Eton Boys and Guy Fawkes

My name is Beck Price and I am an Archives Assistant at Eton College Archives. My role involves working on helping to transcribe and catalogue parts of the collection, as well as assisting with the rehousing of objects and general enquiries made to the archives. I will also be helping to contribute more to the collections’ social media, so you may be seeing more posts from me in the future!

Bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes’ night, has always been a key staple in the British calendar. This celebration of the punishment following the Gunpowder Plot has often been used as a fun excuse to put on extravagant firework displays, as well as for warming yourself up next to a bonfire and to play with sparklers. Unsurprisingly, this tradition has always been popular with the boys at Eton for the same reason, however they were not always allowed to partake in these celebrations.

A rare instance of fireworks by the River Thames! (PA-A.159:17-2018)

One of the key reasons for this was an incident that occurred in 1804. As part of a prank in spirit of the holiday, a young Lord Cranborne placed some fireworks in a Mr Grieve’s pocket, which ended up exploding, seriously injuring and killing the young boy. Luckily for Lord Cranborne he was not prosecuted for this, however this led to the School subsequently discouraging further celebrations of Guy Fawkes night.

Unsurprisingly, we have few accounts of any celebrations that may have taken place due to this. However, we do have a few articles written by some of the previous boys complaining about the lack of celebrations. As you might expect, these complaints largely revolve around the absence of any firework displays at the College, something that many of the boys no doubt would have looked forward to otherwise. Many of the boys were therefore forced to look to surrounding celebrations or attempt their own for any sort of entertainment on the night. One article from the November 1954 edition of the Eton College Chronicle comments on this, describing a bonfire created by the boys near the ‘New Biology Lab’. The author (quite aggressively!) remarks:

‘Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to see the hideous new construction, optimistically called the ‘New Biology Lab.’ go up in flames.’

The Eton College Chronicle, 11th November 1954

There were also comparisons to be made between the absence of fireworks for Bonfire night compared to the enthusiasm for the same festivities for the Fourth of July and the Sixth of December.  One boy in 1894 even commented that it would make sense to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night in order to ‘complete the trio of dates’ of holidays associated with the kings of England, suggesting Bonfire Night as a celebration for James I potentially.

The Eton College Chronicle, November 8th 1894

Despite the frustrations surrounding the lack of celebrations, however, there was still some interest amongst the boys regarding the figure of Guy Fawkes himself. In 1969, the Debating Society came together to put forward the motion, ‘This house would welcome a new Guy Fawkes’. This led to discussions over the nature of Guy Fawkes’ actions. Some suggested that he was ‘the original protest demonstrator’ while others, such as C.R. George, Esq., argued that Guy Fawkes stood for ‘extremism’ instead and should not be idolised. A similar question was posed later in the Debating Competition in 1974, where a Mr Coleridge proposed the motion that ‘Guy Fawkes was a man before his time’, comparing the political situation at Guy Fawkes’ time to their own.  We can see then that the significance of 5th November was not entirely forgotten by the boys, and in fact gave them a chance to discuss current events through the lens of the controversial revolutionary.

The Eton College Chronicle, 24th October 1969
The Eton College Chronicle, 13th December 1974

All in all, despite the lack of formal celebrations for Bonfire Night at Eton we can see that the enthusiasm for the holiday has still managed to persist. Whether due to genuine interest in the figure of Guy Fawkes himself, or simply because ‘everyone has a touch of pyromania in him’ (as one article suggests!), it still remains as a popular celebration, even if the boys had to create their own festivities!

By Beck Price, Archives Assistant

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