Written by Isabelle Osbourne, Third year BA English

On Friday 5 November, people across the country will be celebrating Bonfire Night. Traditionally, it is a time to observe a spectacular display of fireworks, toast marshmallows and enjoy toffee apples, wave sparklers in the night sky, and watch a bonfire burning straw dummies.

This blog has everything you need to know about what Bonfire Night is, why it is celebrated, and how you can observe it in 2021.

What is Bonfire Night, and why do we celebrate it?

Amid the celebratory atmosphere, the history behind Bonfire Night can often be obscured. 

Also known as ‘Guy Fawkes Day’ and ‘Fireworks Night’, Bonfire Night is an annual celebration, primarily observed within the United Kingdom. The day commemorates Guy Fawkes’ infamous plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. 

In 1605, Fawkes was part of a conspiracy to blow up King James I and his government. It is said the plot was rooted in religious tension: England was a Protestant country at the time, whilst Fawkes and the other plotters were Catholic. By blowing up the King and his government, the plotters envisioned replacing the Protestant government with a Catholic government.

The plotters stationed 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath the Houses of Parliament in London; it comes as no surprise that the plot came to be known as the Gunpowder Plot. However, Lord Monteagle, a member of the House of Lords, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5, the day the plotters had planned to set off the explosion. Suspicions were raised, and Fawkes was eventually found with the explosives only hours before they were to be set off.

Fawkes and his other co-conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in London, and the plot is commemorated on November 5 every year.

Four facts about Bonfire Night

1. Guy Fawkes was not the ring-leader of the Gunpowder Plot:

Robert Catesby was the principle organiser of the Plot, though he is often left out of a narrative that associates Fawkes as the predominant conspirator. 

2. Bonfire Night has not always been celebrated annually:

The Defence of the Realm Act (1914) was a parliamentary act that aimed to protect citizens during the war by ensuring the enemy did not know where they were. As part of the Act, it was prohibited to light bonfires and set off fireworks during the first and second World Wars.

3. Fireworks were invented by accident:

Gunpowder was formed after a group of Chinese scientists accidentally mixed certain chemicals together, thousands of years ago. The product was placed in old bamboo stalks and thrown onto a fire, making a loud bang; these are thought to be the first fireworks invented. 

It was not until the 1830s when Italian inventors invented a casing that allowed them to send fire fireworks into the air, and different metallic powders were mixed in order to create the different coloured explosions we see today.

4. The anxieties surrounding the Gunpowder Plot are still alive today:

It is still tradition for the Yeoman of the Guard to check the cellars below the Houses of Parliament before each State Opening of Parliament.

Where can you watch fireworks?

London is alive with fireworks on Bonfire Night, and there’s plenty of choice when it comes to watching a display.

On Bonfire Night: 

Wimbledon Park: There’ll be music, fireworks, rides, and different food stalls to enjoy.

Totteridge Millhillians: With food, beverages, a bonfire, and fireworks, make sure to head over to North London for a fantastic evening.

And of course, Primrose Hill nearby is a great place to watch the fireworks. Take a blanket though!

After Bonfire Night:

Battersea Park, Nov 6-7: This is London's biggest firework display south of the Thames. The Saturday display will be accompanied by a traditional bonfire and afterparty, whilst the Sunday is tailored to the family, with an earlier start time and entertainment for kids. 

Alexandra Palace Fireworks Festival (‘Ally Pally’), Nov 6: With a stunning view of the city, head to Ally Pally’s to enjoy an ice disco, a German beer festival, music from Trevor Nelson and, of course, a spectacular light show.

Other venues include: Beckenham Fireworks at Croydon Road Recreation (Nov 6), Barnes Sports Club (Nov 6), Bexley Fireworks (Nov 6), and Richmond Fireworks (Nov 7).

There will also be lots of firework displays this week and following Bonfire Night in celebration of Diwali, a five-day “Festival of Lights” celebrated internationally by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. The Diwali Fireworks Display in Harrow will be happening on November 11, and there’ll also be dancers and singers to watch, plus henna hand art and face painting to get involved with.

Staying safe on Bonfire Night:

You may wish to host your own Bonfire Night celebration this year. It’s important to prioritise your safety and the safety of those around you: NHS Digital recorded almost 2,000 visits to A&E in connection to fireworks in 2018/19. It’s also crucial to ensure your celebrations are carried out in line with the correct procedures. Here are some key things to remember:

  • If you’re setting off fireworks, you must do so within the confines of your own home, as it is illegal to set off fireworks in public areas.
  • Whilst it is against the law to set off fireworks between the hours of 11pm and 7am, there are exceptions: you can set fireworks off until midnight on Bonfire Night, and 01:00 on Diwali.
  • Used fireworks may still have gunpowder in them, so do not throw them onto a bonfire. Soak unused or damaged fireworks in water before placing them in a plastic bag and then into a bin.
  • Bear in mind pets and wildlife during your Bonfire Night celebration. Warn neighbours of your plans in advance if they have pets, and check your bonfire for wildlife before you light it. 

Bonfire Night is a time to celebrate with friends and family, so why not head out to a firework display, enjoy some delicious sweet treats and keep warm around a bonfire this week?