Guy Fawkes Night traditions in Derbyshire

Chapel-en-le-Frith bonfire back in the day

Chapel-en-le-Frith bonfire back in the day - Credit: Archant

‘Remember, remember, the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason Should ever be forgot.’

Middleton-by-Wirksworth - where gunpowder formerly spiced up Bonfire Night

Middleton-by-Wirksworth - where gunpowder formerly spiced up Bonfire Night - Credit: Archant

Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, is still widely celebrated across the UK, with some degree of regional variation. Up in York, they aren’t keen on burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on their bonfires, what with him having been a local boy. Down in Sussex, they really go to town, with several Bonfire Societies organising costumed parades through their home towns involving pyrotechnics and flaming torches, climaxing in huge fires, throughout ‘Bonfire Season’, lasting from September to November. In Derbyshire, whilst we don’t have anything quite so spectacular, my researches into local folklore have thrown up some interesting local quirks.

Whilst Guy Fawkes’ failed plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament did indeed take place on November 5 1605, bonfires have been burning at this time of year for far longer. The Pagan Celtic festival of Samhein, marking the end of the harvest season and the onset of the long dark nights of winter, was held between October 31 and November 1. November 2 was All Souls Day and it was thought by our ancestors this was the time of the year which people had the closest contact with their dead relatives (a belief that can also be seen in the Mexico’s Day of the Dead, held on this day).

The antiquarian journal The Reliquary records that on All Souls Night in Derbyshire children constructed fires known as ‘Tindles’, and in the 1944 volume of the Derbyshire Archaeological Journal William Holden notes the boys and girls of the South Derbyshire village of Findern lit their Tindle fires amongst the gorse of the local common on this night. Christina Hole in English Traditional Customs relates that Derbyshire farmers also held their own small ceremonial Tindle fires at Hallowtide, taking a clutch of flaming straw on the end of their pitchfork which they carried to the highest point of their land and flung far and wide, the purpose of this ritual being ‘to purify the soil and guard it against evil, and to make the crops grow in due course.’

The archaeologist Dr Anne Ross presented evidence of people in the remoter areas of the High Peak and Longdendale Valley who still practiced elements of pre-Christian religions and marked the important Pagan calendar festivals with ceremonial bonfires in a 1977 BBC Chronicle documentary ‘Twilight of the English Celts’, noting that outsiders were strictly forbidden at these events.

Thor Cakes - Mays Tea Rooms, Wirksworth

Thor Cakes - Mays Tea Rooms, Wirksworth - Credit: Archant

It is clear to see how elements of the old Pagan feast of Samhein have become split off and grafted on to our modern practises of both Halloween and Bonfire Night, which now occur around the same time.

Benjamin Bryan, in his 1903 book Matlock Manor and Parish, writes Matlock Bath went to town for Bonfire Night until the mid-19th century, constructing a huge communal bonfire. In the weeks leading up to November 5 local young men were tasked with collecting fallen branches from surrounding woods to contribute towards its construction. Bryan claims that one year the fire was of such gigantic proportions that it didn’t stop burning for a week. In addition to the usual accompanying fireworks, at Matlock Bath miniature cannons and iron pistols were also fired. According to Bryan, it was the establishment of the local police force that led to the demise of these raucous festivities.

Most Read

Another account of the local authorities reining matters in comes from Middleton-by-Youlgrave, where large fires were held in the village square each Bonfire Night, with visitors standing on their doorsteps to observe. It was, however, the bonfire the village constructed to celebrate VE Day that proved the step too far, as it melted the tarmac on the recently resurfaced road, leading to the local council to issue a decree banning any further fires in the square.

Crichton Porteous relates in The Ancient Customs of Derbyshire (1976) that at Chapel-en-le-Frith in the first half of the 20th century it was the custom of the townspeople to bring material for their large communal bonfire to store in the Market Place in the weeks leading up to the event. In 1935 an unnamed official took umbrage to this practice and ordered the fuel to be removed to the local tip. Undeterred, locals scoured the area on the morning of November 5 for alternative combustibles including old wooden house beams, and produced a bigger fire than the one originally intended -the resulting heat split nearby plate glass shop windows. In a less heritage conscious-age than our own, the bonfire was constructed around the medieval market cross, in the words of Porteous ‘seriously impairing it’.

Thor (Thar) Cakes -Tindalls of Tideswell

Thor (Thar) Cakes -Tindalls of Tideswell - Credit: Archant

The quality of the stone from Middleton-by-Wirksworth’s quarries is so highly regarded it has ended up in the construction of some of the country’s best-known buildings including Chatsworth House, the Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, and the Bank of England. Barbara Haywood recalled in her memoirs of village life A Rake Through the Past that in the early years of the 20th century Bonfire Night celebrations were spiced up here thanks to the stock-in-trade of the local industry, as the quarrymen ‘borrowed’ quantities of gunpowder used during shot firing in the run-up to November. The gunpowder was donated to the young lads of the village who laid a trail of powder down the main street and set it alight, resulting in a series of miniature explosions running from one end to the other.

Joseph M. Severn records a similar memory of a gunpowder-enhanced Bonfire Night as a boy in the coalfields of the Amber Valley in My Village: Owd Codnor, where at a secluded area of terraced housing called Daykins Row, ‘they had the biggest bonfires on Guy Fawkes nights of any in the locality. As most of the boys’ fathers and brothers were pit workers, there was always a plentiful supply of gunpowder, and the laying of long powder trains, the firing of rudely made cannons, the letting off of squibs, the roar and blaze of a great fire, and the roasting of potatoes, made this an outstanding event’.

Speaking of food, another Derbyshire peculiarity around Bonfire Night was the making and eating of Thor or Tharf Cake, made with oatmeal, treacle and ginger and taking either the form of a parkin-like cake or biscuit, depending on which recipe is followed. The traditional geographic stronghold for this recipe seems to be the Derbyshire Dales: an article on local county recipes written by someone credited simply as ‘a Derbyshire W. I. Member’ in a 1934 edition of this magazine noted that the dish was back then still made in Bakewell and Wirksworth and, noting Thor was a Norse god, speculated the cakes could be a tradition dating back to the Danish invasion of Derbyshire of the 9th century before going on to rationalise, ‘or is this the too tempting conclusion against which local historians have always to be guarded’.

Crichton Porteous writing in 1976 noted as regards baking Thor Cake at home, ‘A few old people in Matlock and around still keep this up’. I wrote to the Matlock Mercury just after Bonfire Night 2015 and Derbyshire Times in early 2016 to see if anyone in the Matlock area still made the traditional dish as part of their Bonfire celebrations, but failed to draw any response from the townsfolk (I would of course be interested to hear via the Letters to the Editor page if any Derbyshire Life readers do).

It is still possible to sample this traditional seasonal dish should you so desire, however – and all year round, too – if you pay a visit to either Wirksworth, where May’s Tea Rooms on Coldwell Street regularly bake them; or Tideswell, where Tindalls Bakery also have them in stock year-round (along with Wakes Cakes, another regional sweet treat which were traditionally baked for the village’s Wakes Week), opting to go with the spelling ‘Thar’.

Another establishment to have revived the seasonal baking of Thor Cake are Staceys Bakery who have branches in Ilkeston and Heanor. Bakery Director David Stacey is clearly a man unafraid of an eye-catching publicity stunt, having gamely dressed up as Thor to promote the product.

If this article inspires you to revive a Derbyshire tradition and bake up a batch of this local dish yourself for Bonfire Night, then authoress Alison Uttley who grew up at Castle Top Farm near Cromford supplies two different recipes (one collected from a Carsington farm kitchen), in her 1966 book Recipes From an Old Farmhouse (reprinted in a posthumous updated edition in 2010 as Old Farmhouse Recipes). Uttley notes Thor Cakes were consumed during the Wakes Week as well as in November, when they were eaten outside with mugs of warm milk or spiced elderberry wine.

The Sussex Bonfire societies have a tradition of making huge effigies depicting public figures who have inflamed public ire during the year of their creation. The nearest Derbyshire gets to these raucous displays of anti-authoritarianism is in the Plague Village of Eyam where, since the mid-2000s, a large effigy of a rat constructed of willow and paper is paraded to cries of ‘burn the rat’ accompanied by a torchlit procession and marching band, before being cast onto the bonfire, which is sited on Hawkhill Road. This ritual marks a symbolic act of revenge on the London rodent who hosted the fleas carrying the Bubonic Plague which arrived in Eyam in 1665 inside a parcel of tailor’s cloth from the capital where the disease was raging.

Writing in the 1870s, the antiquarian Thomas Ratcliffe of Coxbench gives a fascinating flavour of how Bonfire Night was celebrated in a South Derbyshire village in the 19th century, including the making and parading of a Guy: ‘For weeks previously the youngsters hoarded up the halfpence, to be when the time came, invested in small brass cannon, powder, squibs, crackers, and whatnot. A few days before the Fifth, the effigy of ‘Guy Fox’ [sic] was made up. Very villainous-looking was he made, the whole resources of boy-art being brought into requisition to effect that end. On the morning of that day, the effigy was carried round the district, seated in, and tied to, a chair; from one hand dangled the traditional lantern. A cart and horse accompanied the guy, when practicable, to carry away the heavy contributions, such as lumps of coal and logs of wood, for every house was solicited to give ‘summut to’ard th’ bun-fire hole.’ It was a general rule for each house to contribute either a few pence or something to burn.’ W. Walker in A History of Tideswell recounts a little rhyme which was recited there on November the 5th as the children toured the houses begging for fuel to put on their bonfires:

‘Coal, coal, a bonfire hole, A stick and a stake For King George’s sake. If you please will you give me a penny, For my bonfire hole.’

Although this practice had died out by the time Walker recorded it in 1951.

Eyam aside, it is rare nowadays to see children publicly exhibiting their Guy Fawkes effigy and collecting a few pennies by doing ‘Penny for the Guy’, a formerly widespread practice which has probably died out due to a combination of factors including stigma about any custom involving collecting money being viewed as ‘begging’, and it being seen as less acceptable for children to be out and about on the streets unaccompanied, something which was far more common up until around the 1970s. So it stopped me in my tracks when out shopping in the Hillsborough branch of Morrisons in Sheffield during school half-term holidays in 2018 when I spotted a group of three lads aged somewhere between eight and ten exhibiting their guy, which consisted of some stuffed children’s clothes for the body and a Halloween mask for the head. I returned the day after with my camera to find them there again, and they tipped me off that there was another guy exhibited outside the Southey Green Co-Op which I duly went along and photographed. I returned to Southey Green the following year where again another child could be seen out collecting with their guy outside the shop. Hillsborough and Southey Green are largely working class areas of north Sheffield where it would seem old traditions die hard – all credit to these Sheffield children for keeping a tradition and childhood rite of passage going (and their parents for giving them permission).

Again, I would love to hear from readers if anyone has come across children doing Penny for the Guy in Derbyshire in recent times – although any sightings from the village of Lea circa 1995 would probably have to be discounted: around this time myself and some classmates from secondary school decided to go out Penny for the Guying and wheeled our ‘Guy’ from house to house in a wheelbarrow. ‘Isn’t it realistic’, the residents cooed as they peered out into the November gloom admiring the prostrate figure in the wheelbarrow. It was extremely realistic – and with good reason: it was in fact not a Guy at all, but a real-life teenage boy wearing old clothes and keeping very still. Sorry, readers in Lea – it wasn’t my idea, honest…