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The Fifth of November

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On November 5, 1605, King James I was to preside over the opening of Parliament in England. A group of disgruntled men including Guido “Guy” Fawkes, resented the Government’s attitude towards Roman Catholics and planned to assassinate the King by blowing up Parliament and restoring a Catholic monarch to the throne.

The group secured an area beneath the House of Lords where they stockpiled 36 barrels of gunpowder. Early on November 5, Guy Fawkes was found guarding the explosives and arrested. Fawkes and the other conspirators were sentenced to be hanged. However, as Fawkes ascended the ladder to the gallows he jumped, fell to the ground and broke his neck.

To celebrate the failed attempt on the King’s life, the people of London lit bonfires. Eventually, settlers exported the celebration, known as Guy Fawkes Night, to the overseas colonies.

As a child, I remember my father purchasing firecrackers with names such as Roman candles, skyrockets and sparklers. We had so much fun as he set them off in the backyard and finally he gave us the sparklers, which we could safely hold in our hands. The thrill and excitement of Guy Fawkes Night is unknown to my children and, not surprisingly, my grandchildren.

In the 1930s, Frances Goodchild recalled her father using discarded clothes, dried grass and rags to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes. When she arrived home from school, it was already completed. This, combined with the smell of her mother’s sweet potato pudding, added to the excitement of firecracker launching and the burning of Guy Fawkes.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November: Some Bermudians still commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in London, England in 1605 with bonfires and the burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes, the man caught before he could blow up the Houses of Parliament. Eating sweet potato pudding and toasted marshamallows around the fire are also part of the annual tradition
Yorkshire-born traitor Guy Fawkes sought to gain religious tolerance for British Catholics by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London. The plot failed when, on November 5, 1605, he was caught red-handed during a second a search of the cellars beneath Parliament. Along with his co-conspirators Fawkes was executed on January 31, 1606, but the plot is still commemorated today with bonfires and the burning of his effigy

Brownlow Place, who is now 105, describes November 5 in his childhood as an exciting time for children. He recalled that when schools opened in September, it was so cool that sweaters and coats were worn. By November it was even colder. On Ewing Street, where he lived, most people made effigies of Guy Fawkes and firecrackers could be bought at all the neighbourhood shops. He remembered clearly the Chinese crackers that made an extremely loud bang, as well as the poorly behaved individuals who shot Roman candles at cyclists and into people’s homes.

Sweet potatoes were abundant and everyone made sweet potato pudding.

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of Sandys South MP Jamahl Simmons, is the 2020 winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest

In certain parts of England, there was the tradition of eating a cake called Parkin on Guy Fawkes Night. The origin of this tradition is unclear, but it is much older than the Gunpowder Plot. It could be linked to a pagan celebration or to All Saints Day. For whatever reason, it has for centuries been enjoyed at the beginning of November.

Parkin is described as a sticky cake made with oats and treacle with a fiery ginger kick. It is possible that the early settlers substituted sweet potatoes in an effort to replicate what they ate at home or it could be a Bermudian creation designed to use up the abundant sweet potato crop.

A cookbook published by the Garden Club of Bermuda in 1966 mentions that there was an old custom of serving sweet potato pudding with Cedar Berry Beer on Guy Fawkes Day. The Bermuda Best Recipes book first published in 1934 describes it as an ale made by fermenting ripe cedar tree berries.

In the early Fifties, my husband lived on Dundonald Street. He recalls that on Guy Fawkes Night, Princess Street became ground zero. The neighbourhood became the congregation spot for teenagers and the location of the most dangerous and reckless night of the year. Your parents purchased firecrackers for the household, but teenagers acquired a stash to be used for nefarious purposes. Boys from North Shore and Dock Hill would venture into Hamilton to challenge the “town boys”.

Sky rockets were put into bottles, set off and directed at the intruders who, of course, returned fire. Roman candles were designed to fire upwards, but they, too, were directed at the intruders. Some boys opened the crackers, used the head of a nail to push down the gunpowder, compacting it to increase the volume of the bang. Some attached bangers to skyrockets, resulting in mid-flight explosions. Some made a ball by wrapping rags around a chicken wire cage, soaking it in kerosene, setting it alight and played football.

When the numerous bags of crackers were empty, they progressed to even more dangerous manoeuvres. On pedal bikes, they rode down the street spraying lighter fluid, which was set alight. They then challenged each other to see who could ride the farthest with fire trailing behind them. When I inquired as to why the parents allowed this behaviour, the answer was simple: they were too afraid to leave their houses and the fire department and police were probably too busy dealing with this night of hooliganism throughout the city.

My sister-in-law recalled that once the neighbourhood had burnt down on Guy Fawkes Night. Not allowed to leave the house, she described the pleasant aroma of baking sweet potato pudding being replaced by the heavy stench of gunpowder.

In the morning, the street resembled a war zone. Everyone promptly gathered to cleaning up all evidence relating to the raucous, undisciplined behaviour of the night before.

Fireworks were invented by the Chinese. They discovered that when bamboo stems were thrown into fire, the hollow interior heated up, resulting in a loud bang. In later years, they packed gunpowder into small containers, thus recreating the sound. Eventually, the firecracker as we know it today evolved.

Joseph Lambert described Guy Fawkes Night in the 1950s as “war”. Groups of teenagers travelled on foot, using familiar footpaths and trails to avoid the main roads. Many came from as far as Southampton, Cedar Hill and Khyber Pass to Camp Hill. A few had pedal bikes, which they hid in the trees. Although street lighting was introduced to Bermuda in 1904, it was limited in many areas during the Fifties.

Most boys carried their firecrackers in bags on their backs. They attacked each other with Roman candles, skyrockets or whatever crackers were available. Joseph’s family built a Guy Fawkes stuffed with dry cane grass and mounted on to a wooden frame and set alight. One year, some individuals decided to use dynamite. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the blast was certainly memorable.

Gregory Hall recalled the fantastic Guy Fawkes his father built every year. More memorable was the painful event that occurred when he was a teenager. He was carrying fireworks in his back pocket when somehow a spark caught one. He says this traumatic event put him out of commission for weeks. His mother was furious and the district nurse became a frequent visitor. He thoughtfully remembered that in those days, too many children had access to far too many matches.

In St David’s, Ronnie Chameau described Guy Fawkes Night as the biggest night of the year. Families purchased their firecrackers from Roy Smith’s Shop and everyone helped to build the bonfire near the Red Hole area at St David’s field. Her family enjoyed a meal of stewed pumpkin with salt beef before leaving for the celebrations.

A community member assumed the responsibility of making Guy Fawkes. He would be fully dressed in a hat, shirt, trousers and stuffed with dried grass. In his mouth was a large cigar made of rolled cedar bark. Finally, he was secured upon a chair, placed on the shoulders of men and paraded around St David’s.

The procession was accompanied by the beating of improvised drums. At the field, Guy was mounted at the very top of the bonfire, set alight and everyone set off their fireworks. Roman candles were set in mineral bottles and lit. Devil dancers were popular. Once lit, they ran around like snakes with a little light at one end. During the festivities, everyone ate sweet potato pudding and sipped hot cocoa.

I asked Mrs Chameau about the fireballs that boys in Hamilton were kicking around. She had never heard about this in Bermuda, but she described a Native American Mashpee Wampanoag ceremonial game performed at the end of the Fourth of July Pow Wow. The construction of the ball soaked in kerosene was similar to that used in “back of town” Hamilton. This was a curious discovery.

In 1962, Radio Bermuda organised a community fireworks display to illuminate the entire island. There was to be a countdown, Cape Canaveral-style, on all three ZBM stations. When the countdown reached zero, everyone all over the island was asked to launch a skyrocket or Roman candle. It was such a success that a similar event was organised the bext year.

The Royal Gazette, dated November 10, 1962, reported W.L. Tucker speaking on the motion to adjourn in Parliament. He described children “going haywire” in the streets during Guy Fawkes Day celebrations. He felt the time had arrived for the powers that be to place a complete embargo on fireworks.

It was not until 1974 that the Government, to ensure the safety of the community, passed a law banning the open use of fireworks by untrained persons.

The only remaining tradition is the making and eating of sweet potato pudding on a day simply described as the Fifth of November.

With thanks to those who helped to recreate this almost forgotten event in our history.

References: Bermuda’s Best Recipes 1934; Old Bermuda Recipes 1966; The Royal Gazette November 10,1962, November 1 and 3, 1963; Wikipedia

Cecille C. Snaith-Simmons, the mother of Sandys South MP Jamahl Simmons, is the 2020 winner in the Adult section of the Dr Stanley Ratteray Memorial Christmas Short Story Contest

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Published November 01, 2021 at 8:01 am (Updated October 31, 2021 at 11:41 am)

The Fifth of November

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