Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!

What does Guy Fawkes’ Night – the 5th of November – mean to Hampstead and Highgate? And did Guy Fawkes’ gang really plan to watch London burn from Parliament Hill?


Well, I didn’t see any harm in it, so I bought a mask for the child and gave it him, and delighted he was; he put it on and run about the house to try to frighten every one, and when I screamed at it, just pretendin’ you know, he wer pleased. Seeing how he enjoyed the mask, I told him there was to be a large whole guy burnt, and lots of splendid fireworks to be let off, that night, at Carruther House, out at Highgate;[…] The fireworks were to be let off on the edge of a lake in the grounds, on account of the reflection being pretty, and because they had fireworks that was to burn on the water. ~ Tales for the Four Seasons, ed. Charles H. Clarke 1869

I was brought up ‘in bonfire’, as my parents were members of a village bonfire society. So Guy Fawkes’ Night has always held a place in my heart.  The preparation for ‘bonfire night’ took all year, and was painstaking in detail – and yes, things were more than a little ‘Summer Isle’ 😉 . These days the fireworks at Alexandra Palace seem to be the new(ish) way of celebrating the night albeit on the closest weekend. I know many people were disappointed at not being able to get tickets this year. Unsurprisingly, after a four year dearth of pyrotechnic displays, Ally Pally sold out very fast.

Bonfire fun on Hampstead Heath

In the previous two centuries however it was Hampstead Heath that was the big draw on November 5th. The heath was a favourite location for holidaymakers, especially at May Day and Whitsun, and was much like a Victorian version of the  Glastonbury Festival according to contemporary accounts. In November processions, displays and fairs were organised by local bonfire societies such as the West Hampstead Bonfire Society and Ye Olde Hampstead Bonfire Club. According to the editors of ‘Gunpowder Plots: A Celebration of 400 Years of Bonfire Nights’ these were social and philanthropic societies which collected money for local hospitals – which is exactly the culture I was raised in – and this is also evidenced by the records of these clubs’ fundraising activities which remain extant.

Jubille Bonfire on Hampstead Heath by Robert Finlay McIntrye 1897 (c) Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Jubilee Bonfire on Hampstead Heath by Robert Finlay McIntrye 1897
(c) Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

But these were not staid, class conscious affairs – they were fun! An American visitor, writing for the Deseret News in 1897, described with wonder the bawdy cockey hawkers and partygoers – or costers – who descended upon the Heath in their thousands to celebrate the holiday:

Costers - The Deseret News 25th Dec 1897

“It was just such an aggregation of Londoners”, he continues,  “that gathered on Hampstead Heath on the night of the fifth to witness the annual parade, bonfire and fireworks that are held there. Whoop! There they go in squads, twenty coster girls, with their arms lovingly intertwined amongst their immediate neighbour’s neck, stretched in a row completely across the road, yelling the chorus of the latest popular ditty.” But fortunately for us the nameless journalist recalled more than these exciting cockney young ladies:

The Deseret News 25th Dec 1897

At times over 100,000 people made it up to Hampstead Heath to partake in the party atmosphere and let themselves go.

By 1911 the annual carnival appears to have been on the wane, but tourism still hoped to entice those who remembered it with fondness
By 1911 the annual carnival appears to have been on the wane, but the tourism industry still hoped to entice those who remembered it with fondness

Guy Fawkes Causes Biggest Commotion in 353 Years!

Guy Fawkes has always been associated with rebellion, and in 1958, some 60 years after the Heath’s ‘anti-papist’ Victorian heyday, young people were still having fun on the Heath on Nov. 5th – causing concern for their ‘elders and betters’! For in that year some 2000 young people were apprehended in respectable Hampstead, for setting off fireworks and nefariously chanting ‘Rock and roll!’ This was also of course the year of the Notting Hill riots, which had altogether more serious origins.

Parliament Hill’s Legendary Association with the Guy Fawkes Plot

Parliament Hill is today one of London’s relatively untouristy beauty spots, although it is beloved of locals – and kite-flyers.  Prominent towards the south east side of Hampstead Heath, it is over 320ft high and commands a stunning view of the City of London.  No one knows for sure exactly why it is named thus; some have suggested that it may have been a kind of tynwald, or parliamentary hill where early tribal councils met. There is some evidence that there may be a barrow on the hill, and surveys have recorded an ancient ditch or ‘fosse’. In the twentieth century Parliament Hill was reclaimed by druids as a sacred site, and I will be revisiting its popularity as a focus of pagan spirituality in a later post. At times it has been known as Traitors’ Hill; and it may have been named for the parliamentary-loyal troops who kept is as a defensive stronghold during the English Civil War.

Leopold Wagner, in his 1894  work ‘Manners, Customs and Observances; their origin and signification’, makes the assertion that

Hampstead Heath is an appropriate locale for the bonfire carnival on Guy Fawkes‘ Night, inasmuch as it was there — on Parliament Hill — where the fellow conspirators of the redoubtable Guy waited to see the explosion that never came.

Modern view of London from Parliament Hill
Modern view of London from Parliament Hill

This idea seems to have taken hold in the nineteenth century, and in some accounts Parliament Hill is confused with Highgate Hill. A historical romance published in  1841 by William Harrison Ainsworth titled “Guy Fawkes, or The Gunpowder Treason” probably gave the legend a kickstart. Ainsworth writes prosaically about Fawkes and his co-conspirators riding upon Highgate Hill, and musing morbidly upon the vision of London before them. On the morning of the 5th, and after Fawkes’ capture, one of these, Cator, pauses at Highgate:

On reaching the brow of this beautiful hill, he drew in the bridle for a moment, and gazed towards the city he had just quitted. Dark and bitter were his thoughts as he fixed his eye upon Westminster Abbey, and fancied he could discern the neighbouring pile, whose destruction he had meditated. Remembering that from this very spot, when he had last approached the capital, in company with Guy Fawkes and Viviana Radcliffe, he had looked in the same direction, he could not help contrasting his present sensations with those he had then experienced. At that time he was full of ardour, and confident of success. Now, all was lost to him, and he was anxious for little more than self-preservation. Involuntarily, his eye wandered along the great city, until passing over the mighty fabric of Saint Paul’s, it settled upon the Tower,—upon the place of Guy Fawkes’s captivity.

This is the same book which has Guy Fawkes hanging out with John Dee, so should obviously be treated as the romantic fiction which it is!  Indeed, only 16 years later we find David Jardine, Barrister at Law of the Middle Temple presenting his own analysis of original documents (“A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot” of 1857),  which states that Cator fled London as soon as he was alerted to the failure of the plot, and that various others’ movements out of central London the next day were very well documented.  At no point does Jardine’s analysis of these confessions and reports indicate that anyone involved in the plot was near Parliament Hill at any time. Evidently his dry findings did not capture the public imagination quite so effectively as Ainsworth’s tale of damsels and ghosts, necromancy and self-sacrifice!

he Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605, by unknown artist
The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605, by unknown artist

But for the romantics among you, all may not be lost.  While the gunpowder plot of 1605 may not (at present at last) have any provable direct links with Highgate, the oral tradition itself may be sufficiently enticing.

A chapter about Highgate from J. Ewing Ritchie’s  1860 work ‘About London’ recalls that

a driver of the Barnet mail – I fear not the best authority in the world on antiquarian matters – went so far on one occasion as to point out to the writer a bit of an old wall, a little beyond Marvell’s house on the same side of the way, as a part of the identical house in which those very evil-disposed gentlemen met.

The poet and politician Andrew Marvell’s house was situated very near Lauderdale House, and was allegedly connected via a subterranean passage to Cromwell House, the home of Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law. Some Victorian sources also suggest a tunnel leading from Cromwell House to Ashurst House, upon which St Michael’s Church was built and which would have been en route from Highgate Village to Caen House and Wood.

“The Builder” magazine of June 18th 1870 claims:

The confederates of Guy Fawkes fled into Caen Wood, on the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. The hill at some distance from it is still called Traitors’-hill, and here it is supposed they stood waiting for the explosion, to assure them that the plot was successful.

If the habit of locals to connect Highgate with Guy Fawkes was in anyway inspired by the many tunnels which exist underneath the village, the Caen Wood reference makes sense. If an oral tradition of a tunnel from Highgate Village towards Caen Wood existed in 1870, its reality was confirmed in 1899, when an unfortunate member of the Highgate Harriers dropped through the pavement straight into it. According to an article in the Morning Post of Nov. 3rd 1899, it led in one direction ‘towards the Flask Tavern and in the other towards Ken Wood’.

Discovery of tunnel Morning Post Nov 3ed 1899

Whatever the origins of these tunnels are, they must be of equal if not greater interest than their supposed use by the gunpowder plotters.  Perhaps some day we shall discover an old manuscript in one of them, or a signet ring or something signifiying who had them carved out and why.

But until then, we shall have to make do (and it is hardly making do!) with Hampstead’s very own Guy Fawkes descendent (possibly!) –  Keith Fawkes-Underwood of Fawkes Bookshop in Hampstead, who fittingly holds a great selection of local history books in stock as well as chairing the Hornsey Historical Society.

Its a funny old world!

Laura Dale, seven, from Hampstead, pulls a pram chassis with a guy collecting for Bonfire Night in 1970.
Laura Dale, seven, from Hampstead, pulls a pram chassis with a guy collecting for Bonfire Night in 1970.

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