Some Other Guy (the origins of Bonfire Night)

I overheard two commuters in conversation the other day, talking about an ex-colleague:

“Had a beard, used to make his own fireworks.”

“Hmm, no,” commuter No.2 couldn’t remember the ex-colleague from
commuter No.1’s description.

It was indeed a striking image but not something by which you’d instantly recognise that person, presumably the bearded chap would not be sitting at his desk setting off rockets all day – that’s instant dismissal, surely? You’d remember that happening.

Only once the conversationalists had got off the train at Westminster tube station did it strike me who they were talking about: the character, the one with a beard and used to make his own fireworks, he was called Guy, Guy Fawkes. Guy Fawkes led the unsuccessful Gunpowder plot, a plan to blow up the House of Lords in an assassination attempt of James I, the then King of England in 1605. The conspirators very nearly got away with it.

Guy Fawkes was tried and found guilty of high treason for which he was sentenced to death by being burnt at the stake. A most grisly execution. The story goes that mercy was shown on Guy Fawkes by the King’s soldiers who threw packets of gunpowder into the bonfire flames in the hope of ending his suffering quickly. Although their aim was none too good and Guy Fawkes suffered worse amid these small explosions. And it is from this scenario the celebration of Guy Fawkes night began.

In England every November the 5th is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks: a celebration which used to be known as Guy Fawkes night. In the week running up to Guy Fawkes’ night children would make a mannequin / effigy of Guy from old clothes, sit with him in the street and ask passersby for money to buy fireworks. This practice used to be known as ‘Penny for the guy’. Come the night of November the 5th, the Guy effigies would be placed on top of the bonfires and burnt while everybody set off fireworks.

Today this doesn’t happen any more: the advent of Health & Safety rules for one thing; inflation second – as it is nigh on impossible to buy anything for a penny and most fireworks start at a fiver (500 pennies); and probably most sadly, November the 5th has been rebranded ‘Bonfire night’ or ‘Firework night’ and has been consumed by the more popular Halloween.

The demise of Guy Fawkes’ night could be seen coming a long while back. The ‘Guys’ made in the 1950s and 1960s were well-crafted, with tailored secondhand clothes and papier-maché heads – and people gave money freely. But in the 70s and 80s the craft of ‘Guy’ making was a shabby affair, no one could be bothered to manufacture things any more – younger brothers were coerced into being dressed up in dirty clothes and made to pretend to be a ‘Guy’, a practice which soon ceased after one of them was stabbed (Urban legend No 357). With the rise of computers and the video game, the craft of Guy making ceased to exist altogether, the last ‘Penny for the Guy’ I saw was outside the Arsenal tube station in Gillespie Road, North London, where a teenager simply held up a shop bought plastic mask and chanted incessantly: ‘Penny for the Guy, Penny for the Guy’, and frowned and swore if anyone gave less than a quid.

So, those are days gone by, another piece of street history distorted by time and incorrect facts – the very legend of Guy Fawkes himself. It is said that he was never burnt at the stake at all but was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered instead, except while ascending the ladder to the gallows he fell off and broke his neck (much kinder). This death scenario would have provided a much more sinister and difficult celebration for the general public to emulate each November the 5th, so I can see why the facts have been suppressed. The other burning question is how did the authorities in 1605 learn of the Gunpowder Plot and recognise Guy Fawkes outside the House of Lords? The answer is more obvious than you think: he was the only one wearing combat trousers, an Arsenal top and had a balloon for a head.

Please do remember the 5th of November:
Keep your pets indoors and play safely.

This text was originally posted
on Hard Egg News in 2012.


Guy Fawkes painting image:
V mask (based on GF):

Acknowledgement goes to Rob Newman for the last joke.


2 thoughts on “Some Other Guy (the origins of Bonfire Night)

  1. Some interesting extra facts I didn’t know about, Mike. I always thought he was hung, drawn & quartered. I’m old enough to remember Penny for the Guy and being able to buy fireworks in our local newsagents. It was exciting, although you had to watch out for those horrid boys and their bangers! 🙂

    Susan A Eames at
    Travel, Fiction and Photos

    • So sorry, Susan, I’ve just found your comment down the back of the sofa, hence the late reply. Firstly, thank you for reading and commenting. Secondly, with inflation, ‘Penny for the Guy’ would now be ‘Fiver for the Guy’ which just doesn’t have the same ring to it; plus, the fireworks we bought as kids are laughable compared to the powerhouse Exocets that can be purchased today. : ) 🙂

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