Fireworks, Bonfires and Guys – celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night

By , November 6, 2009 2:53 am

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Contemporary picture of Guy Fawkes being arrested

Guy Fawkes and his group of Catholic fellow-conspirators did their best to blow up Parliament on the 5th November 1605, on the day of the State Opening of Parliament.

Their conspiracy, and the 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed in a cellar under the House of Lords, was discovered hours before the explosion was due.

The “gunpowder plot” and the rebellion that was supposed to follow failed, and James I kept his throne, and the Members of Parliament and Lords stayed alive.

For more about the history and aims of the gunpowder plot, see the previous post on this site.

The defeat of the plot – and the subsequent torture and execution of the plotters – is celebrated annually with great enthusiasm to this day. This post is about the bangs, fires and whimpers of Bonfire Night / Firework Night  Guy Fawkes’ Night in England – fireworks, bonfires, burning effigies, and special grub.

The Times has an article about good public displays and events in 2009 here.

Family parties and public events

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Guy Fawkes' Night at Windsor Castle, 1776

Lots of people go to big public firework displays, held on commons, heaths and in parks all over the place.

These tend to be on the nearest Saturday to the 5th November, rather than on the actual day (if the 5th November isn’t a Saturday anyway).

Similarly, people often choose to have private parties in their own back gardens, more often on the actual day, whatever day of the week that happens to be.

That way they can also attend a grand display locally, should they choose to do so!


Fireworks are a big part of Guy Fawkes’ Night. It’s perfectly legal to buy fireworks (other than the really big kind) and set them off in your own back garden, and many families do. Mine always did as a child, and we loved it. Bangs and stars in the sky are therefore a common feature of the week or two around the 5th November. Newsagents, supermarkets and other shops usually sell boxes of a selection of fireworks and rockets, and also packets off sparklers, around the start of November.


Bonfires are a big part of the evening. It’s a handy time of year (lots of dead leaves and fallen branches) and helps to keep people warm as well, if it’s chilly. Public celebrations also often have them – in my parents’ village in Kent, they have an enormous bonfire lit on the village green before the fireworks start – it’s usually about 20 – 30 feet tall, and people are cheerfully invited to contribute suitable burning material.

Burning Guys, and “penny for the Guy!”

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

The Gunpowder plot conspirators, including Guy Fawkes

Traditionally, a figure is burned on the bonfire – a rough model of a man, often about or nearly life-size. This “guy” is supposed to represent Guy Fawkes himself, although in real life, Fawkes was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, rather than burned.

Until the end of the 19th century, effigies of the Pope and Devil were often burned as well, but such overt anti-Catholicism is rather unfashionable, now.

Unpopular politicians and so forth can find themselves being modelled for bonfires to this day. This year, for example, the Bonfire Society in Edenbridge in Kent intends to burn a 30 foot guy modelled on Jordan, AKA Katie Price (a model).  The BBC has written about the plans here.

In my family, when I was a child, we made a guy every year from sacks or similar, and clothed him in ragged old jumpers unfit for anything else. A face was drawn on with pen, and chunks of wool for hair. Not great works of art, but fun to make.

Just before the bonfire is lit, the effigy is slung on the top, to burn with the fire.

It used to be much more common for children to make a guy, and trundle it round the streets in a pushchair or trolley, shouting, “penny for the guy” in order to collect funds for fireworks. The more impressively-created the guy, the more money could be expected. It happens less now, especially because children aren’t allowed to buy fireworks any more – a buyer has to be over 18. It’s still pretty common for a guy for a village event to be left out with a collecting tin, to gather funds for a firework display.


There are certain foods which are traditionally-eaten on Bonfire Night – some are traditional nationally, others only in one region or county.

Common across the country is a meal of sausages, jacket potatoes, and baked beans, or similar. The potatoes can be wrapped in foil and put at the edge of the bonfire to cook.

Treacle toffee (darker and much less sweet than normal toffee) and toffee apples are common.

“Parkin” is a common Bonfire Night all over the country, but the actual recipe for this varies hugely. Same name, rather different food! Mostly, it’s a type of soft, treacle-based cake, made with both oats and flour.

Famous Bonfire Night Celebrations

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

Burning crosses symbolising 17 protestant martyrs in Lewes

There are many local traditions and societies, so I’ll only mention a couple of the biggest and best-known.

Lewes, a town in East Sussex, has a particularly enthusiastic group of Bonfire Societies.

Each of the 7 main societies creates at least one elaborate effigy – Guy Fawkes predominates, local and national politicians often also feature.

There are also models of people’s heads on pikes (a type of spear), often modelled after unpopular members of the town council, or those who opposed the Lewes festivities.

Societies, each with mottos and caps, parade their effigies and heads through the streets, carrying fire torches and similar.

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Smugglers in the Cliffe Bonfire Society's parade in Lewes

Many people in the parades are dressed up – Zulus, smugglers and Elizabethans are particularly common.

The parades end in bonfires and firework displays. Lewes is a small town, but crowds of up to 80,000 are common, and roads, car parks etc are closed down for the evening.

You can find the Lewes Bonfire Council’s website here.

I’ve been to the Lewes event a couple of times – my uncle lives near by. It’s awe-inspiring, mad, and fantastic fun.

Ottery St Mary in Devon is a small town with a very odd Guy Fawkes tradition.  The first part of the Carnival consists of costume parades and fireworks (so far, so normal).

The second part is made up of men, women and children carrying tar barrels through the streets, while those barrels are on fire.

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

A man carrying a flaming tar barrel in Ottery St Mary

There are 17 barrels, all lovingly-coated with coal tar over some months, and then filled with hay or paper.

Each is lit outside a traditional pub, shop, or hotel, throughout the afternoon and evening, and then people take it in turns to run through the streets, carrying the flaming barrels.

It’s a family-based tradition – people in the same families tend to carry barrels from the same pubs down the years.

The Ottery St Mary tar barrel site is to be found here.

7 Responses to “Fireworks, Bonfires and Guys – celebrating Guy Fawkes’ Night”

  1. Joanna says:

    Wonderful piece! Sounds like great fun for all! Surely the American tradition of fireworks on the 4th of July was patterned after Guy Fawkes Night (without the guy, of course). We were a British colony for 150 years before the Revolution and would’ve observed its holidays during that time.

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Digg by michaelpinto: My apologies! This story is a dupe:
    Please don’t add me to your barn-fire list……

  3. Interesting, I didn’t even know anything about this at all until after seeing V :P

    • Blog author says:

      Other way round for me – we’ve always celebrated Guy Fawkes’ Night, and I hadn’t heard of the film until someone else mentioned it in the comments!

  4. Learning about all of this stuff is really fascinating to me!!

  5. Lauren says:

    It’s funny actually that the fireworks are a simple for the attempted explosion of Parliament. Or maybe it may be a bit bizarre, but everyone loves fireworks. Any excuse to paint the sky is fine with me. lol

  6. Seema Cunnigham says:

    Now this is what I call a great post. Blogging is easy, but to come up with posts like this is truly amazing. Well Done!!

Leave a Reply

Panorama theme by Themocracy