Big bangs

Extracts from memoirs and diaries on 5th November, chosen by Ian Irvine
October 19, 2011
Lewes, East Sussex: the town is renowned for burning an effigy of the Pope on bonfire night

English lawyer Roger Wilbraham notes in his diary, 5th November 1605

The Lords and the Commons awaited the King’s coming to open the parliament. A week before, the Lord Monteagle imparted to the King and Council, a letter sent to his hands by one unknown & fled wherein he was advised to be absent from the parliament, for undoubtedly some great calamity would happen suddenly by unknown accident. Whereupon the King after one search about Parliament House grew so jealous he caused a secret watch & discovered one Johnson practising about midnight to make a train to fire 34 barrels of powder, hidden in a vault just under the Upper House. Johnson confessed to have been preparing eight months to blow up the King, his Queen, children, nobles, bishops, judges and all the commons assembled, if it had not been so happily discovered.

Writer and gardener John Evelyn observes in his diary, 5th November 1685

It being an extraordinary wet morning, and I indisposed by a very great rheum, I could not go to church this day, to my great sorrow, it being the first Gunpowder Conspiracy anniversary, that has been kept now 80 years, under a Prince of the Roman Religion [the Catholic James II]. Bonfires forbidden etc. What does this portend?

The York Herald reports, 1806

On Monday last, George Walker, farmer of Weaverthorpe, was convicted before Edward Topham Esq, in the penalty of £5 for destroying hares on 5th November. We insert this as a caution, as some persons ignorantly conceive this to be a day free from all law.

The Dorset County Chronicle reports, 1833

In order to prevent a further repetition of the disgraceful and dangerous proceedings which have taken place for several years past on the evening of the 5th of November about 40 of the inhabitants of Fordingbridge were on Monday sworn in as special constables, and by their vigilance the lighting of bonfires and letting off fireworks in the streets on Tuesday evening was entirely suppressed…

In Taunton the 5th of November was as usual celebrated by a variety of squibs, crackers and fire balls let off in the centre of the town, to the annoyance of all peaceable inhabitants and the danger of their property. It is to be wished that the scene of action were transferred to some neighbouring field, where they could not endanger the safety of travellers, but this has several times been endeavoured to be effected by the constables, and as often failed.

Last Tuesday, Jarvis, the constable, in an attempt to put a stop to the proceedings of the crowd, was attacked, his coat was pulled off his back and he was much bruised. The most effectual stop to the fireworks, however, was occasioned by the circulation of a hand bill, to the effect that a German by the name of Van Heiglar would give a display of fireworks in a field about a mile from the town. The greater part of the people immediately rushed thither, but of course they found no fireworks, and they found too late that they had been hoaxed. This prevented the display in town being as good as usual.

Jocelyn Brooke describes a 1939 firework display in his autobiographical novel, A Mine of Serpents

The rockets rose in immense flights, fanning out across the sky like some dazzling aurora borealis; the shells blossomed into an endless and fantastic series of metamorphoses; showers of stars exploding into other stars, writhing congeries of serpents bursting in sudden magnesium brilliance, showers of silver and gold changing to rubies and emeralds. There was an extravagance, a total lack of inhibition about this display which took one’s breath away.

The finale was approaching: a kind of Lisztian cadenza of iridescent fire played itself out against the violet depths of the sky. At length, an unprecedented clamour of bangs burst forth behind the trees; a score or so of trailing yellow stars soared zenithwards; and burst at last into such brilliant and far-flung glories that the previous flights were as nothing. Golden silver rain poured earthwards in a dozen immense cataracts; glaring magnesium fires floated like suns in mid-air; serpents whirled and whistled over the treetops, a whole Aladdin’s cave of rubies and sapphires spilled itself above the heads of the crowd. The brief incredible splendour, flamed like lightning down the far corridors of my memory—leaping backwards across the years, lighting with an instant’s glory one darkened shrine after another; fixing itself, at last, upon a single image, the remote, archaic progenitor of all the rest: a small boy crouched, motionless, his whole body taut with fascinated concentration.