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Remember, remember the 5th of November?

Posted on 13 October 2017

When Brits did Bonfire Night not Halloween

For Brits in the 1950s and 1960s, there was only one big event in late autumn to get excited about and that was Bonfire Night. Halloween as it is today, in all its commercial glory, was still a uniquely American festivity.

In 21st century Britain, Bonfire Night is celebrated at an organised event with plenty of precautions in place. But let’s forget professional firework displays and safety barriers for a moment and remember when the 5th of November was a truly hands-on affair. When all you had to rely was common sense… and a bit of luck!

Enjoy this very warm look back at those cold but magical late autumn nights of fire and fireworks.

Halloween was a bit of a turnip

Forget trick or treat in shop-bought skeleton costumes and pumpkin onesies. At its best, Halloween was dunking your head in a bowl of freezing water to catch an apple in your teeth, wearing mum and dad’s old clothes. If you were lucky you got to carry a lantern carved from a turnip.

Person dressed as a witch holding a carved turnip
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Penny for the guy

But Halloween was only a minor distraction before the main event. Kids fashioned effigies of Guy Fawkes stuffed with straw, then proudly wheeled them through the neighbourhood in an old pram or wheelbarrow crying ‘penny for the guy’. Any money they raised got blown on bangers and jumping jacks. Pardon the pun.

3 boys pushing a guy in a pram down the street
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

“Light up the sky with Standard fireworks”

Remember that jingle? A whole fortnight before Bonfire Night the local newsagent would start displaying fireworks in the shop window. Kids would press against the window to marvel at the Catherine wheels, roman candles and half a crown Standard boxes, knowing they could only afford the penny bangers and jumping jacks.

Group of children admiring a window display of fireworks
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Competitive bonfire building

Building the bonfire was a very serious business. For weeks, nothing combustible was safe from the grabbing hands of opportunistic kids, intent on creating the best bonfire in the neighbourhood. Kids would even guard their ever-growing pile to prevent rivals from putting a match to it before the big event.

Group of children adding wood to a large bonfire
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Fire lighting antics

When November 5th finally came, the fun began as soon as it was dark. The guy would be delicately seated on top of the wooden pyre and then it was time to light it. Failing to get it lit wasn’t an option so if the wood was wet, drastic measures were called for. When Dad finally went for the paraffin, it was time to take cover!

Silhouettes of children standing in front of a glowing bonfire
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Toffee apples and togetherness

Everyone brought food to share around the fire – parkin and bangers of the edible variety. Potatoes would be roasted in the ashes and always managed to taste delicious despite never being fully cooked. Hot soup kept everyone warm in the cold night air and toffee apples were a sweet treat for the kids.

Young girl in striped dress eating a toffee apple
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Safety first

Boxes of fireworks were kept under the watchful eye of a responsible adult. An adult so responsible they launched rockets from milk bottles using the glow of a cigarette. Or hurriedly nailed a Catherine wheel to the fence and seemed surprised when it spun off towards the crowd at a hundred miles an hour, sparks akimbo.

A man lighting a firework surrounded by children
AA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

And finally… sparklers

The shouts and screams of excited kids followed every bang as fireworks lit up the night sky. When all the fireworks were over, the kids were allowed to light sparklers on the embers of the fire and write their names in the darkness. Singed hair, scorched hands and sparks down the wellies all added to the thrill of the occasion.

A delighted looking boy writing rings with a sparkler
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

What did you get up to on Bonfire Night? Were there plenty of near misses? And did you go hunting for empty firework shells the next day? If we’ve sparked your memories of Bonfire Night when you were a kid, we’d love to hear your stories.

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Here's the information that you need to know about who we are and the other companies that we work with in order to provide our products and services.

Who are SunLife?

Phoenix Life Limited trades as SunLife and is the provider of the Guaranteed Over 50 Plan, SunLife Insurance and the life insurance policy payment option for Funeral Plans. Phoenix Life Limited’s registered office is at 1 Wythall Green Way, Wythall, Birmingham, B47 6WG (registered in England, no. 1016269). Dignity Funerals is not authorised or regulated for this activity by either the Financial Conduct Authority or the Prudential Regulation Authority. Dignity Funerals Ltd is a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors.

SunLife Limited distributes financial products and services and is a company limited by shares, registered office: 1 Wythall Green Way, Wythall, Birmingham, B47 6WG (registered in England, no. 05460862). SunLife Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and is entered on the Financial Services Register (registration no. 769427).

You can contact us by post at SunLife, PO Box 1395, Peterborough, PE2 2TR or by phone on 0800 008 6060.

If you choose to add Funeral Benefit Option to your Guaranteed Over 50 Plan the funeral services are arranged and provided by Dignity Funerals Limited. Dignity Funerals Limited is a company registered in England and Wales No. 00041598. VAT registered No. 486 6081 14. 4 King Edwards Court, King Edwards Square, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, B73 6AP. Telephone No. 0121 354 1557. Fax No. 0121 355 808. Part of Dignity plc. A British Company. Dignity is not authorised or regulated for this activity by the Financial Conduct Authority or the Prudential Regulation Authority but is a member of the National Association of Funeral Directors.

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Hugh James is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA Number:303202).

The information contained on this website is based on Hugh James' understanding of the law of intestacy in England and Wales only as at April 2014. The law in Scotland and Northern Ireland is significantly different. This is for information purposes and is not intended to be legal advice.

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SunLife Family Life Insurance is provided by Scottish Friendly Assurance Society Limited which is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. Details can be found on the Financial Services register (registration number 110002). Registered Office: Scottish Friendly House, 16 Blythswood Square, Glasgow G2 4HJ. 

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