Cracker Night celebration

Australians who were children in the 1950s and 60s probably remember with some fondness the annual Cracker Night.

Huge bonfires were built by families and community groups. Stores sold skyrockets, penny and double bungers, thunders, tom-thumbs, throwdowns, Roman candles and Catherine Wheels. There were hand-held sparklers for the little ones.

Add a box of matches and the night skies around the country would light up. Dogs frightened by the noise would hide under beds.

It was all good fun, until someone had an eye out.

For emergency services and casualty wards, cracker night was not something to which they eagerly looked forward.

All that ended more than 30 years ago in most states where governments banned the sale of fireworks, putting end to cracker night.

Now, people cannot legally buy fireworks (without a license) in Australia, except in the Northern Territory and only on 1 July.

In the 1970s when Queensland ended Cracker Night, the government pointed out fireworks were the third largest cause of eye injuries.

Cracker Night continues as an annual event in the Northern Territory and in 2017 during the celebration of 39 years of self government, 24 people were injured, up from 15 from the previous year and higher than the average of 19, giving rise to questions about the event’s future. But it continues.

In Victoria, the State Government restricted the size and power of some fireworks in 1963. In 1974 the government banned the sale of exploding fireworks such as bungers and in 1982 the sale of all fireworks was outlawed.

Aside from the Territory celebration, Australia had up to three cracker nights, depending on what state you were in: it was celebrated variously on 24 May in commemoration of Empire Day; on 5 November, the traditional Guy Fawkes Day celebrations that continue across Britain every year; or on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June.

Empire Day became Commonwealth Day in 1958 but has been discontinued. It was introduced to Australia in 1905 to celebrate the country’s ties to Britain, the idea having been initiated in Canada in 1897. With the death of Queen Victoria (1819–1901) it was adopted throughout the British Empire and observed on 24 May, Queen Victoria’s birthday.

Empire Day was observed in state schools from 1905 with a program of addresses, pageants and patriotic songs, with children swearing allegiance to King and Empire.

Early Empire Day celebration in Glen Innes, NSW

It was then primarily a Protestant celebration, often the subject of sectarian debate and opposed by a Catholic hierarchy whose annual festival equivalent was St Patrick`s Day.

According to Monument Australia, the Queen’s birthday holiday in Australia moved in 1966 to 11 June – or the nearest Monday – but until the 1980s was commonly known in some states as Cracker Night.

Bonfires were terminally extinguished in 1988, governments deeming the lighting of massive fires and the explosion of fireworks far too dangerous when children and a few irresponsible adults were involved. The sale of fireworks to the public was banned, although they remained available in the Australian Capital Territory for some time and of course in the Northern Territory on just one day of the year.

The setting off of fireworks is now mostly in the hands of licensed operators for special events, including massive pyrotechnic displays (as they are now known) around the country to herald the start of each New Year.

Even pyrotechnics companies that operate to strict controls have not escaped serious incidents. In 2007, at the Howard and Sons Pyrotechnics factory outside Wallerawang in NSW, a massive explosion of thousands of kilograms of fireworks was heard 30 km away and badly damaged nearby homes. Windows and doors were blown in, roofs were buckled and brickwork was cracked.

Howard & Sons has been responsible for some of the best fireworks shows in the world. Syd Howard’s first notable fireworks display was in 1986, during the 75th Anniversary Review of the Royal Australian Navy. He used the Sydney Harbour Bridge to launch the fireworks, and pioneered the “waterfall” effect. After that, his family company was invited to produce displays for major events such as the opening of the Sydney Opera House, and became the official pyrotechnic suppliers for Disneyland and Disneyworld.

The Guy Fawkes connection

The most interesting of the cracker night celebrations was Guy Fawkes Day.

So who or what was Guy Fawkes and why was Guy Fawkes Night celebrated in Australia when its origins go back to England?

Guy Fawkes (13 April 1570 – 31 January 1606) was also known as Guido Fawkes, the name he adopted while fighting for the Spanish. He was a member of a group of radical English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to attack the power of the Church of England.

In fact, had things gone to plan in England in 1605 he probably now would be recognised as the world’s most notorious terrorist.

On 5 November 1605 Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding barrels of gunpowder that had been stashed underneath the House of Lords in London in a Catholic plot to blow up the establishment hierarchy — a protest against the policies of King James I.

Had his barrels of gunpowder been set off as intended, thousands would have died and the place where the houses of parliament now sit would have looked very different.

Bonfire night doesn’t celebrate the life and times of Guy Fawkes, rather his death. Bonfire night was instituted to celebrate the fact the Guy Fawkes didn’t get away with the fiendish Gunpowder Plot to take out the parliament, its members and, especially, the King.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes were placed on top of the fires and people danced around the blaze, a practice still seen around Britain.

The tradition of bonfire night found its way to the colonies, including Australia, but now is really only celebrated within Great Britain.

The Gunpowder plot

Thirteen conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, conceived a massive terrorist plot in 1605. They would eliminate the King and the Church of England parliamentary establishment and trigger a popular uprising.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament by the King on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which King James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, would be installed as the Catholic head of state.

King James was not tolerant of Catholics; he had ordered all Catholic priests to leave England.

The plotters had revenge on their minds.

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators rented a building close to the Houses of Parliament and secretly hid 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar that extended under the House of Lords. They never got to see their planned explosion. An anonymous letter tipped off authorities and the plotters were nabbed, Guy Fawkes apparently revealing identities under torture.

Fawkes was born and educated in York. His father died when Fawkes was eight years old, after which his mother married a devout Catholic. Fawkes converted to Catholicism and left for the Continent where he fought in the Eighty Years’ War on the side of Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers in the Low Countries. He travelled to Spain to seek support for a Catholic rebellion in England, without success. He met Thomas Wintour and the two returned to England.

Wintour introduced Fawkes to Robert Catesby who, they discovered, planned to assassinate King James I and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. The plotters leased a cellar that extended under the House of Lords. Fawkes was placed in charge of the gunpowder they stockpiled.

Lord Monteagle (1575-1622), the brother-in-law of one of the conspirators, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on 5 November.

The unsigned letter said: “My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament . . . for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow.”

Monteagle alerted the government, a search was instigated and Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes in the cellar.

A further search found the barrels of gunpowder just hours before the attack was to have taken place.

Over the next few days, Fawkes was questioned and tortured. He eventually confessed and named his co-conspirators.

Fawkes and the other chief conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in London. Moments before the start of his execution, on 31 January 1606, Fawkes jumped from a ladder while climbing to the gallows, fatally breaking his neck. He was still drawn and quartered.

While not the ringleader himself, Fawkes became the best-known member of the most famous conspiracy in English history.

After the failed Gunpowder Plot, new laws were instituted in England that eliminated the right of Catholics to vote, among other repressive restrictions.

Later in 1606, the British parliament established 5 November as a day of public thanksgiving. Guy Fawkes Night (also referred to as Guy Fawkes Day and Bonfire Night) is celebrated annually across Great Britain on 5 November in remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot. Villagers and city residents light bonfires, set off fireworks and burn effigies of Fawkes.

FOOTNOTE: What would have happened if the barrels had exploded?

In 2003 a study by the Centre for Explosion Studies at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales looked into the possibilities if Fawkes had been able to ignite the barrels of gunpowder. It found there would have been total destruction within a 36 m radius, walls and roofs destroyed at 90 m, and windows broken as far away as 900 m. The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey would have been completely destroyed, while structures in Whitehall, about 500 m away, would have been damaged as well.

What is gunpowder? Also known as black powder, gunpowder is an explosive consisting of a powdered mixture of saltpetre (or nitre), sulphur and charcoal. It is now mainly used for quarry blasting and in fuses. It also is still used in fireworks although sugar is often used instead of charcoal. It was also used to propel ammunition. Gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists in the 9th century.

Images from the National Library of Australia.