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Exeter folk and friends in their own words - 1890's to the 1990's │ << Previous story │ Next story >> │

Guy Fawkes Orgies
by Fred R Spark - from Memories of My Life


Exciting and fiery scenes were frequent in the Cathedral Yard. The fifth of November was, of course, a great event in the ultra-Protestant city, and “Young Exeter” believed implicitly that their bonfires, their forceful hand-rockets, their Roman candles, their Bengal lights, their Rappers etc, effectually prevented the advent in this country of the “Scarlett Lady”. This fiery orgie was not without its dangers.

The hand-rockets were formidable weapons – half and three-quarters of an inch in diameter. For many weeks prior to that night every boy and every adult up to a certain age was engaged in making rockets and rappers. The inside rocket case must be a very smooth and stout paper, and the best we could find was taken from our annual specimen school copies-books. These rockets were forceful fireworks, and I do need to say were the cause of many serious injuries and even deaths on the many Fifths of November in which I revelled. In proof of danger, every window in the Cathedral Yard was boarded up, for if one of those rockets were sent flying through a window the house would inevitably be set on fire. The issue from a rocket was a fierce white heat. So dazzling was the rocket-flame that the “letter-off” had to run, holding the arm of a companion, as he himself could not see where he was going. To protect his hand from being injured in case of a rocket-burst, a thickly padded stout leather glove reaching half-way up to the elbow was used, or a thick stick, grooved on the top, in which the rocket was held by a leather strap brought down into the right hand. As soon as the rocket began to fizz, away ran the two fellows down from St Martin’s Church toward St Petrock’s at the other extreme end of the Cathedral Yard. When the rocket was about three-quarters burnt, it was thrown by him, and woe be to that unhappy brave should the rocket strike, or come so close to him as to set his clothes on fire.

There are always, on such a saturnalia as this, some foolhardy young people who, despite great danger, will assemble to witness the orgie, and there was one rendezvous in particular where girls would gather. It was a large porch-way on the North-East side of the Cathedral, leading to a large, occupied in my younger days by a Miss Nutcombe, an old and generous-minded maiden. Into this porch-way that’s occupied, rockets would be deliberately thrown by ill-minded youths. The screaming was of course fierce, and I remember a girl on one occasion was so badly burned that her life was sacrificed.

Impressed on my memory are several shocking accidents occurring on Fifth of November nights. A youth, unconscious of danger, carried some rockets in his trousers pocket, the touch-end downwards. The usual way was to carry the rockets in the tin box make for the purpose. My pals and I kept our stock in an almshouse in St Catherine Street. We fetched them thence two or three at a time. By some means the rockets carried by the youth caught fire, and his bowels were literally burnt away in a minute or two. Death of a most horrible nature followed.

A great feature of this Guy Fawkes’ Day (or night) was a rolling tar-barrel. I am now speaking of a time when the old “Charlies” were the custodians of the peace, before Sir Robert Peel’s “Bobbies”. The several entrances to the Cathedral Yard were called “gates” – though actual gates no longer existed. On Fifth of November nights, “Young Exeter”, as the youths were termed, had great delight in these tar-barrels, and contrary to local bye-laws they sought to rush them out of the yard into the most frequented highways. The Charlies, in long great-coats and armed with pikes seven or eight feet long, placed themselves on the outside of the gates, and there were continual struggles between them. This contest was carried out generally with good humour, but occasionally a heated youth would lose his temper. During one of these contests a daring young fellow took the burning barrel in his hands and hurled it upon the civic defenders – one of whom was severely burnt. Rushing down towards the grand great Western front of the Cathedral to be out of danger, a man got up on the railings and held onto the arm of one of the sculptured Apostles. On leaning forward to see the sport, the stone arm gave way. The poor fellow fell onto the spiked railings and was severely injured.

Exeter Cathedral Library and Archive © 2013

Guy Fawkes Night 1882Guy Fawkes Night was still celebrated in Cathedral Close in 1882.

Fred R Spark was born in 1831. He was a brother of Dr William Spark, a pupil of Samuel Sebastion Wesley.

Re-published by permission of Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives

The Exeter Cathedral Website

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