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    South Australia - Miscellany

    Guy Fawkes Day

    Some Reflections Upon Guy Fawkes Day

    (Taken from Geoffrey H. Manning's A Colonial Experience)


    Editorial note: In this extract Mr Manning uses the voice of his fictional narrator of A Colonial Experience, which provides an imagined perspective from circa 1910.

    It will be Guy Fawkes Day on 5 November 1903, an occasion which, though it may have small interest to adults, still has great attraction for the children of our community. The real significance of the event is of little consequence to them for it is the fireworks that has the appeal. They like the dazzling pyrotechnic displays so dear to the young heart.

    They may have been told, but have doubtless forgotten, that a gunpowder plot was originated by Robert Catesby and arranged for 5 November 1605, the fixing of the powder being entrusted to one Guy Fawkes, a zealous Papist. To this day the occasion is remembered and, from the volume of business done each year, it seems that the celebration is dying hard. Throughout the past week there was enormous trade in the east end of the city and the cracker shops were alive with purchasers when I made a visit to that part of our city.

    Into Mr Way Lee's shop scores of people trooped - solicitors, commercial men, artisans, crowds of women and, of course, 'the young fry'. Shillings and half-crowns rained on to the counter which brought happy smiles to Chinese faces.

    Historical Background and Its Local Repercussions

    The makers and vendors of squibs, crackers and other combustible articles are also among the members of those who 'see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.' It is certainly rather curious to reflect upon the tenacity of life, even at the Antipodes, of a time-worn custom instituted to commemorate an event such as the frustration of the plot for blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London.

    That mad scheme was instituted in a spirit of retaliation for King James's 'No toleration' manifesto, and the counsellors of royalty managed to make a good use of its failure to ingratiate themselves with the self-complaisant monarch by making him believe that it was only through his almost superhuman wisdom and foresight that England had been saved from calamity, that might have been worse than the success of the Spanish Armada would have been.

    The plot was hatched by a small group of Catholic extremists and was uncovered when a Catholic member of parliament was sent an anonymous letter telling him to stay away from the House on the appointed day. Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellars of parliament the day before the scheduled attack and betrayed his colleagues under torture. The leader of the plot, Robert Catesby, was killed while resisting arrest and the rest of the conspirators were captured and executed.

    Here in South Australia, where complete toleration and the absence of all official connection between the Church and the State are two principles firmly engrafted upon the national constitution, there would be just as much reason in denouncing by effigy-burning, or similar displays, the spirit of bigotry and persecution which prevailed in the early years of the 17th century, as in committing to the flames quantities of old clothes intended to represent a man who suffered on the scaffold for criminal designs which were really the outcome of the same spirit of hatred and intolerance.

    Three hundred years ago great pains were taken by statesmen to lay the foundations of commemorations intended to impress the minds of successive generations of young folk, and became closely incorporated into the life of the community. One of the most curious of the observances of this policy was the annual ceremony, which is still kept up, of 'beating the bounds' of the City of London.

    Originally, there was a good deal of cruelty in the way in which this usage was carried out, inasmuch as the boys, instead of being the whippers, as they are at the present day, were the whipped. Each victim selected was taken to some salient point of the city boundary and, after receiving several sharp strokes with a cane, was told, while the tears flowed freely from his eyes, to be sure and never forget the spot on which he had passed through his ordeal. In times when written civic records and charts were rare, this was regarded as a convenient and perfectly legitimate mode of preserving the memory of important base-lines of city surveys. Had the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day been organised after a similar fashion it is only questionable whether it would so long have preserved among the boys of England and South Australia so much of popularity as still clings to it.

    Even as it is, the spread of more liberal opinions, and the breaking down of religious and other barriers separating different sections of the community, have dealt this, and other senseless observances, their death blow. Indeed, today Guy Fawkes' Day has lost its meaning and sadly needs modernising in an enlightened spirit.

    The Adelaide Scene

    The 5th of November has been, for many years, a great day for the boys with their well-got-up guys. It was a brilliant sight in the 1880s to see them in flames at night below the Overway Bridge on the north Park Lands, close to Campbell's house, who was the park ranger.

    As I write in 1903, in a few days time Adelaide will celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. In all parts of the city and suburbs small boys are carefully cultivating the friendship of indulgent uncles, with one eye on the calendar and the other on the fireworks price list. Other youngsters have found sudden attractions in the wood pile and the lawn mower, paying these formerly shunned objects a wealth of attention that, it is to be feared cannot possibly outlast the first week of November. And parents, who know from experience the meaning of these signs, are left to chalk up further expense on the family budget.

    The windows of the shops displaying fireworks are an evergreen attraction for youth. They are a veritable Aladdin's palace of delight, with their painted slit-eyed mandarins and fearsome dragons and dainty Chinese maidens. There are queerly shaped packages, covered with stars and polka dots, that give forth serpents and jumping jacks and black devils. There are tall rockets that will be responsible for more than one pair of singed hands and monster cannons looking highly important in their scarlet livery, that are just the thing for placing under father's chair. What more could the average child want?

    'Penny for the guy, mister?' For three centuries this cry, with variations, has ushered in 5 November, epitomising in its brief request the childish love of the romance and glamour that lies behind Guy Fawkes Day. To adults it brings back memories of wide paddocks and blazing bonfires, of carefully treasured savings and gleeful purchase of fireworks.

    On 5 November 1903 a youngster accosted me - he was no more than six or seven and was arrayed in a cast-off suit of clothes, which looked more fit for the rag bag than the human frame. The trousers flapped around his boots and the disreputable old coat, green with age, hung about his knees.

    Evidently he took his masquerade seriously, for he had paid great attention to details his hands, wrists, and even the back of his neck, were daubed recklessly with burnt cork. But the most grotesque touch of all was given by the grinning, painted mask which covered the chubby face.

    It was the countenance of a wrinkled old man, a mask with red, bloated cheeks and leering sensual lips. As the queer figure bowed and dipped before me, I had the strange sensation that I was gazing upon some grotesque freak from the medieval courts, one of those monstrosities of the Florentine era, with the stunted body of a child and the mind and face of an obscene old man. But the eyes that peered through the cunning slits in the mask were the clear, dancing eyes of youth and at the moment they regarded me a trifle anxiously.

    'Only a penny, missus', asked the figure, encouragingly. 'Well, you certainly look a guy', I said, pressing some coppers into his hand. 'Who are you supposed to represent?' The two bright eyes behind the mask took on an expression of pained reproach. 'Why, missus, don't you know? I am Guy Fawkes.' He then turned to accost another passer-by.

    What would the renegade zealot, mouldering to dust while the centuries have passed over his sorry grave, have said could he but have seen this modern burlesque of himself? How cruelly ironical that the austerely religious Englishman, whose whole life was steeped in renunciation and grim severity, should come down through the ages as a clown, a mountebank, an object of scorn and derision and doomed to eternal burlesque so long as there are children on the earth to chant that ridiculous doggerel:

    On the night of 5 November 1903 I strolled past an empty paddock at Norwood, where a huge bonfire celebration was taking place. Here the carnival of youth was at its merriest. The shouts and cries of the children rose almost as high as the flaming rockets that spangled the night sky with bouquets of dazzling colours and stars. To the staccato crackling of fireworks, a band of happy youngsters joined hands and danced about the bonfire, and the red flames danced one above the other until their reflection was cast high into the air.

    Here, I reflected, was one of the great paradoxes of life that Guy Fawkes, who lived a sombre life and died a tragic death, should have his anniversary celebrated with dancing and coloured flares and the joyous laughter of youth. So thinking, I leaned idly on the fence and my thoughts flew back across three centuries of time to those dark, cruel days of the 17th century, when the world was younger, with all youth's intolerance and blind ignorance.

    The scene before my eyes changed slowly. The fierce glare of the fire dimmed until it gave out no more radiance than a flickering candle. The dancing figures faded one by one, but their shadows remained tall, black and distorted and these assumed the shape of men clothed in sombre garments and there before my eyes the events of 1605 unfolded before me. At the sight of the executions I swiftly averted my eyes and when I turned again the illusion had faded.

    The next day the casualties incident to the festivities came under official notice - a woman with a fractured skull, the deplorable result of a cracker explosion near a horse on the road to Glenelg; a youth with less serious head injuries who was thrown from his bicycle when a little girl dashed into the roadway wearing a mask; a man with one of his eyes injured by a cracker thrown by his own little daughter and another man badly burned on hands and forearms by the premature explosion of a miniature 'Mount Vesuvius'.

    This chapter of accidents renders it the less surprising that a suburban resident, charged yesterday with having shot at a boy during the excitement of Guy Fawkes Day, should have pleaded a desire to discourage the lad from the discharge of fireworks.

    The regular occurrence of more or less serious mishaps on this particular day needs occasion little surprise. It would be even less surprising, indeed, if the casualties were greater in number and graver in kind. 'Playing with gunpowder' was never esteemed a safe form of entertainment and the risks are necessarily intensified in proportion to the youth of the players.

    That no hapless child was blinded is a testimony to the occasional benignity of the laws of chance. In face of the erratic behaviour of badly-made fireworks, it would be absurd to attribute the frequent immunity from serious injury of the younger generation to anything but good fortune.


    Old customs die hard and the more meaningless they are the more tenacious are they of life. Why should young South Australians today go to the trouble of burning innumerable effigies because an aggrieved individual, three hundred years ago, endeavoured to blow up the House of Commons? If Guy Fawkes had succeeded in proroguing parliament in such unceremonious fashion there might be some sense in perpetually execrating his name - although, strictly, Catesby, the chief perpetrator in the Gunpowder Plot has the better claim to notoriety. As it is, there is no method whatever in the Fifth of November madness.

    The celebration owes the prolongation of its worthless existence entirely to small boys and their inborn love of noise - and pennies. The rights and wrongs of the matter worry him not at all. He may have merely a vague notion of the real Guy Fawkes as a person with fierce moustache and a cocked hat. His chief concern is how many coppers he can cadge for crackers. He arises bright and early on the eventful morning and his cry of 'Guy, Guy, stick him up high' recalls to many staid citizens the days when they exploded penny cannons with joyful enthusiasm.

    Manifestly, this nerve-shattering, money-wasting, senseless celebration should be abandoned, but it is not clear how its discontinuance is to be ensured, short of treating cracker-exploders as disturbers of the peace - and then prosecution would be deemed persecution and boys martyrs would be popular.

    Truly, the bonfires and explosions cause no greatness of life such as until lately attended the gory Fourth of July demonstration in America; but the latter, at least, has its origins in patriotism, whereas Guy Fawkes Day can give no satisfactory explanation of itself. The energy and expenditure attending the incineration of a nightmare effigy should be diverted into some patriotic channel and the name and fame of Guy Fawkes allowed to pass into obscurity.

    The juvenile population would be much better employed in celebrating Foundation Day or Empire Day with more patriotism and less noise. Australians, however, are the last people in the world to relinquish a custom which provides pleasure and excitement; and, unless the sale of crackers and similar 'instruments of the dead' should be legally forbidden, Guy Fawkes Day will die as slowly as rich men, whose sorrowful relatives are waiting to step into their shoes.

    General Notes

    A sketch is in the Pictorial Australian in
    November 1883, page 164.
    Guy Fawkes Day is the subject of comment in the Express,
    5 November 1866, page 2d,
    15 November 1879, page 5a,
    6 November 1888, page 5b,
    5 November 1896, page 4h,
    4 November 1911, page 12f.

    "Effects of Fireworks" is in the Observer,
    12 November 1870, page 8c.

    "Guy Fawkes Day - Delight of Children" in The Mail,
    5 November 1921, page 2g; also see
    5 and 9 November 1926, pages 8f and 8e,
    6 November 1928, pages 8f-10h,
    "Youth Remembers Guy Fawkes" in The Mail,
    26 October 1929, page 16,
    30 October 1937, page 26c,
    5 November 1929, page 5a,
    7 November 1930, page 6d,
    The News,
    4 November 1933,
    1 November 1934, page 14h.

    Miscellany - Choose again


    "Hypnotism, or the New Mesmerism" is in the Register,
    9 August 1890, page 4g,
    "Experiment in Hypnotism" on
    16 and 25 October 1890, pages 5b and 5b,
    3 November 1890, page 4g,
    "Spiritualism and Hypnotism" is in the Register,
    17, 24, 26 and 27 May 1893, pages 4g, 6d, 3e-6d and 4g,
    "Hypnotism and Fraud" in the
    23 December 1899, page 6h,
    30 December 1899, page 25b.

    Hypnotism is discussed in the Observer,
    8 and 15 November 1890, pages 29d and 15a,
    14 November 1892, page 4g,
    29 April 1895, page 6e and
    "Hypnotism - Practical Notes" in the Register on
    21 December 1903, page 6g.

    "Hypnotism Alias Mesmerism" is in the Register,
    17 December 1895, pages 4g-6h.

    "Wonderful Hypnotism - A Chat With a Man who was Buried Alive" on the Glenelg beach is in the Advertiser,
    3 January 1907, page 8e.

    "Hypnotism and Health" is in the Register, 4 March 1922, page 6d.

    Miscellany - Choose again


    "The Science of Kissing" is in The Lantern,
    31 May 1884, page 9 and
    a poem titled "Kisses!' on
    9 May 1885, page 23.

    "The Dangers of Kissing" is in the Register,
    8 and 22 January 1895, pages 6h and 7e,
    12 January 1895, page 28c.

    "Anti-Kissing" is the subject of an editorial in the Register,
    21 October 1911, page 12d:

    "Kissing Dangers Negligible" is in the Observer,
    31 August 1929, page 59d.

    "Is Kissing Dangerous" is discussed in the Advertiser, 26 August 1932, page 18f:

    Miscellany - Choose again