Guy Fawkes Day in Nottinghamshire

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Guy Fawkes Day in Nottinghamshire' page
Photo:Forest Recreation Ground

Forest Recreation Ground

Photo:A 1930s Guy

A 1930s Guy

Nottingham folklore and customs

By R B Parish

“Please remember, the fifth of November, Old Guy Faux, And Gunpowder Plot, Shall never be forgot, while Nottingham castle stands upon a rock”

Guy Fawkes Night is an interesting custom, for despite being seen as being a popular as ever, it has perhaps over the years become slightly eroded and now the term "Bonfire Night" is more often used than "Guy Fawkes". However Nottinghamshire appears to have been a strong supporter of its celebration.                                

During the first parliament after the incident, in January 1606, the authorities made the observation of the date a holiday, the Kings Holydaye, and attendance at church was strictly enforced. The celebration of this holiday may have been slow in its uptake if Nottinghamshire is indicative. Indeed the first mention of the custom appears to be in court accounts dealing with church non attendance. Within four years of the plot, a Robert Vessie of Norton Cuckney pleaded guilty for failing to observe the anniversary and in 1613 six inhabitants of Cotgrave were similarly found guilty, their charges consisting of ‘suffering his servant to threshe’, ‘for pallinge’, ‘for weavinge’, 'for thackinge’ and 'forsuffering his wye and wyd to winnow corne’. Even as late as 1618 a William Gervise of Ruddington was presented at court for working on the day. I have been unable to find any further reference to disobedience in up keeping of the custom, suggesting perhaps by the time Luke Jackson, a Londoner, endowed a Gunpowder plot sermon in 1630 on the Sunday nearest the date at St. Peter’s church in Nottingham, attendance was well established. The bequest reads:   

“acknowledging God’s mercy and giving thanks for the deliverance of this land and people from the invincible Armada in 1588 and from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605”          

Perhaps linked to this it is notable that by 1634 Nottingham Town council records note:

"that the Scarlet Gownman of the clothing should come to the church on the fifth of November yearly..in the scarlet gowns to give thanks” 

There are records of similar bequests in the county, the most noted by a Thomas Charlton, of Chilwell, purchasing a Bramcoat close, called Ashflat, the profits of which would pay for a sermon in Attenborough Church. A further encouragement to attend would be the establishment of charity distributions. Doles for the poor at times when many literally lived ‘on the breadline’ were very welcome. One distributed in Arnold was bequested by a Henry Sherbrooke provided £3 per annum to be distributed in bread, whereas Christopher Sudbury’s Charity of Edwinstowe  gave money.

To bring the faithful to church, the bell ringers would ‘clash’ or ‘fire’ the bells in commemoration. Records show this was done at Worksop, East Bridgford, Holme Pierrepont and Gedling where it is noted:

“22nd Nov 1708. Agreed that betwixt the three towns of the parish of Gedling that there be an allowance at the common usuage of ye parish for ringing of three shillings for ye fifth November”

Indeed often extra payments were made to the bell ringers in Nottingham in 1747, a 2s and 6d were given to Nottingham for ‘Gunpowder Treason’ with 6d given for candles for ringers.

In 1859 parliament rescinded the celebration of the 5th and with it many of the church observances became redundant. However, despite the apparent aim of the government to discourage the public observation, fearing it as a source of insurrection; private, and in some cases civic, observation continued.

Perhaps one of the most curious of these private observations was the making of a Guy. Folklorists and historians may argue over the significance of this effigy, and there is clear evidence it predated the event and may have originated as a pagan sacrifice. Part of the reason for its production, was as a focus for begging, Penny for the Guy. Often the coppers collected went into buying fireworks. However, ask any juvenile of this custom today and they would look puzzled, perhaps the joint impact of ‘stranger-danger’, increase in funds and restriction in who can buy fireworks contributed to its decline. Yet no less than 30 years ago, Guys would be seen paraded around town or else sat on street corners. James (2009) notes of living in Nottingham:

"Leading up to Bonfire Night, we'd make a guy and sit by the bus terminus at the bottom of Deepdene Way. We would catch people coming back from work and ask for a penny for the guy.” 

Walker (2009) notes: 

“For days before November 5th groups of children would be seen going around the streets begging for money. Their cry would be 'Penny for the Guy Sir, Penny for the Guy please'.”

A correspondent for the NFWI (1995) noted that the carried to the bonfire:

“A huge Guy aloft - Dad often wondered where his gardening clothes went” 

Morely (2010) notes discussing the1940s:

“On Bonfire Night, all the boys (girls too) came to the bonfire (on which there'd be a guy) with long poles, on the end of which were tightly bound rags, in flames and we'd set the fire going by thrusting the burning torches into it...Again, there was no penny-for-the-guy stuff, round our way anyway,"

Yet despite the paucity of Guys apparently there must be some kids still around upholding the tradition. A search of internet forums finds it may still be there if you look for it, as a Dave (with his non-de-plume Notts Breamer) notes in an angler’s forum: 

"... I saw 2 kids outside Asda today, they had a tin full of money, it’s a dying game, but those that do bother to do it, earn a fortune.”  

Of course the main focus of the secular celebration was the building of the Bonfire, it would appear that these may have begun as community efforts. In 1743 as noted in the Nottingham Borough records. Even in small villages, the celebration was notable. In Fledborough it is recorded in 1800 and Granby revived theirs is 1954. The Forest Ground in Nottingham is still the location of one of the largest Bonfire night celebrations, and records in 1830 and 1890 record bonfires.  Newark’s celebrations appear to often cause conflict, supporting the view that the custom should be curtailed:

“The anniversary of Guy Fawkes was celebrated in Newark by the ringing of bells, a large bonfire in the market place and plenty of squibs, crackers etc. Blunderbusses, guns and pistols were let off.” 

Private Bonfires were common, in Nottinghamshire the term going ‘chumping’ referred to the collecting sticks and deadwood from hedges called ‘chump’ for Bonfires. In building these everything was fair game, James (2009) notes: 

“The bonfire never took place in my street but in ‘Arthur Terrace’ which was only about 50 metres away. Things keep coming into my head. Just remembered how when they dug up the 'old' tram tracks we used to go scrounging for the old wooden blocks in the road. They were lovely for burning instead of coal because they were well impregnated with coal tar. Strictly speaking we were of course thieving but a blind eye was turned to it by the authorities..” 

Morely (2010) recalls the rivalry between local groups which was focused on Bonfire night antics, and it is worth quoting at length: 

“When the lead-up to Bonfire Night started, the estate split into three gangs: us, that is those who lived on or near the top end of Danethorpe Vale, Collin Green and Edingley Square, a slightly more formal square near the bottom of Caythorpe Rise. Opposite our house, by the wall of the Firs where I was born, was Hooley Street (leading to the orchards which are now Elmswood Gardens), where Hall Street had their bonfire – another gang. So the four gangs built their bonfires, and guarded them against attack from the others. Usually it was the young ones like me who were left to guard the fires whilst the bigger kids went about their business of collecting, or scouting for the enemy, or maybe just clearing off. Sometimes you'd find when you came home from school that the entire bonfire had gone. It wasn't other gangs though; it was the council, which didn't want the fires on its property. The most infamous of these council raids was in 1945 or '46. The day before, or actually on November 5, (incidentally, all bonfires were on November 5, no rubbish about spreading them over three or four weeks like today) the council took Collin Green's bonfire away. Well, with the returned soldiers saying, according to legend and no reason to disbelieve it, stuff like, "we didn't fight a war to come home and find our kids can't have a bonfire", and the like, they dismantled the garden gates round the Green – all council property, of course – and rebuilt the bonfire with them. And everyone approved, even my very respectable parents. But back to the gangs: there was always a hollow in the middle of the fire, and we sat in there, ready to ward off the enemy coming to nick our fire, or possibly set fire to it. Bit stupid being inside it, of course. And there were pitched battles on the streets of the estate. The members of the other Greens were often friends, but, for a couple of weeks, we'd fight them. The fights were always the same, throwing grass-sods and sticks at each other, and always on the roads of the estate. What did the adults do? Nothing. What did they think, especially those without children? I can't remember anyone getting hurt, and we didn't throw stones, so perhaps we unconsciously realised it was a ritual not reality, but there were real frissons of fear and aggression. Collin Green was our main enemy. In fact, as far as I remember, all our actual fights were with them. This was all on a 'respectable' estate; these days it would either be much worse and seriously violent, or it just wouldn't happen. However, we were really frightened of the Hall Street gang (did it really exist?). Hall Street had some fairly rough older boys, or so we thought, but again some of the younger kids from there were friends of mine at school. Anyway, the real fear was that Hall Street would come, and we were seriously scared of that. Did they ever? We certainly never had one of the pitched battles with them....I remember the anguish of whether I'd get there in time for the start...The fire always seemed to burn very fast, the guy vanishing in a few minutes, and then it was more or less over, and, no, we didn't put potatoes or chestnuts in the fire,  it was just a fire, nice and primitive.”

Often when collecting wood for the bonfire or when around it, rhymes and chants would be said. The most familiar, with a Nottingham twist, being that quoted at the start of this article. Another rhyme, according to Foster (1962) was said by those collecting wood collecting was: “Bonfire Night, stars shine bright,Three little angels dressed in white, Can you eat a biscuit, can you smoke a pipe, Can you go a courting at ten O'clock at night.”

In Edwinstowe a quaint rhyme  records:                                    

“No month so good but it hath sin days so bad, No ....there that never tretor had, But as the fifth day hath doth fatal sing, Of blessing men that sought to slay the King”                               

These large informal street fires became a thing of the past when in the 1960s the police, local authorities and fire brigade combined to prevent them and in 1963, 27 organised sites were provided. In the 1990s regular sites were established in Beeston, Rainworth and Hucknall as well as Nottingham’s the Forest Ground with its additional fun fair described as a mini Goose fair. A visitor to this event, always held on the 5th, will still see, with its Guys, often made by local schools, and jubilant fireworks and fun fair, how this is a worthy descendent and memorial to the event.         


References:

Beaumont, R. M., (1973) A Flash of Lightning on Guy Fawkes' night, 1711: The Fire at Southwell Minster', TTS 77, pp73-81.                                                                                             

Burne, S. C., (1912) Guy Fawkes’ Day.  Folk-Lore Vol XXIII. No. IV.December 1912.     

B.V.M. (1902) Local Notes and                                                                                   

Doubleday, W.E. Scrapbook, Vol.VI, p.199; Local Notes & Queries Scrapbook, 1908-1911

Foster R. W.  (Inf.) Memories of Mansfield
Nottinghamshire Local History Council Collection, Notts. Archives Office, Com. 1962

James, K., (2009) notes of living in Nottingham Life around the Circus and the great outdoors. This is Nottingham December 10 2009                                                                                          

Morely., B Estate split into gangs for battle of the Bonfires. This is Nottingham June 26th 2010.                                                                                                                                        NFWI

WI (1995) Nottinghamshire within living memory                                                         

Vernon, R., (1984) Newark before Victoria                                                                                  

Walker, E., (2009) Fireworks in ‘The Meadows’ Nottsgen-L archives Sat 7 2009

This page was added by R B Parish on 29/11/2012.
Comments about this page

The following is part of a letter about bonfire night in 1802 written by the Revd. Penrose of Fledborough in Notts,. : "Friday 5th November 1802: I take up my journal before prayers, which is not the usual practice, because the children and servants are busily engaged in viewing the bon fires made on occasion of its being the 5th of November.  One is in the Holm, so near that we are congratulating ourselves that the wind does not blow directly towards us.  This is a great day in these parts... it has generally been looked upon as a liberty-day for men to carry guns and kill game without a license or justification.  For the last year or two there have been a few fined on conviction just to let the others know that the law does not sleep, but the hint is not taken".  [From 'The Penroses of Fledborough Parsonage' edited by Rev A.B. Baldwin (Hull: A Brown & Sons, ND, p.47]

By Edna welthorpe
On 09/02/2017

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