

There is evidence that the bell-ringing tradition carried on locally for a long time. Certainly in November 1696, eight shillings had been set aside for the bell-ringers of Penistone Church to ring the bells on Bonfire Night. A Wikipedia entry says: 'Towards the end of the 18th century, reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes ... (etc.)'. It was not uncommon for children to ask for "Penny for the Guy" within living memory, to rasie funds for fireworks. Some of the fireworks around in the 1960s appear to have been banned. The most common firework was the banger (earlier called the 'Penny Banger') and the Jumping Jack. These and Catherine Wheels seem to have disappeared. It was not unusual for lads to have bundles of bangers in their jacket pockets.

The original Act to observe 'Gunpowder Treason Day' was repealed in the Victorian age 1859, with the 'Act to repeal certain Acts and Parts of Acts which relate to the Observance of the Thirtieth of January and other Days' (22 Vict. c. 2). Its more common name was 'The Anniversary Days Observance Act'. However, the bonfires had been popular and continued for ever more.

On its 400th Anniversary in 2005, some tried to rename it "Our five-eleven" from the 5/11/1605 date (in the style of the USA's 9-11) but that name never caught on. As a 'Papish Plot', an early custom had been to burn an effigy of the Pope but, as Catholicism became more acceptable, Guy Fawkes's effigy gradually replaced it. We are less serious about it in modern times and might add the latest hate-figure to the traditional guy, more as an amusement than a serious act. Former Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher was a popular one for a time but others have come and gone according to the whims of the moment.

'Guy Fawkes Night' or 'Bonfire Night', is a fine and continuing British tradition, although the American import of Hallowe'en has partly displaced it. Until recent times, people had bonfires in their gardens and children might raid other bonfires for the wood. The authorities became more safety-conscious and discouraged them in favour of properly organised ones.

See History Learning Site, Google Books, which is very long, Wikiquote or a summary at Wikipedia. Also take a look at 'Nine Things You Never Knew About Guy Fawkes' (Daily Telegraph, 5th November 2014).

Firemen at the bonfireBig bonfiresprogs with sparklers

Penistone's Community Bonfire
It is good to see this very old bonfire tradition being enthusiastically continued in Penistone and the locality. Every 5th November (or Saturday closest to it), the skies throughout England come alive with smoke from roaring fires, flashes of firework displays and loud crackles and bangs. If you could stand in a high place you would see the scattered glow of fires in every city, town and village. At home, people often have small firework parties with neighbours and friends. They will eat hot jacket potatoes with butter, toffee apples and (in Yorkshire) slices of Parkin, which is a cake made of treacle and oats. Best eaten with cheese, I would say.

Toffee AppleThe Penistone Community Bonfire is run by volunteers from Penistone Round Table (Facebook) and Penistone Fire Station, with profits going to charity. The RT is a very active organisation which organises the big Penistone events that Penistone Town Council used to run many years ago, such as; the Mayor's Parade, Penistone Gala, Bonfire Night, Santa's Sleigh Run and the Christmas Lights Switch-on. RT received a £5,000 grant from the local council in 2016 (and £5,500 in 2017) for its good work.

As it commemorates the Gunpowder Plot and treason, it ought always be called 'Bonfire Night' or 'Guy Fawkes Night', and never 'Fireworks Night' which misses the whole point of the bonfire. One might say that it literally 'loses the plot'. It's like calling Christmas 'Wintertide'.

Until a decade or so ago, groups of young children would demand 'Penny for the Guy?' from passers-by. They usually pushed an old pram around (now called a baby buggy) with a Guy Fawkes effigy seated in granddad's coat. This was to raise a few pennies for fireworks and sweets. That's in the days when a few pennies was enough to do the buying.

Hallowe'en has crossed the pond now and partly obliterated our old custom, as far as children are concerned. That is probably because the dates are close together, the fear of 'stranger danger', the 'Elf & Safety' culture which discourages private bonfires and that parents buy the fireworks now. We always had bundles of bangers in our pockets when I was a young 'un but it is now illegal for anyone under 18 to buy fireworks in the UK.

In these increasingly regulated times, some local councils require registration before a public bonfire can be arranged. All of my mates had bonfires in their gardens when we were kids and local lads would form raiding parties to nick wood from other fires. Sometimes they had to post a guard overnight if it was a good one.

In these safety-conscious (compensation culture) days, there are far fewer garden bonfires and Guy's effigy is not seen quite as often. All of the really fun fireworks like Catherine wheels and jumping jacks were banned years ago and kids don't drop lit bangers in dustbins any more. That used to be great fun. That and putting burning pieces of paper up drainpipes to make 'bull roarers'. We even used to put mains gas in soap bubbles and throw matches at them.


A Typical Bonfire Night in Penistone
We always have a great bonfire and fireworks display in Penistone and there is always a good turnout on what is often a cold November night on the exposed Showground field. These days it is organised by Penistone Round Table society and overseen by local firemen, who can get away with a bit of fire-raising on this one night each year. Their own torches are always very dim so I smugly stand in the crowd with a powerful LED one, to help them find their matches. The event typically opens around 6.45pm with the bonfire being lit at 7pm. The pyrotechnics might be around 7:30pm after the fire is well under way.

Traditional parkin (treacle oatcake), treacle toffee, toffee apples and other refreshments are usually available on the field and will have been on sale at the Co-op. Elsewhere, traders sell coloured lights and luminous necklaces for the nippers. There is also music through a tannoy and these days it is provided by the local radio station Penistone FM. The music is often well suited to the occasion. 'War of the Worlds' was a hoot one year, when low cloud reflected coloured flashes from many miles distant, just like an invasion of Martians. 'Fire Raiser' was another good one. It would be thrilling to fly over the UK on Bonfire Night.

Penistone always has a good fireworks display and it must cost a fortune. It is fun to hear the crowd 'oooh' and 'aaaah' at the fireworks but it soon becomes a self-parody and dissolves into giggles. Small children weave patterns and words with sparklers and coloured LED widgets. Then the gunpowder smells and flashes and bangs from distant bonfire gatherings add to the atmosphere. Tesco supermarket paid for fireworks when they first came to Penistone in 2010 but it did not continue.

How it Went in 2011
Penistone Bonfire night appears to be gathering in strength. The crowd was so big in 2011 that the firework display was delayed quarter of an hour later to give time for people to get on to the Showground. Al Wilson of Penistone Round Table organised a special Guy Fawkes competition this year and that led to there being several Guys stacked up on the fire. Penistone Ladies' Circle is an offshoot from the Round Table and they did a great job of arranging the food and refreshments this year. A youth group set up by an ex-Tabler is KOPs ('Kids of Penistone') and their help with the novelties was invaluable. Penistone Fm produced background music and kept up with events on the field. (My thanks to Al Wilson for supplying a few details here.)

Preparation of the Bonfire2007 Bonfire2007 Bonfire2007 Bonfire
Parkin - not clickable2007 Bonfire2007 Bonfire2007 Bonfire

Why Have Bonfire Night? - The Simple Version
Here's my potted history, from a book on 'Famous Yorkshiremen' in Penistone Library. It was a time of serious oppression to Roman Catholics. Guido 'Guy' Fawkes was a Catholic Yorkshireman who had reached breaking point. He plotted with friends to blow up and devastate parliament when King James I and other oppressors would be in session. But as they developed the plot, more people had to be let in on the secret.

News leaked out and the authorities heard about it through a hastily delivered warning letter, throwing them into a state of utter panic. After a thorough search, Guy was arrested as he guarded the cellar with the gunpowder barrels. He stayed at his post to the end, in spite of warnings that arrest was imminent.

The plan had become common knowledge. Arrested and expecting to be tortured, he was resigned to his fate. He was tortured on the rack but refused to name the others until it was clear that they were already discovered. Remaining conspirators were rounded up and Guy was hung after about three weeks of torture. Their heads were then put on poles as a warning to the people. Ah, the good old days.

So our annual bonfire ceremony remembers the rescuing of parliament from what would now be called 'a terrorist attack by religious extremists'. It has certainly stood the test of time, even if the Health & Safety gestapo tries to stamp it out every year.


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