Web Page No 2316
5th November 2016
Top Picture: Contents of a Standard Fireworks box circa 1950s
Middle Picture: Gift Box of Brocks Fireworks
Bottom Picture: Remember some of these?
Bonfire Night in the 1950s
Bonfire or Fireworks Night is a uniquely British event. It commemorates the successful foiling of a plot to blow up King James I and Parliament in 1605. The fireworks are a reminder of the gunpowder that was placed by the plotters under the Houses of Parliament. In 21st century Britain, Bonfire Night is usually celebrated with a trip to an organised bonfire and firework display, with paid admission and controlled access.
Not so in the 1950s and 1960s when we were kids, Bonfire Night was truly a hands-on celebration. Family bonfire parties and get-togethers with neighbours were the thing. And as for health and safety: well, apart from the annual safety lecture and warnings on BBC’s ‘Blue Peter’, common sense was the order of the day.
Once the site of the bonfire was fixed we all started to collect wood from the end of summer. The trees in our garden would be trimmed and the branches piled up ready for the big day. Any old planks of wood, doors or other combustibles would also be added to the heap.
Fireworks appeared in the shops a couple of weeks or so before November 5th. There were selection boxes of fireworks (the most popular brand were Standard Fireworks) or you could buy rockets and larger fireworks one by one. Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles were particularly popular, as were sparklers and bangers.
Bangers were small tubes of gunpowder that after lighting, were thrown on the ground to explode with a loud bang, not unlike a miniature stick of dynamite! These are now banned from sale in the UK, as are Jumping Jacks, another Bonfire Night favourite. Once lit, Jumping Jacks lived up to their name by jumping about erratically. Far too much temptation for some boys to frighten unsuspecting girls!
‘Penny for the guy’ was the cry on the streets. The guy, an effigy of Guy Fawkes, would be made from straw and dressed in old clothes, and displayed in a wheelbarrow and pushed around the home area. The money raised we raised would be spent on fireworks and sparklers for the younger children. (Following new laws in 2004, it is now an offence to supply fireworks to anyone under the age of 18).
In my own family my uncle and aunt would arrive with a box of fireworks and we would crowd round a small bonfire while dad lit the fireworks and rockets.
Some parties concentrated on special party foods treacle toffee, toffee apples and parkin, a kind of gingerbread. Potatoes were roasted in the ashes of the fire and served with butter and salt, and eaten with a teaspoon in gloved hands. Never successfully baked, they always somehow tasted delicious in the cold night air. Mugs of hot soup would warm the watchers.
These were the days of one bath a week for most families – usually a Sunday night - so if Bonfire Night should fall on a Monday or Tuesday and this meant an extra bath a week otherwise we would all stink of bonfire for days.
I did not know until recently that the night before Bonfire Night is traditionally known as Mischief Night, particularly in the north of England. In the 1960s this was a night when the local children would play pranks: knock-and-run on neighbour’s front doors, letting down car tyres, tying metal dustbin lids to door knockers – even changing the numbers on gates to confuse the postman! It was also the night when children would pilfer the best wood from rival bonfires unless they were guarded carefully.
On November 5th, as soon as it was dark, the fun would begin. The guy would be placed on top of the wooden pyre before lighting. If it had been raining over the past few days, the wood might be wet and difficult to light. It was not unknown for paraffin to be used as an aid to lighting – with the resultant fireball!
The boxes of fireworks would be kept under the careful care of an adult. The glow of a cigarette would be used to light the fuse on the fireworks. A Catherine Wheel would be nailed to a wooden fence or a tree – often a recipe for disaster, as if not nailed securely, they had a habit of launching themselves into the air, still spinning!
Each child would be given a sparkler which was great fun to write in the air with until it spluttered and went out. Rockets were launched from glass milk bottles; they went off in any or all directions. The next day the remnants of the rockets – the wooden sticks – were to found in gardens, on the pavements and in the streets and were often collected by children on their way to school. The ashes from the bonfires would smoulder for days afterwards.
Nowadays, stricter rules on the sale of fireworks and safety campaigns have persuaded many families that it's safer to leave it to the experts and attend an organised display – much to the relief of fire and ambulance crews!
Just as a tailpiece, who remembers Coloured Matches.
Keep in touch
On this day 5th November 1960-1965
On 05/11/1960 the number one single was It's Now Or Never - Elvis Presley and the number one album was South Pacific Soundtrack. The top rated TV show was Bootsie & Snudge (Granada) and the box office smash was Psycho. A pound of today's money was worth £13.68 and Tottenham Hotspur were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions.
On 05/11/1961 the number one single was Walkin' Back to Happiness - Helen Shapiro and the number one album was Twenty One Today - Cliff Richard. The top rated TV show was Coronation Street (Granada) and the box office smash was One Hundred and One Dalmations. A pound of today's money was worth £13.25 and Ipswich Town were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions. The big news story of the day was Severe flooding in SE England
On 05/11/1962 the number one single was Telstar - The Tornadoes and the number one album was Out of the Shadows - Shadows. The top rated TV show was The Royal Variety Performance (BBC) and the box office smash was Lawrence of Arabia. A pound of today's money was worth £12.89 and Everton were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions.
On 05/11/1963 the number one single was You'll Never Walk Alone - Gerry & the Pacemakers and the number one album was Please Please Me - The Beatles. The top rated TV show was The Royal Variety Performance (ATV) and the box office smash was The Great Escape. A pound of today's money was worth £12.64 and Liverpool were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions. The big news story of the day was Beatles perform at Royal Variety Show.
On 05/11/1964 the number one single was (There's) Always Something There to Remind Me - Sandy Shaw and the number one album was A Hard Day's Night - Beatles. The top rated TV show was Coronation Street (Granada) and the box office smash was Dr Strangelove. A pound of today's money was worth £12.24 and Manchester United were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions.
On 05/11/1965 the number one single was Get Off Of My Cloud - Rolling Stones and the number one album was The Sound of Music Soundtrack. The top rated TV show was Coronation Street (Granada) and the box office smash was The Sound of Music. A pound of today's money was worth £11.69 and Liverpool were on the way to becoming the Season's Division 1 champions.