LOOKING BACK: From plots to riots – how Bridgwater Carnival began

Written by on November 21, 2020

IT’S safe to say that this year has been a difficult one for everyone.

The coronavirus pandemic hit the UK earlier this year and no one knew how much on an impact it would have on our lives.

Pubs, shops and restaurants closed their doors, people were separated from their loved ones for months on end and streets were left empty and lifeless.

Hundreds of events across the UK were cancelled as more and more restrictions were put in place by the Government to fight the virus and sadly one of the casualties was Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival.

The carnival is one of the largest illuminated carnival processions in Europe and the oldest carnival in the UK which attracts thousands of visitors from across the world every year.

After a month of lockdown and a series of virtual meetings organisers announced in April that the carnival could not go ahead due to the ‘ever changing threat’ of coronavirus and they postponed the event until 2021.

Carnival clubs and communities from across Somerset were left devastated as the hope of a grand carnival in Bridgwater was dashed and all carnivals on the Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnivals circuit were cancelled. It is the first time the event has not been held since the Second World War.

But how did Bridgwater Carnival start?

The origins of Bridgwater Carnival can be traced back to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, failed in their attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

That story is well known to everyone, but what is not so widely acknowledged is that it was King James 1st and his parliament who decreed that the events of November 5 should be commemorated annually with the lighting of bonfires, a tradition which is celebrated across the nation to this very day.

Maybe it was because Bridgwater was protestant in those days and townsfolk celebrated with more vigour than anywhere else or maybe it was just an excuse to enjoy an evening of fun around the bonfire before the cold winter nights set in.

Whatever the reason, those celebrations have now grown into the magnificent spectacle which takes to the streets of Bridgwater each year in early November.

The early years of Bridgwater Carnival were unfortunately not recorded in local newspapers as they did not appear in the town until the mid 19th century. But, parish records from St Mary’s Church in Bridgwater show that in November 1716 John Taylor and his two children were killed in a gun powder explosion at their home.

Many of the early casualties to gun powder explosions were no doubt caused by the manufacturing of homemade Bridgwater Squibs.The unique fireworks are still a big part of the carnival tradition today.

But how did carnival become the huge event that it is now?

From journalistic records the development of Bridgwater Carnival can be traced back to 1847, making Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival the oldest event of its kind in the UK.

And it seems it was the Victorians who made the event what it is now.

In Victorian times celebrations were concentrated around a huge bonfire, which was built on the Cornhill right in the centre of Bridgwater, and townsfolk paraded to the bonfire dressed in costumes and masks which let them get up to all kinds of harmless mischief.

When they arrived at the Cornhill effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and others who had upset the local population, were added to the flames.

From early evening, hundreds of Squibs were ignited in the town centre and a night of merrymaking ensued until the early hours.

But celebrations in 1880 changed the course of carnival forever.

On November 5 celebrations began well but the usual good humour and excitement gave way to ill temper and acts of violence, leading ultimately to serious disorder and riot.

By 1am the following day the bonfire was still burning and there was plenty of fuel left to add to the embers. Most of the crowd had gone home but around 300 people were still being merry around the fire.

But the local authority considered enough was enough and called in the newly formed fire brigade to douse the flames and put and end to the festivities.

This was not a wise move as this angered the revellers so much so that they cut the fire hoses and turned them on the firemen themselves.

Fireman James Ware refused to give up his standpipe and he was set upon by the angry mob who chased him through the streets of the town. James sustained a few cuts and bruises but managed to escape to the shelter of his home where he remained under the protection of the local police.

The next day the riot was the talk of the town and various parties were blamed.

But a letter from Frank Squire to the Bridgwater Mercury focused people’s attention on the real issues.

He suggested that a committee should be formed to control and organise an annual procession so people across the town could see the fantastic costumes which were, by then, a major feature of the festivities.

Frank’s suggestion received substantial support and the following year, 1881, the first carnival committee was formed and the first official Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival paraded through the streets of the town.

But how did Bridgwater Carnival Concert start you might ask?

In 1883 another event occurred in the town which proved a significant milestone in the history of Bridgwater Carnival.

A new town bridge, crossing the River Parrett, had been commissioned by the local authority and was due to be opened in the autumn of 1883.

Capt. W.J Ford, the popular first President of Bridgwater Carnival, suggested that the official opening of the bridge should take place on November 5 to coincide with the carnival parade. Town councillors thought this was a great idea and arrangements were made to open the bridge in the afternoon of carnival day.

The carnival committee decided to play their part by staging a baptism of fire as the parade reached the river crossing.

This would have consisted of a spectacular firework display with Roman Candles, Sky Rockets and, of course, Bridgwater Squibs but the display would be expensive to stage.

So the committee decided to host a fund-raising concert and that is where Bridgwater Carnival Concert was born.

By the late 1880’s Bridgwater Carnival was well established in the community and the event has continued to grow and prosper ever since.

Since 1881 there have been many memorable moments in the growth and development of carnival in the town.

Here’s a list of the most memorable developments of Bridgwater Carnival.

1892 – The Home Office became concerned about the manufacture of Bridgwater Squibs in homes throughout the town. The committee decided they could not be responsible for staging the carnival with the threat of a considerable fine being imposed if this practice continued. An underground movement was formed to ensure the carnival went ahead.

1902 – Bridgwater celebrated the coronation of Edward VII by re-enacting the Royal procession with a long series of tableaux which included a replica of the magnificent State Coach. It was drawn by eight cream coloured horses.

1903 – The first electric light bulbs used on an entry in the procession. Until now, the carts (floats) were illuminated with paraffin lamps, carried alongside the entry.

1909 – Bowing to pressure from the business community, the committee decided that future carnivals would be held on the Thursday nearest November 5 instead of November 5 itself.

1924 – The first cup, the Ker Cup, presented to the carnival to be competed for annually by the gangs.

1925 – The area around the Cornhill was laid to tarmacadam, improving the road surface for the rapidly increasing motorised transport.

Unfortunately the material burns easily, especially under bonfires, and so the carnival committee reluctantly abandoned the Cornhill bonfire, thereby extinguishing forever its closest link with the events of 1605.

1948 – Horses were used for the last time to pull a carnival club entry.

1949- Carnival Concerts increased to twelve performances.

1958 – Only eight Bridgwater clubs competed in the carnival and it seemed as if the diminishing popularity of participating in the event was due to the ever increasing appeal of watching television.

1974 – Carnival Calendars were printed and sold as souvenirs for the first time.

1982 – Bridgwater Carnival was captured on film and video copies made available as souvenirs.

2001 – To maintain its position as the country’s premier carnival, the organisers of the parade decided that it would be held on a Friday. It was the first change in the day of the festivities since 1909.

This change also saw the demise of Black Friday, a day of celebrations for carnivalities, a tradition which first appeared in the early 1960s. But resilient carnivalities still hold their celebrations on the Sunday after Bridgwater Carnival.

2005 – The Spirit of Carnival statue was unveiled on the Cornhill in October. The statue acts as a reminder of the importance of the carnival to past, present and future generations and stands proudly on the spot where it all began 400 years ago.

But why is it important to celebrate the history of Bridgwater Carnival?

Chris Hocking, project director at Bridgwater Carnival Committee, said: “Bridgwater’s world famous carnival is at the heart and soul of the community and without it the town would be a poorer and less interesting place in which to live and work.

“All year round, the carnival plays an important role in the everyday life of the town through activities staged by our amazing carnival clubs.

“It is therefore essential that we continue our celebrations in some small way this year in order to show everyone that the country’s oldest carnival can still be enjoyed, albeit in a different form.

“After all, when the carnival was unable to be held during World War II a small band of carnivalites, led by ‘Nosey’ Lockyer, would walk the route on carnival day.

“It is this ‘never-say-die’ spirit of carnival that remains with us and will keep us going until normal service returns and we can bring back our world-famous carnival parade to the streets of Bridgwater.”

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