Old-world prejudices, new-world fun

New Zealanders love their fireworks (click for image credit)

New Zealanders love their fireworks (click for image credit)

Tonight thousands of New Zealanders will go into their back yards and light Catherine wheels or gather at vantage points to oooh and aaah at public displays of sky rockets. Guy Fawkes night commemorates an event over 400 years ago in a country the other side of the globe; and the event itself – the thwarting of a Catholic plot to blow up the English Houses of Parliament – keeps alive religious strife which surely we have outlived. So why should we continue to endanger ourselves, our pets, our children and our property by continuing to set things alight on November 5th?

It was this question that encouraged me to search Papers Past and try to discover the history of Guy Fawkes in New Zealand. What I discovered was surprising and intriguing. I found that a few new immigrants from Britain from the 1840s did want to commemorate the gunpowder plot; but many more did not. The result was that until the First World War Guy Fawkes events were spasmodic, haphazard and generally opposed by newspapers who confidently expected that the custom was on its last legs and would die out. Why were opinion-makers hostile to Guy Fawkes fireworks?:

  • They saw the event as a reactionary old-world custom that had no place in this new society.
  • They saw it as perpetuating sectarian bitterness and thought that New Zealand, with its commitment to religious tolerance, should avoid such sentiments.
  • There was a grave fear that in towns of wooden houses surrounded by dry bush and, increasingly, gorse there was a genuine danger of major fires. Fire was the great scourge of colonial New Zealand.
  • In the mornings young boys would come around asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ and this was regarded as pernicious begging.
  • Lighting fireworks was viewed as an act of city larrikins, not responsible family people.
  • Most interesting, there were some who pointed out that fireworks were a Chinese custom, and argued that it was a ‘Yellow’ pursuit that had no place in Anglo-Saxon New Zealand and the sales of fireworks only benefitted Chinese shopkeepers. At that time there was widespread prejudice against Chinese people.

In Australia, where the Catholic population was larger and the fire danger even greater, Guy Fawkes did largely die out. But not in New Zealand. Here, despite endless predictions of the imminent death of the custom, it was kept alive – largely by the aforementioned larrikins. Young kids were determined to have their fun on 5 November, and so they did.

Then sentiments began to change. In the 1920s, as New Zealand cities spread out, fireworks were increasingly set off in suburban backyards. The newspapers noted that it was the dads who now lit the rockets and sparklers, and lorded over the event. The anti-Catholic origins of the ritual were largely forgotten, and Guy Fawkes simply became ‘family fun’. By 1936, even though the fire brigade had been called to 60 fires that had got out of control, the Wellington newspapers described the evening as ‘a magnificent occasion’, ‘a wonderful show’ with ‘scenes of splendour’. Certain places became prominent for fireworks – such as Petone Beach in Wellington and Carlaw Park in Auckland – and increasingly community groups began to put on displays for all to enjoy.

Of course opposition to Guy Fawkes never completely died, and Beverley Pentland, the ‘fireworks lady’, achieved fame and our gratitude in the 1970s by her battle to reduce the injuries to children and pets. But, despite restrictions on crackers and other dangerous explosive things, tonight thousands of Kiwis will enjoy the spectacle of fire. As you do so – and this is a very strange remark for me to make as an historian – it might pay to forget the history of the night, its sectarian origins, and just enjoy some family fun.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Megan Cook || November 6th, 2012

    Older members of my family remember going round asking for a penny for the guy in 1940s and early ’50s Naenae. I’m told that everyone made guys and the carts to carry them about, and that it could be quite lucrative. The hills of the Hutt Valley were burnt off time and again (although not primarily because of fireworks -it was more of a summer thing).
    I watched Wellington’s fireworks last night, and although it’s a great display, I miss the bonfires that were standard in the 1970s, with the guy burning on top of them.

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