The displays of Bonfire night were originally a demonstration against the Catholic Guy Fawkes and his “Gunpowder plot” of 1605. This acquired a special meaning in Witham with the visit in 1851 of the newly appointed Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Wiseman. He came to open the new Catholic church (then near the Catholic bridge). On 5th November in both 1850 and 1851, lifelike effigies of the Cardinal were paraded and then thrown on the bonfire. In 1851 he was joined in the flames by a figure dressed as the devil, and another representing the vicar of Witham, Reverend John Bramston, who was thought by many people to be close to Catholicism.
However, Guy Fawkes celebrations in Victorian times were more usually just an excuse for revels and noise. These often began in the early morning. So in Witham in 1869, guns and cannon were “fired in the public highway as early as 4.30 a.m.” Constable Rahill managed to take in a “lad” called James Brown, said to have been loading the cannon with gunpowder, but the magistrates decided there was no proof that he had fired anything.
For the rest of the day, the focus of activity would be a huge bonfire in the centre of Newland Street. This was tended by men in disguise, the “Guys”. It was fortified by barrels of tar stolen from the gas works on the corner of Mill Lane, together with any flammable objects available to be stolen. There was usually “a good deal of squibbing & noise”. Squibs were similar to today’s fireworks but fuelled by gunpowder. The wide part of Newland Street where large bonfires were traditionally lit for special events and celebrations. This photo dates from about 1900.
There was always a chance of riot and violence. The newsagent’s shop on the corner of Guithavon Street was often a target (now number 70 Newland Street). On the photo it is the second building from the left with a white horizontal stripe. In 1869 its windows were broken, curtains set alight, and lighted tar barrels rolled up to its walls. Windows were also broken at the White Hart Inn. But “after a time the violence ceased, and the town resumed its wonted quietness and peace”. A reward was offered “for the discovery of the persons who stole the fencing from the meadow in Mill-lane”. Later it was said that “Witham has been somewhat notorious for many years for turbulence and mischief on Gunpowder Treason night”
Our grandparents’ generation knew of similar activities. Everyone remembered the ‘huge fire’ which was at the corner of Guithavon Street as before. Some recalled that it was the young doctors, Ted and Karl Gimson, who took charge. Mrs Gladys Baker (nee Brewster, born in 1897) said “they were proper little devils, yes, the Gimsons, they used to get barrels of tar and one thing and another”. If the residents didn’t take their wooden clothes props indoors, they’d be stolen for the fire. There is a story that the revellers once picked up a wooden privy (outdoor toilet) and threatened to put it on the fire with its occupant still in it. I suppose this might be an “urban myth” ! There was usually another fire on Chipping Hill green.
A combination of increasing traffic and the Second World War eventually subdued these events. Then during the 1960s the Round Table began their organised firework displays, first of all near Chipping Hill, then in the Park, and now at the Rugby Club.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in November 2010