A schoolboy’s account (pre-health and safety!) of the 5th November at Sherborne School in 1858:

‘In those old days, the 5th of November with us used to constitute a pleasant object to look forward to in the middle of the half.  At least I think I can hardly so to ‘us’, as at that time I used to have a most wholesome dread of all that appertained to the art of pyrotechnics, so I’ll say to the big fellows in the School.  As soon as we were thoroughly settled down, and work was in regular-going condition, some of the more adventurous spirits in the School would turn their attention to the composition of fireworks, and most of their spare time at the intervals of business would be devoted to this occupation.  To admit of this prospering, needful materials were required, and accordingly, the small boys were enlisted by hook or by crook to supply a certain amount of waste paper to the trade.  This demand, however, was easily met, as it was no very great hardship to give up old copy books when finished… And so the work continued until the eventful morning arrived when the labours of the past six weeks were to end in nothing but smoke.

I can quite well remember the 5th of November that occurred in my first half year, and doubtless others can as well. For a few days beforehand, importations of half-penny squibs, Roman candles, crackers, &c., had been made from the town, and by the time that the evening for which they were intended came round, everybody was preparing to contribute something to the general row, – excepting poor me!  I did not understand these engines of destruction then, and on being told that a penny cracker cost eighteen pence, I took it all in, believed every word, and only wondered where the fellows found money enough to spend on such frivolities.  For the whole of that day I was more or less uneasy, and when the shades of night began to fall over the world, I think I gave up all hope of surviving the crisis, for such I regarded it.  But why I displayed the white feather so lamentably on that occasion, has been a source of ridicule as well as wonder to myself ever since.  I anticipated that something very terrible would happen in the midst of the excitement, though what, I could not tell; and so by tea time I grew reckless, and wandered about with a dare-devil spirit at work within me, inwardly hoping that somebody would have to repent his rashness before he went to bed that night.

The exhibition was to begin at 7 o’clock and was to continue til chapel time… Now the whole place was alive with fellows hurrying hither and thither in all directions, with these fizzing machines in their hands.  At one time a cracker would disperse a few who had congregated together, or at another a Roman candle would throw up a blue, red, or green ball, and light up the old Abbey in a manner truly most soothing to my lacerated spirits… I buckled up my courage and determined to penetrate amongst the throng.  Thus by catching a squid here, and a cracker dropped there, I contrived to initiate myself into the mysteries of the performance, and at last summing up all my pluck into one final effort, (for I fully expected to have my brains blown out), I compelled myself to light what I afterwards discovered to be a squib that had been used.  There I remained watching the spark and the peculiar smell of the paper, thinking every moment would be my last.  But it naturally went out, and nothing happened.

Such was the way, then, in which I spent my first Fifth of November at School, and I can laugh over it with others now… This was hard upon ten years ago, and so I suppose that there are few left at Sherborne now who can recollect what I’ve described. Since then, moreover, laws have been passed concerning fireworks that make it a crime to let off any in the streets.  Thus “The old order changeth, yielding place to new”, and so, I suppose, these things have somewhat altered since the time of the above.

But what has been gained by all these new-fangled contrivances for the suppression of street nuisances?  Not the desired end, certainly, as the last accounts will show.  Loose characters don’t care to lose the chance of a wild kind of a holiday once a year, and so they get by foul means what they are unable to obtain by fair.  On the evening of the Fifth of November, everybody is more or less in a fright at the ominous silence, and respectable shopkeepers are made very uncomfortable. This was not the case in olden days, I believe, as then all knew what to expect from open play.  But for the sake of the authorities, and out of regard for tight-laced, elderly, nervous old ladies, I do not want for one moment to recall the state of things that existed when I was a small boy at the bottom of the School.’

Extracts from an account (by ‘Ecce’) that appeared in The Shirburnian, December 1868.

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Posted 2 November 2017 by Sherborne School Archives.

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