Penny for the Guy and other forgotten Guy Fawkes Night traditions.

Before we go anywhere, have you read my old post Remember, Remember The 5th Of November which explains all the glorious goings on behind Bonfire Night / Guy Fawkes Night or simple Fireworks night. If not, please do 🙂 and come back here afterwards.

Bonfire night has changed a lot even from when I was little.  Do you remember, remember how it used to be on the 5th of November?

Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes, has changed over the years from an event mostly celebrated by individual families to one when huge communal firework displays are the most popular way to celebrate.

Most changes have been driven by health and safety concerns, means that some traditions have been lost.


Most celebrations are organised these days, often by councils, sometimes by charities, but in the past any bit of land could be used by children to make a bonfire. There used to be a tradition that wood and other combustible material, obtained from every possible source, was piled up at an appropriate site and set alight on November 5th.

Unfortunately many were set alight earlier than intended and many a bonfire has been “requisitioned” and broken down to make a rival’s bonfire bigger and better.

Fire Brigades warn against individual bonfires, preferring people to attend organised events, because of the potential for danger.

The effigy in the middle of the bonfire was supposed to represent Guy Fawkes but in recent times have broadened out to include any figure of hate or ridicule.

I think I’ve only ever been to one organised public fireworks event, standing in huge crowds not being able to see much and taking ages to disperse isn’t my idea of fun.  I’d much rather enjoy one at home with a hot jacket potato or some roasted chestnuts.

Push Penny

This is a much less well known custom that has origins with Durham Cathedral. November 5th was one of three times in the year when money was thrown into the crowd.

The other days were January 30th, the anniversary of King Charles’ death, and Oak Apple Day on May 29th. A total of 20 shillings in copper was thrown to the crowds on each occasion.


November 5th was a gift to makers of fireworks who quickly cottoned on to the fact that their products would make an ideal contribution to the celebration as well as being a huge money-spinner for themselves.

Little children were given sparklers to hold, older ones helped pin Catherine Wheels to a suitable surface, and Dads set off fireworks in the garden or a communal piece of land.

Everyone dressed in warm clothes, hat, and scarf as it wasn’t long ago when early November used to be freezing cold rather than the luke-warm period between summer and winter.

Penny for the Guy

Children used to make a guy – representing Guy Fawkes – with old rags and parade him around the town in a wheelbarrow asking for a “penny for the guy” before he ended up on a bonfire.

The practice has largely died out but it tended to be children from working-class backgrounds using the event as a way of making extra pocket money.

Their travels around the town were often accompanied by a song or two asking for money and sometimes with an implied threat.

One such song goes: “If you don’t give me one, I’ll take two, The better for me, and the worse for you, Ricket-a-racket your hedges shall go.”

I remember seeing some quite impressive Guys even in the late 1980’s.  Sadly I never got to do that myself, not having a cart or anything to make one out of rather thwarted the whole idea.Penny-for-the-guy


Bonfire Toffee

Sometimes known as Treacle Toffee, or Plot Toffee, Tom Trot or even claggums. Bonfire Toffee was a black toffee, known as claggums in some places, eaten on Bonfire Night and Halloween.

It was usually home made, rather than bought from shops, and local communities will join together to make it and distribute it to children.

It has largely died out but even in the 1960s, it was common from older people in a neighbourhood to make bonfire toffee to hand out to children on Guy Fawkes Night and it tastes a little bit like butterscotch.

Bonfire Toffee

Bonfire Toffee – Yummy!

V for Vendetta

Older readers may not know but V for Vendetta was a comic book series and later a film in which the main character – V – wears a Guy Fawkes mask.

Since the release of the film, set in the future, the use of the mask has become widespread all over the world as an anti-establishment icon.

The man behind the original design, David Lloyd, said it was a deliberate decision to base the look of the mask on Guy Fawkes though some younger readers may not know much about him.


About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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