The Origin Of The Somerset Carnival (Part One)

A Big Booze-up in Bridgwater.

Are you sitting comfortably in your favourite chair, your toes cushioned by one of our gorgeous sheepskin rugs?  Then read on about the tragic, but ultimately successful, story of Carnival in Somerset (or you could just go out and enjoy yourself dressed in our outdoor finery).  Did you know that the famous Bridgwater Carnival, the largest illuminated carnival in the world, may never have come about had it not been for the fact that Somerset was a Protestant stronghold and that there were more pubs per head in Bridgwater than anywhere in the U.K.?

The then king, James I, was also Protestant and on 5th November 1605 his agents discovered a Catholic plot to overthrow him.  Among the plotters was one Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic from York, who had been put in charge of guarding the gunpowder supplies to blow up Parliament.  Once caught, he faced a traitor’s death by hanging, drawing and quartering (ouch).  However, before this gruesome sentence could be carried out, Guy Fawkes fell from the scaffold and broke his neck, thus saving himself from a long and agonising end.

Once the Gunpowder Plot had been defused (pardon the pun), King James I ordered that the event was to be celebrated annually on its anniversary, November 5th, with bonfires throughout the land.  Well, the bibulous burghers of Bridgwater, ever fond of a mug or two of cider, thought this royal pronouncement a fine idea and set about constructing a vast bonfire on the Cornhill, at the town centre.  All the townsfolk attended the celebrations, many dressing in costumes and masks, enabling them to indulge in all manner of jolly japes unrecognised.  All good, clean fun, with the effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and any other personalities who had upset them burnt on the bonfire.

To accompany the festivities hundreds of specialty fireworks made in Bridgwater, Bridgwater Squibs, were let off, starting in the early evening. The merrymaking continued into the wee, small hours and all went well until 1880; oh dear, oh, dear, oh, dear, as a well-known Scottish detective used to say.  having patronised the local hostelries rather more freely than usual, a riot broke out and violent behaviour eclipsed the heretofore good-natured festivities.  At one o’clock in the morning there were still 300 people carousing and the bonfire was going strong.  The town authority ordered the bonfire to be extinguished by the fire brigade and requested the mob to disperse; but they had other ideas.  They grabbed the firehoses and cut them to ribbons; the remaining hoses they turned on the firemen.  One brave fireman refused to abandon a standpipe and was consequently pursued through the town by the irate revellers.  he eventually reached home with minor injuries and had to take cover indoors under police guard.

Alas, this fiasco put the lid on the celebrations in their present form.  (To be continued.)

Released On 27th Dec 2017