The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
— The Fifth of November (unknown author)
Ottery St. Mary is an exquisite little town in East Devon on the banks of River Otter. The tranquil town of approximately eight thousand people with a 13th-century parish church comes to life on the evening of 5th November every year, which is celebrated in England and in some other parts of the world as Guy Fawkes Night/Bonfire Night. People from all over the South West and other parts of England flock to Ottery St. Mary to celebrate the arrest of Guy Fawkes, an accomplice in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I and the members of his parliament. Fawkes was rounded up on the evening of 5th November 1605 while guarding barrels full of explosives under the House of Lords and later executed for treason with some of his fellow accomplices. In January 1606, the British Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act to celebrate the deliverance of the King and Lords from this (Catholic-committed) atrocity. The evening is celebrated by setting up bonfires and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes till this day.
At Ottery St. Mary, this quintessentially British thanksgiving celebration is performed with a layer of local tradition unique to the town: the burning of Tar Barrels. I and a group of colleagues from the Exeter University Out of Doors Society witnessed this age-old tradition in 2012. We reached Ottery by bus at 7 in the evening. The town centre was packed with boisterous visitors, singing, drinking a pint or two, clicking pictures, and cheering for the Barrel Rollers. The pubs were overflowing, and the streets were lined with makeshift memento, fish-and-chips, and Kebab outlets. Beautiful fireworks bejeweled the clear autumn night sky. A huge bonfire was set up by the river with Guy Fawkes’ burning effigy on top. A fair complete with different kinds of joyrides was in progress. All in all, it was festive and jolly all around.
As per tradition, 12 tar-coated, flaming barrels were carried on the shoulders of the running Barrel Rollers in different parts of town throughout the evening, culminating in the final and most prestigious Midnight Barrel at the town centre. Barrels of different sizes (small for children, medium for women and young men, and large for seasoned Barrel Rollers) are carefully selected throughout the year, coated with tar, and stuffed with paper and straw. The Barrel Rollers often come from families that have been rolling barrels for generations at Ottery St. Mary. The origins of this tradition are not clear. While some say that the tradition originated in commemoration of the arrest of Guy Fawkes, others point to a slightly older origin, when fires were set up as an advance warning of the approaching Spanish Armada.
The night got older, the crowd got bigger, the carnival became more atmospheric. We ran through the narrow streets pushing, shoving, and being pushed and shoved, hoping to catch a glimpse of the burning barrels. I ate a portion of a foul-tasting burrito, stopped at a packed pub to recharge, and rode a Ferris wheel and its sideways edition (with a malfunctioning seat belt) with a friend, conversing with strangers and friends alike and taking in all I could of this unique East Devon spectacle. Finally, a little tipsy and completely drained, I met up with the others from our group at the town centre to see the Midnight Barrel. This was a large flaming barrel carried by an equally massive man to boisterous cries of encouragement and celebration. It was a real feat.
After the Midnight Barrel, we trudged back to the bus. It was 1 in the morning. I had had a very good time, and I was happy and tired and urgently in need of bed. I took my BlackBerry out to find that it had buzzed a few times and five messages awaited me. They were from my PhD adviser. She had messaged me a few times asking me to a teach a part of her class the next morning, starting at 9 am. I did not hear the phone buzz amidst the din of the celebrations and now I would have to wake up early in the morning to be prepared to teach with a powerpoint. I delivered a terrible lecture the next morning. I do not remember what I said; I just remember coming back to my room after the class and crashing out for the next five hours.
The Tar Barrels at Ottery St. Mary is a wonderful tradition. A tradition that needs to be perpetuated and properly preserved. Due to recent global financial reverses, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Tar Barrels committee of Ottery St. Mary to gather adequate funds to organize the festival. I hope something can be done to protect this local tradition from its ominous future. Carrying flaming tar barrels may be dangerous, but it is also a way of life for the townspeople of Ottery St. Mary – an integral part of their identity.
More information on the festival can be obtained from the Official Tar Barrels Website.
A Dubious India-Connection
Burning effigies on Bonfire Night became a normal way to show collective dissent and enmity among the British general public. For example, the burning of former British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel’s effigy at Cork, Ireland drew massive criticism in the British newspapers in 1862. This year, England’s one of the oldest and biggest Bonfire Night celebration society at Lewes Borough in Sussex featured the burning of effigies of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Harvey Weinstein, and Theresa May.
India’s dubious connection to Bonfire Night celebrations in England comes from the effigy burning of Nana Sahib, Victorian England’s most reviled (and feared) Indian enemy post-1857.
Nana Sahib’s forces laid siege to the British Cantonment at Kanpur (Cawnpore in colonial literature) in June 1857. Outmanned and outgunned, the British surrendered to Nana Sahib and brokered a deal allowing their evacuation from Kanpur. However, soon the news of a large British force approaching from Allahabad arrived, throwing Nana Sahib’s men into a tizzy. What happened next is not very clear, and the later rumours and colonial retellings of the event make it even harder to understand. But what is known is that Nana Sahib’s forces (probably without his knowledge, or control) massacred more than 120 English women and children and threw their bodies down a well. Only seven out of about 1200 Englishmen and women had survived the massacre.
When this was discovered after the British forces recaptured Kanpur, Nana Sahib immediately became Britain’s most hated Indian. In this connection, on Bonfire Night of 1857, larger than life-sized effigies of Nana Sahib was burnt throughout England along with that of Guy Fawkes.
Guy-Fawkes’ Day was observed in the metropolis [London] yesterday in the usual manner. Effigies of Nana Sahib appeared to be the most numerous, but the number of “Guys” was much less than in former years.
Bradford Observer 12th November 1857 (Courtesy: British Newspaper Archives)
Post Script: The first part of this blog post was written for the author’s now-defunct travel blog in November 2012.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Mr. Paul Walsh (MBE) for pointing me to the Lewes Bonfire celebration this year.
About the Author: Tathagata Neogi is the founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta. He has an MA and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Exeter.