As a child there was always great excitement during the build up to Bonfire Night. For one thing my mother’s pet toy poodle Sabot went hysterical at this time of year. For at least the month before the special night there would be regular bangs as probably teenagers set off bangers around the area of Harehills, Oakwood and Gipton. (I’m not sure where the boundaries are. We were living in Gipton Wood Crescent at the time, just behind Oakwood Wood). The dog would go mad and, if given the chance, would have run off into the sunset to escape the horrors of it all. I know many dogs suffered and still do. The next dog my mother had when she lived in Shadwell Lane, years later, was even worse and it made her life a misery.
Anyway, as a child at Harehills Primary School it was a great time of the year. The buying of the fireworks was exciting. The names, the shapes and the smell of the Standard Fireworks were exotic and exciting. I remember opening the box in front of the lit coal fire at my grandmother’s house in Chapel Allerton, which clearly wouldn’t meet modern health and safety standards, and arranging each one: Mount Vesuvius, Spit Fire, Roman Candle, Jumping Jacks, Traffic Lights, Bangers, Rockets. Each name was full of exciting potential. Catherine wheels were always a bit of a hit and miss as they often failed to spin, but when they did they were wonderful. Older children would be armed with pocketfuls of Bangers. These would be lit, held in the hand and thrown at the last minute at the feet of unsuspecting victims. We also used to open bangers up, peel back the card and empty the gunpowder into a pile. A few bangers would be opened and then the small pile would be lit with a match. There would be a flash and a cloud of smoke grew from the flaring gunpowder. We called this a Genie.
During the weeks before November 5th, Guys would be seen on street corners. Effigies of Guido Fawkes would be made by padding old clothes and either drawing a face, or using a mask. Sometimes they were positioned in pushchairs or bogy (cart) to add to the effect and children would sit next to them asking passersby, ‘Penny for the Guy?’ Any proceeds were used to replenish the firework supply, or for older children to probably purchase cigarettes. It all seemed good humoured and wasn’t done with menace.
Another feature of the time was the building of bonfires. Any waste ground, and there always appeared to be no shortage, was used to build enormous, community bonfires. I have no idea how they were organised, but children in an area seemed to suddenly become organised and masses of old doors, furniture, large branches and any other items that would burn were collected. and towering pyramids of bonfires appeared ready for the night. Unscrupulous urchins would plunder other local pyres and strong rivalry and occasional violence occurred between groups, particularly if someone’s gang was thought guilty of plundering another. Rivaly became strong about whose pyre would be the biggest and guards were posted to prevent looting. Sometimes dens were built into the heart of the piles and children would act as sentries. I have heard of dreadful accidents where fires were set alight early by rivals and children have been caught inside. We didn’t really give safety much of a thought at the time. As youngsters we were invulnerable, or at least so we thought. On the day large guys would be positioned on the top ready for the official lighting, and families would come out, gather around and enjoy the spectacle and let off fireworks.
Last year’s Christmas song and video.
I don’t think that Mischief Night, the evening before November 5th, was a tradition other than in Leeds, but I am sure someone will let me know, but it was a challenging time for local households. Mischief Night was an excuse to go around and play pranks on the neighbours. Children would put things through letterboxes. The most serious were bangers, but we never did that. We would ring door bells and then run away and watch the door being answered. Grease or treacle would be put on door handles and string tied to door knobs and dustbins so that they would be pulled over when the door was opened. Generally the pranks were nothing other than a bit of an annoyance. I believe it did become more serious in some areas and I have no idea if it is still a Leeds tradition.
When my brothers and I were very little the bonfires were in the back garden and we would put potatoes in the fire to cook and there was nothing like a bonfire cooked jacket potatoes. The blackened skins just added to the flavour and were accompanied by treacle toffee, parkin, gingerbread, cinder toffee or other delights. We all stood too near to the fire, burning hot of one side, freezing cold at the back. November was always icy cold and frost and fog were common additions. My dad would light a firework with the rope tapers. As the instructions said: Light blue touch paper and stand back. If for some reason they didn’t light, you were supposed to go back to them. My dad would help each of us take a turn to light one and we all had a packet of Sparklers. We would draw patterns in the night with the white hot tip as they sparkled and nearly managed to put the odd eye out! We loved it! We would light the next from the one that was finished, but still glowing red hot. The most scary firework was the Jumping Jack as it seemed, wherever you stood, the exploding firework would follow you around as it jumped from one bang to another. As we got older, these times seemed tame and we wanted more excitement and bigger displays, and this was met with the more organized events.
During my primary school years there was a growing reaction to the annual accidents and maiming that took place. It was all in the name of a man who was schooled in the nearby City of York and was caught apparently attempting to destroy parliament. Guy Fawkes, Guido Fawkes, was arrested in 1605 as a Catholic attempting to assassinate King James in the Gunpowder Plot. He was executed the following year. Organised community bonfires and firework displays started, often run by churches and youth clubs. I remember going to at least one at Lady Wood Methodist Church, (Oakwood Church). The family went to the church at the time and they had a large, well organized display and bonfire for a number of years. A much larger celebration was started in Roundhay Park, with an enormous bonfire using fallen branches collected by the groundstaff of the park, followed by quite a grand display. We used to gather in thousands on Hill Sixty, near the arena and watch the event. There were stalls selling a host of foods and music was played and it was quite a do, but like much in life, it was all over much too quickly and then it was a trudge back to the car parked with hundreds of others on the Soldiers’ Fields. Tired, intact and happy we returned home. This part of the annual calendar was over and we knew that Christmas wasn’t too far off, so our minds turned to that.
Parts 1 to 9 of Hell Fire the fantasy audiobook are available to stream below. A new part is added each week and there is no cost to stream.