A Penny For The Guy . . .

Spectators gather around a bonfire at Himley Hall near Dudley, on 6 November 2010. SJNikon - Sam Roberts Wikimedia Commons
Spectators gather around a bonfire at Himley Hall near Dudley, on 6 November 2010.
SJNikon – Sam Roberts Wikimedia Commons

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

This well known rhyme has been sung in Britain by generations of children as November 5th approached. It is still sung in primary schools as children are taught the historical significance of Guy Fawkes Night / Bonfire Night and why it is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. Literacy, drama and art work of all types also stem from this colourful spectacle.

There’s more than enough online about Guido Fawkes and his co-conspirators, and why they wanted to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament, so I won’t elaborate on that. Guido suffered one of the most horrible deaths imaginable for his part in the plot – and being the one caught with the barrels of gunpowder. Execution by being hung, drawn and quartered seems beyond belief to us today, although in 16th and 17th century England, treason was seen as the highest offence. And executions of all types were common.

Of course, on Bonfire Night we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire, with fireworks a further fiery spectacle of celebration.


Nowadays there are many laws and restrictions regarding the sale and use of fireworks, the many horrendous accidents, particularly to children, being the reason. Now only adults (18+) can actually buy them. And the cost of fireworks has risen dramatically – so much so that most people tend to go to the organised displays, where they can see many, really expensive fireworks and a bonfire, for their entry fee.

Free firework display in Thornes Park, Wakefield, UK. Author: Stephen Bowler. Wikimedia Commons
Free firework display in Thornes Park, Wakefield, UK. Author: Stephen Bowler. Wikimedia Commons

How different this all is to years ago, when I was a child (way back in the Dark Ages) almost every household had its bonfire and fireworks in the back garden. Sometimes families grouped together for a communal bonfire and to share each other’s fireworks. Even when my children were young in the 70’s and early 80’s this was the case, although by then the big displays were finding favour too. But in my youth . . .

For weeks before the day we’d be getting ready. Tree branches and any bits of old wood would be grabbed by rampaging groups of kids and hawked back to gardens, to be defended to the death from other thieving kids!

Guy Fawkes Night at Chirk (North Wales) November 5th 1954. Author: Geoff Charles.  Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

At the same time, old clothes came out from chests and drawers to be stuffed full of old rags, newspaper and autumn leaves to make the Guy’s body. A bag stuffed with newspaper – or simply a big, tightly wrapped ball of it – formed the head, with a painted mask at the front.

Guy Fawkes Night in Caernarfon, November 3rd 1960. Author: Geoff Charles. Creative Commons. Public Domain.
Guy Fawkes Night in Caernarfon, November 3rd 1960. Author: Geoff Charles.
Creative Commons. Public Domain.

How we treasured our guys! Over the week before November 5th, guys would be displayed around the streets in wheelbarrows and carts, with a sign, PENNY FOR THE GUY. And many people freely gave. The money would buy more fireworks. Nowadays this practice has died out. I suppose most modern parents would strongly object to this ‘begging’ tactic. But it was seen in a different light in the 50’s and 60’s.

Ah well . . . I still have my memories, and I still make parkin, though not always on Bonfire Night. Treacle toffee was never for me, but I loved the chestnuts and potatoes roasted around the fire.


At the modern, sophisticated displays we may see the impressive great mortars, but the little fireworks are what I remember:  Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels, Mount Etnas and Rockets, Golden Rains and Rainbow Fountains and my favourites, the simple, hand-held Sparklers. I really hated bangers, but most lads thought they were great fun.

Image by stuartsclipart

Sparklers are as popular now as they were in my day. Who doesn’t love to make fiery squiggles and circles in the air on a dark night?

Having fun with sparklers on Bonfire Night in Battersea Park, London. Author: Gaetan Lee. Creative Commons
Having fun with sparklers on Bonfire Night in Battersea Park, London. Author: Gaetan Lee. Wikimedia Commons

We can also still buy boxes of mixed fireworks today, but I’m afraid that the community feel for the night has gone and will continue to fizzle away . . .

Just like a dying firework.

Image from Teacher’s Pet Classroom Resources

36 thoughts on “A Penny For The Guy . . .

  1. Reblogged this on Millie Thom and commented:

    On November 5th last year I wrote this post about how the celebrations for Bonfire Night – or Guy Fawkes Night – in the U.K. have changed since my childhood in the 1950s. Yesterday, I posted about the history behind the celebrations and thought it might be an idea to re-post this to complement it. I’m made a few minor changes to the original and added a couple of pictures (I had no idea I could use Wikipedia or Wikimedia images when I first started my blog!). So here it is…

    1. I didn’t realise you couldn’t get golden syrup out there and don’t know how corn syrup compares. But parkin is so scrummy and oaty – and so easy to make. (A batch of parkin just might help you to gat through NaNoWriMo!) Thanks for commenting, Joy, especially now! 😀

    1. Thank you again, Shivangi. I like those old pictures, too. They remind me of me and my friends when I was little. Children’s clothes in those days tended to be smaller versions of adult ones, apart from the boys’ short trousers. No one thought about fashion for kids back then. 🙂

  2. Loved reading this. Though that dummy thing is a bit creepy!!! 🙂 Funny to think how fast times change, from a few hundred years ago, to your childhood, to my childhood, to 100 years from now… what will people be like in the future? Will our customs seem odd?

    1. In my experience, the idea behind the customs stays the same but people celebrate them in a way appropriate to the time in which they live. Regarding Bonfire Night, fireworks nowadays are so much more powerful and often much more explosive. Health and Safety regulations rightly ban youngsters buying them now. When I was little I spent all my pocket money for weeks on fireworks, which I stored at home in old sweet tins – big ones, I mean. And going round asking for money for a guy is seen as simply not on. The dummy ‘guys’ are still made by people having bonfires in their gardens, but it’s not the same and I miss the ‘simple’ fun of it all. The organised displays are too sophisticated for me, but admit, there are fewere accidents to children because of them. And yes, I’m sure our customs wll seem odd – and primitive – to future generations. They’ll think were were so simple! 🙂

      1. That photo is the ‘chuchy little me’! How embarrassing it is! Still, it’s an honest photo. And yes, those fireworks were handled daily… how dangerous is that? I played with them as though they were toys. 🙂

    1. That’s very true in most cases, Inese. The community bonfires have been taken over by the big orgainised displays, and there’s no community feel about those at all. It’s all about the spectacle now, and thousands of pounds (£) spent on huge mortars and such like. The ‘bonfire’ has become a far minor feature now. These displays aren’t for me, I’m afraid.

  3. This sounds so much like Lohri. It is a festival which is celebrated in Punjab region of India. It’s celebrated to mark the winter solstice day. Traditionally it was also associated with harvesting of crops. Bonfire is made out of dried twigs and leaves but people also use wood. They sing and dance around it mainly to the tunes of local songs and perform Bhangra and Gidda (a dance form).
    Those photos seem to talk of an era that has gone by – lovely! Sparkles are my favourite too. I don’t like crackers, though, because of the noise.

    1. Your festival sounds wonderful. It does sound similar to our Bonfire Night, although there’s neve been singing over here. Sparklers are still very popular today and I agree that crackers (what we always called bangers) are not good at all. I hated them when I was young, too. As I said, though, nowadays the big firework displays.displays are more popular. Children making guys is hardly seen nowadays. 🙂

      1. We are celebrating Diwali. 🙂 I know this came out of nowhere Millie – but I’m very excited. Although, it was on 11th the festive feeling would linger for a week. We hear a lot of crackers these days. I hate them for – noise and pollution. Thankfully, this year it is less.
        Thanks for nominating me for the The Sisterhood Award Millie. I’ll be doing the post as and when I get the time. We had guests till today and another set would be arriving next week, along with children. Will again be doing some catching up with the posts….see you soon Millie. Take care! 🙂

      2. Take all the time you want, Norma. There’s no rush to do the award post, ar all. Just enjoy Diwali! We have a lot of Hindu people in Leicester, not too far from here, and the Diwali decorations look amazing every year. It’s a wonderful celebration, so I know how wonderful it must be for you. WordPress can wait… ! 😀

  4. Wonderful and entertaining article Millie, written beautifully and illustrated with the loveliest of photographs that bring us to the scene. That treacle looks pretty yummy too! enjoyed so very much!

    1. The recipe I like best is one of Delia Smiths. If I can’t find a link online I’ll think of some other way of getting it to you (in a post of some sort). 🙂

      1. I will as soon as i have a spare moment. I only have two of her books, and the parkin recipe may have been online. I have folder full of recipes I’ve printed out that way. I promise to get back to you tomorrow. Thank you for the interest in parkin, Peggy, This one has oats in it. Som recipes for parkin I’ve found over the years are just what I’d call gingerbread. I like it nice and oaty.

    2. Millie very kindly got back to me with her recipe for parkin. She shared it on my blog, but I thought it ought to be shared here too. Thanks so much, Millie. And feel free to delete this and do a post on parkin instead. 🙂

      “Hello again, Peggy.Neither of the Delia Smith books I have on my shelf have the recipe in it that I use. The one I Iuse I found online a few years ago. I’ve had a look on Delia’s site today and can’t find the exact recipe for Oat Parkin now. It’s probably just been updated. My recipe is in ounces, for a start, and the ones online are in grams.

      “The link I’m sending is the closest I can find to my copy, so you can check that out for the method (simple melting method).

      “I’ll list here the ingredients from my recipe – which I double up to make a larger quantity. I’ll write them out horizontally to save space:

      “4oz self raising flour (or plain/all purpose flour + baking powder); 7oz dark or golden syrup; 1oz treacle + 1 teaspoon (yes, that’s what it says); 4oz margarine; 4oz soft brown sugar; 2 level teasp. ground ginger; pinch of salt; 1 large egg, beaten;1 tablesp. milk; 8 oz medium oatmeal.. Oven 140 deg.C

      “I’d be happy to send the method if you need it but it’s the same as on this link. It’s important to let the parkin cool in the tin before attempting to take it out. It will just break up if you try to lift it out while it’s hot.
      Here’s the link to a similar Delia recipe in grams:


      “Hope it’s some use, anyway. Millie

      1. Thank you for this, Peggy! 🙂 I do love my parkin, and will probably make some this week. We’re supposed to keep it for a week or so before cutting into it, but mine rarely gets left alone for more tha a few days. Hope yours turns out really well. 🙂

  5. Obviously, I have no memories of bonfire night from my childhood, but one of the first years, I lived in London, I went to a display on Primrose Hill. It was beautiful, but best of all was the view of fireworks going up all over the place.
    In Denmark, they/we have bonfires on Midsummer night, and I have fond memories of that. One notable experience was going from Copenhagen to Jutland and seeing the bonfires light up the evening on every beach. Have had private St John’s bonfires too, but mostly, I went to the beach — wherever I was.

    1. Yes, I’ve read about, and seen a video or two about the Midsummer bonfires in Denmark. They look really fabulous and what better place to have them than on the beach. It’s good to have events like those, that everyone can look forward to. Unfortunately, Bonfire Night in England has become far less popular nowadays, for many reasons, including the many serious accidents with fireworks, and the cost of them. Also, interest in Bonfire Night seems to have faded in comparison to the modern fixation in Halloween and Trick or Treat. I always loved Bonfire Night when I was a child, and even when our own children were young.

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