Guy Fawkes Nights Gone By


The fifth of November is upon us, and I spent a chuck of the day delving into Google Books for accounts of how Guy Fawkes Night was celebrated in years past. First, here’sa clipping from William Hone’s Every Day Book of 1825, in which the author describes the night’s events during his childhood:

Scuffles seldom happen now, but “in my youthful days,” “when Guy met Guy —then came the tug of war!” The partisans fought, and a decided victory ended in the capture of the “Guy” belonging to the vanquished. Sometimes desperate bands, who omitted, or were destitute of the means to make “Guys,” went forth like Froissart’s knights “upon adventures.” An enterprise of this sort was called “going to smug a Guy,” that is, to steal one by “force of arms,” fists, and sticks, from its rightful owners. These partisans were always successful, for they always attacked the weak.

However, Hone informs us that even by 1825, interest in the celebration was waning:

This fiery zeal has gradually decreased. Men no longer take part or interest in such an observance of the day, and boys carry about their “Guy” with no other sentiment or knowledge respecting him, than body-snatchers have of a newly-raised corpse, or the method of dissecting it; their only question is, how much they shall get by the operation to make merry with. They sometimes confound their confused notion of the principle with the mawkin, and for “the Guy,” they say, “the Pope.” Their difference is not by the way of distinction, but ignorance. “No popery,” no longer ferments; the spirit is of the lees.

Perhaps he was too hasty in declaring the death of zealous November 5 celebrations if this edition of the Illustrated London News from 1850 is anything to go by:

…[F]rom the purlieus of Farringdon Market into Fleet Street issued a “group of Guys,” which, as well from their colossal size as by the amusement and laughter they occasioned in their progress through the streets, must be pronounced the pageant of the day. This group had evidently been “got up” by some zealous anti-Romanists regardless of cost. It consisted of about fourteen figures (animate and inanimate) presided over by a colossal Guy about sixteen feet in height, who, elevated in his chariot, a van drawn by two horses, was compelled to bow down considerably before he could be made to pass beneath Temple Bat. This pageant included an animate effify of the new Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, attired in the canonical robes of the Roman Catholic Church, and wearing the red and broad-brimmed hat appertaining to his office.

If you desire still more variations on the conventional Guy, I present one more nineteenth-century document: volume 2 of The Olio; or Museum of Entertainment, published in 1829. Here, the author makes a case for Bonfire Night being expanded so as to appeal to adults as well as children and — in a biting piece of post-Regency satire — suggests a number of figures to be consigned to the flames. The first is Guy Charley, a lazy night watchman:

[L]et there be in every parish the “Guy Charley.” He should be carried round the watchhouse–his cries, which, like a barber’s customers, are by an improvement in this advanced age, quarterly, should be imitated, and by the rattling of his snores, instead of his instrument of alarm, be reminded of his beat, by the wholesome thumps which should be marked according to rules on his back. If the parishioners do not recognise and reward his young supporters, they ought never to hear a watchman’s asthma again strangled by the fog.

Next is Guy Spirituous, an alcoholic parent “with dolls for starving children in his or her arms, and carried before all liquor shops, with Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ in the perspective”. The third is Guy Civic, “of amazing rotundity, well dressed, with a bottle in one hand, a turtle in one pocket, a bill of fare in the other, a pipe of three feet in the mouth and nose”. I must confess, the targets of the satire started to elude me at this point. The article goes on to describe Guy Forensic, Guy Miguel, Guy Dandean (a “martyr to folly, the mirror and perfume”), Guy Military and finally Guy Author:

By his not having a ‘Birth Day Ode,’ a ‘Drawing Room Ditty,’ or a ‘Vision of Judgment,’ proclaimed for the confession of him who is destined, like Fox’s sufferers in Smithfield to bear the fire and faggot, it is presumed that this ‘Guy’ would never become laureate to any class of boys in the metropolis, or any of the public schools. To merit the praise which his talents should obtain, he should dedicate a poem to the supporters of holidays, and with the force of Juvenalt, or the British Churchhill [sic], denounce the advertisers of confinement, who advocate “All work and no play, To make Jack a dull boy.”

I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot, indeed.

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