The Magistrates Who Banned Bonfire Night

220px-Guy_Fawkes_by_CruikshankI was intrigued to see Justin Pollard‘s feature on the history of Bonfire Night on the BBC History website – and, more particularly, his mention of how Guildford magistrates were targeted by Bonfire Night pranksters in Victorian times. Magistrates being the subject of my PhD, I thought I’d investigate further.

On 21 November 1863, there was a riot in Guildford, resulting in the loss or destruction of a substantial amount of property.

The riot was a result of Bonfire Night celebrations – or rather, as the result of NOT celebrating. It emerged that certain local residents, and particularly one local magistrate, were hostile to residents celebrating the night, and had ordered that the usual demonstrations on 5 November should not take place.

This was a class issue; the press reported that the festivities were normally participated in by ‘certain classes in the town and neighbourhood’, whereas the objectors were ‘gentlemen’.

A troop of soldiers from Aldershot were ordered to come and protect the town; they did so, and the Bonfire Night activities did not take place. Bad feeling, though, rose instead.

The soldiers left Guildford on 19 November, and the townspeople started making plans. This had been predicted; many people had argued that:

‘as soon as the soldiers were withdrawn, the “guys” would come out.” [1]

At 11.30pm on 21 November, a group of men dressed as Guy Fawkes, carrying fireworks and bludgeons, assembled just outside the town at Stoke’s Fields.

Not an image of the Guildford riot, but it conjures up what it might have been like!

Not an image of the Guildford riot, but it conjures up what it might have been like!

They made their way down the Stoke Road to the houses of Mr Impey and Mr Bowyer, two special constables, and promptly smashed all their windows – a common means in the 17th and 18th centuries of making a political disagreement known, or to intimidate an individual [2].

The group – which had now become a large ‘mob’ – then marched towards Guildford, comprehensively destroying the exterior of a shop belonging to linen draper Mr Weale. His shop was said to have been targeted because it was situated just yards from where the town’s bonfire had traditionally been lit.

KENRG9_427_429-0365But there was another reason that Weale was targeted. He was probably Joseph Weale, described in the census two years earlier as a silk mercer based on Guildford High Street. Joseph Weale was also a magistrate – and is likely to have had a key role in the original banning of the bonfire.

His shutters, Venetian blinds, were destroyed, as were his plate-glass shop front and upper windows. Fireworks were then fired into the shop, and the damage was estimated at around £200, or around £8,600 today.

65-year-old Henry Piper was next in line. He was the chief magistrate of the borough, as well as being a former town mayor, and was, like Joseph Weale, deemed responsible for the ban on bonfire festivities.

After refusing to pay a ‘bribe’, and pleading to be spared as his wife was recovering from an illness, he found his house on Merrow Road in Stoke treated in a similar way. His front door was smashed in, and all the windows destroyed.

His house was only saved from being burnt to the ground by the speedy actions of his servants and neighbours, who ran round with buckets of water.

Meanwhile, another group, comprising special constables and volunteers, some fro the 24th Surrey Rifles, had assembled, ringing the town hall bell to raise other people to help them.

One constable, by the name of Sutton, was severely beaten by the rioters, although the press implied that it was his own fault for watching whilst the mob attacked Mr Weale’s shop, without doing anything to prevent it.

After the mob had done as much damage as they could to Mr Piper’s house, they dispersed back into the night, throwing their bludgeons and disguises into the street as they ran.

Three days later, none of them had been captured or even identified, although one newspaper argued that as they were ‘very well known’ in the town, they would soon be:

‘brought before the magistrates, and large rewards will be offered for the discovery and conviction of any other ringleaders.’ [3]

In the meantime, reported the press,

‘Guildford continues in a state of the greatest alarm and excitement.’ [4]

Even into the 21st century, there has been discussion about whether to ban Bonfire Night celebrations (see here and here, for example) – but the experience of the Surrey magistrates 150-odd years ago shows that it wouldn’t go down very well…

Sources:

1: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24 November 1863

2: Robert Shoemaker, The London Mob: Violence and Disorder in Eighteenth Century England (A&C Black, 2004), 122

3: The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 24 November 1863

4: The Leeds Mercury, 24 November 1863

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