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Guy Fawkes

2005 marks the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot one of the most well-known events in English history. The attempt by an alliance of conspirators which included Guy Fawkes to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605 was discovered and resulted in the execution of Guy Fawkes.

The "grubby bit of paper" above, 62 x 62mm (2½ x 2½in) circa 1820s, has been cut from a larger sheet that would have contained more hand coloured scenes and depicts the procession of the Guy, seated in a chair fitted with poles for easy carrying, by young boys through the streets. A fireworks notice is posted on the wall presumably reminding people that fireworks are prohibited even on Guy Fawkes Day.

Q Does any institution/collector have a copy of such a notice and can they confirm if the intention was to ban the use of fireworks or was it to promote their use or call attention to a firework display?

Robert Cecil

A Take a look at this Public Notice, from the Enoch Wood scrapbook which is now among the collections at Stoke-on-Trent Museums, which states “That the Church Wardens are determined to prosecute all such offenders in future; and they hereby offer a reward of Two Guineas, to any person who will give information of such person or persons, as he may detect actually firing or throwing any squibs, crackers or other fire-works, or selling or exposing the same for sale...”

MW

A The chairing representation derives from the custom of chairing the Members of Parliament - picking them up in a chair with poles and taking them to the houses of parliament for their first appearance, this is captured in a Hogarth painting. The practice of chairing Guys started in the early to mid 18th century. Cruikshank represented it in his squib in the 19th century but in a comic way.

We must remember that Guys started out being represented by the devil and were quite serious effigies (but remember these are not Voodo effigies designed to cause pain but rather “pageantry” that is more in the form and intent of a memorial - that is so that we will always remember, remember...). The next form to emerge was that of a serious military man villain - Mayhew sums the problem up in his works on London life when he comments that the kids in the streets simply have got it all wrong and have substituted a clown Guy for the feared villain. This transformation has been linked to the appearance of Guy in seasonal pantomimes wherein Guy is transformed at the end of the pantomime into harlequin the clown. Hence the mask on this guy and the floppy head posture. Comical rather than serious.

In the 19th century Victorian England saw itself as a perfect and reformed state. Within a well oiled government mechanism serving all the people there was simply no room for role reversal or mob justice. This was acceptable under earlier more absolute and "unreformed", that is less than perfect governments, (not that the Victorian governments were at all perfect - they did believe that to be the case).

Fifth of November rituals included mob violence directed at those that everyone knew to have been successful in avoiding justice through the courts. It is remarkable that injuries were quite minor. In the United States (the colonies) where the holiday was celebrated as Pope’s day those who avoided justice in the year past were forced by the mob to pay money or donate kegs of alcoholic products or wood for bonfires to avoid the wrath of the mob. Once the new and improved “perfect” government was established following the revolution here again there was seen no need for mob rule. The government was fixed and everyone was under the law. Thus Pope’s day celebrations diminished no longer supported by the upper levels of the artisan class - masters and shop owners. The celebrations continued up and down the east coast until well into the 19th century.

There are numerous orders by the Corporation of London and other municipalities in the mid to late 19th century banning fireworks and celebration. In some places like Guildford and Lewes these orders came after violent incidents. Often the bans were ignored or defied with crowd action.

The celebrants known as "Guys" dressed in womens clothing and black face to avoid recognition. The Victorians defeated them by simply flooding the processions and celebrations with upstanding law abiding and well organised members of society. The “Guys” then simply had to fall into line as they were absorbed! This is the origin of bonfire societies as we know them. Now instead of “people power” directed against those who evaded the law we have fancy dress competitions and floats decorated with light bulbs. The people power tradition continues in large effigies with political themes.

To view some of these proclamations search the London Times database and the Early English Books database found at fine university libraries everywhere.

  • Conrad Jay Bladey
  • Center for Fawkesian Pursuits Bonfire Society and Research Library
  • Linthicum (Near Baltimore), Maryland, USA

 

This regular feature invites answers by email to members’ questions on an item of ephemera.

 

Ephemera - minor transient documents of every day life