‘Cup of Tea Tales’–Remember, Remember the 5th of November! Mischief Night and Bonfire Night in Leeds, 1950s-1960s.

David’s Bookshelf Issue 2 Cup of Tea Tales

This episode is also available as a blog post: https://davidmcameronauthormusician.com/2022/10/02/davids-bookshelf-issue-2/ — Send in a voice message: https://anchor.fm/david-m-cameron/message
  1. David’s Bookshelf Issue 2
  2. David’s Bookshelf – Issue One
  3. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – A Lifetime of Global Successes, Disasters and Wonders! Space the Final Frontier.
  4. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Hetchell Woods (Bardsey) and Crags – A Special Piece of God’s Own Country or County! One of my Favourite Places to Visit.
  5. ‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – The Wonderful Yorkshire Dales. Trollers Gill, a Place with a Mysterious Legend and the Hell Hole where I Diced with Death.

We have just had Halloween, but when I was growing up in Leeds, it was never much of a thing. Bonfire Night was the major event and there was always great excitement during the buildup and a few concerns. For one thing, my mother’s pet toy poodle, Sabot, went hysterical whenever it heard fireworks. For at least the month before the special night, there would be regular bangs, as teenagers set off bangers around the area of Harehills, Oakwood, and Gipton. It didn’t matter how far away or how quiet, the dog would go hysterical at the first sound, and if given the chance, it would have run off into the sunset to escape the horrors of it all. I know many dogs suffered and still suffer during this period. Years later, my mother had a dog, Ben, that was even worse, and it made her life a misery during the lead up to the big night. On one or two occasions, it did escape from her house and was found miles away. It was eventually returned, wet, disorientated, and traumatised.

A growing teenager in Leeds, what could possibly go wrong?

For me, as a child at Harehills Primary School, it was a great time of the year. The buying of the fireworks was exciting and was one of the special dates that marked a year and made the winter months bearable. The first sign we were approaching bonfire night was Grandma taking us to the shop at Chapel Allerton to buy a box of fireworks. I think it was the post office, but I could be wrong. At the start of the 1960s, there were two main choices, Brocks Fireworks and Standard Fireworks, and, for some reason, we mainly got Standard Fireworks. Grandma would allow us a small box, a packet of sparklers and one rocket each, and we carried them back to her house with great anticipation. The boxes were rough brown card and had brightly coloured pictures on the front, which gave quite a misleading idea of the display the box would produce. The names, the shapes and the smell of the Standard Fireworks were exciting. The thought of having gunpowder was magical, and my imagination would run away with me.

I remember opening the box, sitting in front of the coal fire at my grandmother’s house in Chapel Allerton. This clearly wouldn’t meet modern health and safety standards. We would arrange each one on the floor or the table, Mount Vesuvius, SpitFire, 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.

In the weeks before Bonfire Night, Guys would be seen on street corners. Effigies of Guy Fawkes would be made by stuffing old clothes and either drawing a face on the pillowcase head, or using a mask. Sometimes they were placed in a pram or bogie (cart) and wheeled to a spot with lots of passers-by. To add to the effect, children would sit next to them, calling out ‘Penny for the Guy?’ Any proceeds were used to add to the firework supply, or some older children probably purchase cigarettes. It all seemed good-humoured and wasn’t done with menace.

Another feature of the time was the building of communal bonfires. Any waste ground, and there always appeared to be no shortage, could be used to build enormous bonfires. I have no idea who organised them, but children in an area would collect old doors, furniture, large branches and any other items that would burn. 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 pile. Rivalry became strong over whose fire stack would be the biggest, and guards were necessary to prevent looting. Sometimes dens were built into the heart of the piles and children would act as sentries. I heard of dreadful accidents where fires were set alight by rivals whilst children inside were unknowingly caught in the fire. We didn’t really give safety much of a thought. As youngsters, we were invulnerable, or at least so we thought. On the 5th of November, a large Guy would be positioned on the top, ready for the official lighting. Families would come out, gather around, enjoy the spectacle, let off fireworks, and have a good time.

I don’t think that Mischief Night, the evening before November 5th, was a tradition anywhere other than in Leeds. It was a challenging time for local households and sometimes got out of hand. Mischief Night was an excuse to go around and play pranks on the neighbours. Children would post things through letter-boxes. The most serious were bangers, but we never did that. We would ring doorbells and then run away and watch the door being opened and the resident being confused when there was no one there. Sometimes grease would be smeared on door handles and dustbin lids tied to them so that when the door was opened, the metal dustbin lid would crash onto the ground. Generally, it was nothing other than a bit of an annoyance.

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 potato. 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 on 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 weren’t 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 manage 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. Rockets were placed in a milk bottle and when dad lit one, there was that second or two where you felt it wasn’t going to work and then there was the whoosh, the fire, and we watched it disappear into the black sky, and again after a pause, there was the burst of colours.

When the fireworks were over, Andrew and I were allowed to stay out and watch the fire burn down. There was something mesmerizing about watching the wood burn and finally become a carpet of glowing embers. We would feed spare pieces of wood into the fire and keep it going as long as we could. In the morning, we would go out to inspect the remains. If we had had a good fire, it might still be hot, even though the remains were white ashes. We would feed twigs and small bits of wood, sometimes blow to try to get it going again. As we got older, these home bonfires became tame, and we wanted more and which meant going to more organized events.

During my Harehills County Primary school years, there was a growing reaction to the annual accidents and maiming that took place celebrating a man who was schooled in the nearby City of York. Guy Fawkes, Guido Fawkes, was caught in 1605 as a Catholic attempting to assassinate the protestant King James in the Gunpowder Plot. He was executed for his part, and hanged drawn and quartered, the following year. To try to cut down on the accident toll, organised community bonfires and firework displays started. Churches and youth clubs often ran these and I remember going to at least one at Ladywood Methodist Church (Oakwood Church). My family went to the church at the time and it used to put on a large, well-organised display and fire. A much bigger celebration was started in Roundhay Park. The park built an enormous bonfire using fallen branches collected by the grounds staff 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 range of food and music was played on loudspeakers. It was quite a do, but like much in life, it was all over much too quickly and then it was a trudge back up the hill 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 Christmas wasn’t too far off, so our minds turned to that.

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 pile would be lit and there would be a cloud of smoke from the flare. We called this a Genie.

Whilst at Roundhay school, a friend of mine launched an attack on the female nurses’ home on the other side of the ginnel that ran along the back of the school. It was late at night and, armed with rockets and a piece of plastic drainpipe, they fired volleys of rockets at the home for nurses. In hindsight, this was a very dangerous thing to do, but at the time, it was seen as a great bit of fun. Luckily no one was harmed, and the building wasn’t burned to the ground, but the police were called.

Not all escapades with fireworks were as fortunate, however. When we were going to youth clubs, we would wander between organised bonfires and displays in large groups of teenagers. We weren’t out to cause any trouble, but wanted fun. Unfortunately, this meant being armed with pockets of bangers. As we were at that invulnerable age, we used to light a banger, hold it in our hands until the last second and throw it at our friends and others in the groups. We laughed at our bravado as others jumped as the firework went off. We learned, somehow, how long they took to go off, and the bravest, or probably the most foolhardy, of us timed it to perfection. How we didn’t lose fingers is beyond me, but not everyone was so lucky. A friend of a friend in Leeds, unfortunately, had a pocket filled with fireworks and they accidentally set on fire. The pain and the suffering were immense, as no one could put the chemical fire out. It is an incident that had lifelong consequences for the boy and for those who witnessed it.

We had the family bonfires and set off a few fireworks when my first son was little and we lived in Wakefield. He had the same look of wonder that I remember when I was his age. When we moved to Western Australia, I was surprised to learn that fireworks were banned in most of the country. To be honest, it has probably saved many children from being maimed, but I do miss the excitement. Perth has a major city firework display on Australia day, but it isn’t the same, watching the sky light up kilometres away over the city and river.

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2 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’–Remember, Remember the 5th of November! Mischief Night and Bonfire Night in Leeds, 1950s-1960s.”

  1. Mischief night (and I believe that you are correct in thinking that it is a custom local to the Leeds area) – treacle on doorknobs was our favourite ploy. ‘Chumping’ for firewood was an annual ritual, and on our estate in Moortown there was always intense rivalry to run off with someone else’s endeavours.

    My best recollection of bonfire night itself is of when I was about six years old living in Normanton, south of Leeds. We had a huge box of fireworks which, unfortunately, was placed on the ground, a little too near the fire. One spark set off the whole box – rockets, Roman candles were flying everywhere. We were lucky that no-one was injured, but it left me with an indelible memory of the incident.

    When I lived in California, firework displays (on Independence Day and Halloween) were always a bit tame (anything that exploded was illegal), but this is hardly surprising for a state which suffers horrendous wildfires. The state of Virginia, on the other hand, allows anything and louder the better is the axiom – if your windows don’t rattle you haven’t tried.

    Thanks for the memories.

    Terry Lowe,
    Virginia, USA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are always welcome, Terry. Much like you bush fires are a major problem in Perth so it makes sense that only organised events can take place. The box of fireworks going off must have been quite a sight.


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