Did you know that it is said that until 1959 it was illegal NOT to celebrate Bonfire Night in the UK? I don’t know for sure but I do know that that year was very strange for a 9 year old.
The New Hotspur first issue 1959
I was entering that no man’s land; too young to play cowboys and Indians and not really old enough to hang out with the older lads. That year I gave up my Beano and started reading the New Hotspur, more derring-do than the cartoons for younger kids.
I recall the excitement of seeing my comic sticking out of the letterbox every Thursday morning. It seemed only yesterday I had sat bored in my younger playmates wigwam, a nylon pointed tent on 4 thin wooden poles.
I decided that it should be more realistic, like on the telly. I built a fire and lit it in the middle of the wigwam. I shall be ever grateful my mom saw the fire just in time, dragged us out of the tent, with singed hair while the wigwam burned to the ground. I got the standard telling off “Don’t play with matches!”
Early Avro Lancaster Airfix kit
After that event Dad lectured me that the next 18 months at school were very important to me, I should work hard to pass my 11 plus exam and I should start thinking about my future. So I packed up my Dinky cars in their boxes in the wardrobe with my cap guns, holsters and cowboy hat and began making up the Airfix kits I had previously as presents. First the Santa Maria, then to my father’s delight I immersed in building my Airfix Lancaster, Wellington and Stirling bombers, spending hours poring over dads flying handbooks from his war service.
Picture inside 1940’s Stirling Pilots notes book
Looking back I think he could see me changing and decided I needed guidance. Although dad was spending all hours God sent at his new business, he made the time to sit with me, my modelling and sometimes my electronics building set. He showed me how to build radios, amplifiers and all manner of gadgets.
Stock car racing program for Brandon stadium
We went to football matches, swimming to Woodcock Street baths and best of all stock car racing at Brandon Stadium in Coventry. My favourite racer was Fred Mitchell. He drove a red topped V8 stock car with flashing lights on the top.
The main event to look forward to as autumn took hold was Bonfire night. There was waste ground in our road where the bonfire was usually sited.
A few weeks beforehand the fathers in the street would come home from work with bits of wood strapped to their bicycles and in their knapsacks. Of the few car owners, one would be elected to drive off somewhere to purloin boot-fulls of wood. The mothers would natter over fences and decide who would bring what food on the night. Kids would put aside rivalries and band together for our tasks. We would scrounge a pram and go from door to door begging for stuff for the bonfire.
We would walk miles if we heard of some family moving hoping they might give us old furniture. The girls needed no cajoling into using sewing skills to make a Guy out of old clothes stuffed with straw. A carrot for his nose, an old pipe stuck in his mouth and old boots tied to the trousers with string. This guy would be pushed around the local shops and pubs in the old pram, kids chanting “Penny for the Guy!” We would drool over the fireworks, Brocks, Wessex, Wilders and of course Standard Fireworks in the shops.
Some lads would spend their pocket money on bangers and harass kids and others with them in the days near the 5th.
I had been spending time with the older lads who just hung around getting into all kinds of mischief. Me being the youngest I was eager to do all the dares to try and get accepted in the “gang”. As Bonfire Night got nearer our bonfire was pitifully small, foretelling a lousy night. So the older lads came up with a plan. At the bottom of our road was a fence which separated our estate from Yorks Wood. It was off limits with “Trespassers will be prosecuted” signs. The plan was to raid our dad’s toolboxes for saws, climb the fence into the woods and saw branches for our bonfire.
We did this un-noticed several times and our bonfire grew. A few days before Nov 5th we decided that just one more trip was needed. I was looking after a much younger lad and I carelessly decided he had to accompany us on this raid. In my haste to get our booty back, I didn’t notice that this lad, who was too small to carry big branches, had retrieved some newly planted saplings. He went home with a sapling thinking his mom would like it for her garden. Not knowing what being sworn to secrecy meant, he spilled the beans to his mom, who was horrified and marched him down to our front door.
Mom rushed into the road and shouted “Keith! Come here this instance!” I was standing with my pals, trying to look nonchalant. I shouted back, using my newly learnt swearword [which I didn’t the meaning of] “Oh f*** off!”
Mom, now raving mad, stormed across, grabbed me by the collar and smacked my bum all the way to our front door. She sent me straight to my bedroom with a “Wait till your father comes home, my lad!” Later, dad arrived. After some mumbling, he bellowed “Keith David come down here now!” This was the only time dad caned me. Boy did my bum hurt. He calmly told me that it was not for the Yorks Wood crime but for swearing at and disrespecting mom. The next morning, he marched me down to the Pithall Road Police Station asked that an Inspector give me a dressing down warning for my crime. The Inspector duly frightened me to death and chastised me for not snitching on my mates. On the way home dad told me that I had been punished, should learn the lesson and that we would not speak of it again. We never did.
Two 1950’s fireworks newspaper ads
That Bonfire Night dad arrived with a one pound, instead of the usual ten shillings box of fireworks. I think he could see me carrying my guilt and was secretly proud of our resourcefulness and my loyalty to my mates. The bonfire was lit as darkness descended and the festivities began. Neighbours we hadn’t seen all year turned up with goodies and joined the fun. Parents seemed to work together to make the occasion last. Chairs and tables were brought out of houses and we were instructed not to throw them on the fire which roared away with the Guy sat on the top.
A plank was rigged up for the Catherine Wheels. The fireworks were let off one by one so everyone could share the enjoyment; Rockets, Aeroplanes, Jumping Jacks, Roman Candles, Volcanos, Penny Bangers and Sparklers for the little ones. I looked around at the smiling faces glowing in the light of the fire, listened to the shrieks of joy from the youngsters and the communal oohs and aahs from all at the fireworks. There was hot soup, hot dogs, baked potatoes, mushy peas, pies and pasty’s; some were cooked in the embers of the fire. To follow were roasted nuts, treacle toffee, toffee apples, marshmallows, lemonade, dandelion and burdock and of course beer. The night was rounded off with everyone singing Ging gang gooley and other songs like We’ll meet again.
Me and dad, beside his new car summer 1959
A great night was had by all. But for me life had changed, I think I grew up somewhat that week. I was told I must now do household chores for my pocket money. I was enrolled in the Cubs to teach me discipline. Amongst my jobs I had to clean all our shoes every night, fetch the coal in and fill the coal scuttle in the morning and carefully re fill the paraffin heater in the hall in the evening. That last year at junior school we were given homework to prepare us for senior school. Somehow the occasion never held the same magic again. It was like finding out the truth about Father Christmas. I never bothered with it much again; until I had children of my own and enjoyed it again through their eyes.
As I sit here in retirement tonight I think that few give a thought of the true meaning of the celebration, I reflect on the other saying about Bonfire Night: Guy Fawkes is sometimes toasted as "The last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions".
Enjoy the evening and stay safe. Goodnight.
Lead image is of a typical 1950’s children with Guy and bonfire. All ready. [Copyright free picture]