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Paul Sparkes: Powder, wood and fire

The cellar which in early November 1605 held 36 barrels of gunpowder. The outcome of the plot formed by Guy Fawkes and his fellow-conspirators was a bonfire tradition that would last for centuries.
The cellar which in early November 1605 held 36 barrels of gunpowder. The outcome of the plot formed by Guy Fawkes and his fellow-conspirators was a bonfire tradition that would last for centuries. — Contributed illustration

The incendiary history behind Bonfire Night

“GUN-Powder Treason Day, a Festival Day, kept the fifth of November, for the happy Deliverance of King James I and the Estates of the Realm, by the Discovery of the Gun-powder Plot.”

— From “An Universal Etymological English Dictionary” by Nathaniel Bailey, 1753


There are two facts concerning the 1605 plot and its discovery and punishment of the conspirators that I had not encountered before doing a little back-reading a week ago. First, Guy Fawkes readily gave himself up when he was discovered by the Parliamentary guard in a cavernous cellar filled with 36 barrels of gunpowder. Second, although Fawkes boldly and clearly signed a declaration of his guilt, a week later he signed a paper of confession in an extremely weak and scrawled hand: clear proof of torture.

But, of course, apart from working to restore Roman Catholicism to England, what the Fawkes group were doing was treasonous, too.

Across the nearly 400 years since those times, celebratory bonfires have been lit each 5th of November in the old country and here in Newfoundland. It is (or was) strictly a Protestant celebration. And although the days of religious tolerance did not dawn until long after James and Fawkes were well past their ability to bestow physical injury, I would say that most who in latter days joined in the fun of the bonfire had little idea of the origins of the tradition.

Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, despairing of ever achieving a “home” for their Roman Catholic faith in England, thought they would gain the upper Christian hand by killing the King and his key ministers. The cellar, of course, although a private cavity rented by the plotters, was squarely under the focal point of the old hall of Westminster — England’s Parliament.

If perpetuation of the bonfire tradition did anything for us in Newfoundland, it cleared our living and working places of combustible garbage once a year. And some spirit of denominational unity may be seen in the fact that both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities benefited from this late fall cleanup.


I discover fire

You never know what you may find on the bargain table at Chapters on Kenmount Road in St. John’s. A week ago I discovered a book that had the price of 16.99 UK pounds printed on its back cover (about $28 Canadian), while on the front it had a huge circular $3 sticker. I gingerly raised this sticker to see that it was resting atop another sticker whereby the retailer was previously hoping for $15.

The book is entitled “Fire: From Spark to Flame.” Dated 2015 it was written by Norwegian Oivind Berg, translated by Jeffrey Engberg, printed in China and published by Carlton Books in England. It is variously peculiar, fascinating and informative and is a high-quality printed product.

There is a little declaration on the very last page (of value if you are one of those who turns to the back page before commencing a book). That declaration reads:

“This is a book about making fires in the context of camping and cooking outdoors and the information contained in it is not to be used for any other purpose. However, the instructions in this book are for general information only and the publishers take no responsibility for any consequence of you using the information contained herein, especially if you harm yourself accidentally.”

In one note, author Oivind Berg suggests that traditional bonfires set in Spain at the end of June are tied to those in England which mark the exposure of the Fawkes plot. Fawkes was aligned with some notable Spaniards in his day and it was these whom he and his group thought might help them in their bid to overthrow the Protestant Government of England.

Moving on to his main intent, Berg describes collecting kindling, stripping birch bark, setting and lighting fires, assembling temporary rock outdoor fireplaces, building smoker-ovens and celebrating the comfort of fire in poetry and in stocking-feet. Norwegians mark the summer solstice (the feast day of St. John, June 24th) with huge bonfires. The author explains that these were often made quite large in order that people at a distance could see them and consider themselves greeted. 

Another Scandinavian tradition related to fire is that of Christmas-tree burning. This was carried out “in the winter darkness” on Jan. 13th. (the 20th day of Christmas) when pine and fir that has been used for the festivities is reduced to embers over which people grill hotdogs.

Delicious, I’m sure!

Berg gives campfire recipes too. In one part he recommends a hiker carry cheese/ham sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil. The slices of bread are buttered on the outside and the sandwich contains a slice of cheese, ham, “a little mustard and catsup and maybe some spices.” You lay the sandwich packages on embers for only two minutes per side.

If there are no more $3 versions of the book left at Chapters, St. John’s, it is still available online and it is not expensive there either.

Paul Sparkes is a long-time journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. E-mail:

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