Bonfire Night

The image above is shown with the permission of Bill Bullock

I haven't been to a Bonfire Night celebration in more than 40 years so I cannot talk about Bonfire Night in the 90s. I did take my 3 year old daughter to a wonderful display on Bonfire Night at Akley Head in Durham in 1981 but that is something quite different from my childhood experience that was all tied up with collecting bonny-wood - building a guy - lighting a fire in the pouring rain - excitement in dark streets - treacle toffee and parkin.

I suppose that Bonfire Night was the night that every fireman dreaded. In Holt Street we had a croft on the corner that was ideal for building a bonfire without too much chance that we would burn down the street. The people in Edlin Street had their fire in the "back" between the houses which was "grass" and dirt covered and much wider than your run-of-the-mill back entry. I know that because we used to sneak over there during the course of the evening to steal their bonny-wood when ours started running short. In streets with no croft and no back though it wasn't unusual for people to put a fire in the middle of the street and it wasn't unheard of for the fire brigade to come and put it out much to the dismay of all and sundry.

On the other hand, Bonfire Night must have been a God-send to people wanting to get rid of old and broken furniture. Guys often went to their maker sitting comfortably in someone's old comfy chair.

I didn't know this when I was little but it fell to the older kids on the street to make the bonfire work. They were the ones who went out, sometimes as early as the summer holiday to collect the bonny-wood and store it for the big night. I remember one summer scouring everywhere and coming home with all sorts, from a life-sized cardboard lady from an advertising display at a chemists on Hyde Road, to wooden crates from a green grocer on Stockport Road. Probably the two most unpopular items we collected were several wooden kipper crates from a fishmongers on Stockport Road which for some reason no one wanted and the best part of a big tree with leaves attached that we pinched from over near High Street Baths. Now I say pinched because we waited until the bloke who was cutting down the tree went in his house and we pounced, grabbing several huge branches and running like "Billy-O" down the streets to home, leaving a trail of broken twigs and leaves behind us. Of course the bloke must have thought he'd died and gone to heaven when he came back out and found that some Good Samaritan had taken away all the branches he had cut off. The clean-up was a lot shorter than he expected. We had to go to a number of houses before we got anyone to store this bonny-wood but eventually my friend Jeff's Mam agreed. Going to the lavie was like going for a trek through the Amazon at their house for the next few weeks. As the time approached we had little piles of boxes and scrap wood on the roofs of lavies and in the corners of backyards around our street.

The next item on the agenda was making a guy, so we could get out there and beg for coppers to buy fireworks. You really needed an old trolley, a pram or a bogie too so you could be more mobile. I don't remember our guys being too elaborate just a pair of trousers and an old shirt stuffed with newspapers, a mask used for the face and a hat scrounged from somewhere.

The expensive item was, of course, the fireworks. Mithering your Mam and Dad was a major activity for weeks before to ensure you got at least a good sized selection box. In addition, it was running errands, taking back bottles and blowing all of your spends at Bills to buy rip-raps, Catherine wheels, volcanoes, bangers, Roman candles, sparklers and of course rockets, that Bill put away in a box for you until the night in question.

Cats and dogs hated Bonfire Night too. In my day kids would drop bangers or rip-raps through unprotected letter boxes and scare old ladies and pets. People taped up their letter boxes to avoid the shock and the possibility of a fire. Radio warned all owners to keep their pets in-doors.

My Mam got ready for Bonfire Night by making toffee apples, butter caramel, treacle toffee and baking parkin. Some people baked spuds in the fire in the ends of sticks.

The big thing each year was getting the fire going and it was the big topic of conversation at school, especially if it was raining on the day. Talk of putting firelighters in with the paper, meths on the wood or even petrol were common although almost always vetoed by the grown-ups. I remember rainy Bonfire Nights but I don't remember a year that we didn't get the fire going.

One year my Dad, who worked at Belle Vue, found himself walking home with a large newspaper parcel under his arm that, to his amazement, when he opened it at home, contained several large fireworks that had been intended for the Firework Presentation at Belle Vue. On the night, he was going to be the "Pièce de résistance" with a huge Catherine wheel and a large rocket. I was told all night, "Be patient, we are waiting for it to get really dark before we let them off." Guess who fell asleep before the show?

In the morning the pile on the croft would still be smoldering and in amongst the ashes you could see the metalwork of the furniture we cremated the night before. The street would be littered with the fragments of the fireworks we exploded the night before, including carelessly abandoned milk bottles used as launching pads for rockets. I don't remember anyone getting injured on our street, no bangers dropped down shirt backs, no misdirected Roman candles, no house fires. I do remember great fun, lots of oos-and-ahs and great treacle toffee and parkin I haven't had the like of since.