Bonfire Night and Beyond: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000


Rebecca Wynter

This blog is by Dr Rebecca Wynter, Research Fellow on the ‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000’ project with co-investigators Professor Jonathan Reinarz (PI, University of Birmingham) and Dr Shane Ewen (Co-I, Leeds Beckett University). You can follow Rebecca on Twitter @rebeccawynter.

It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in. Red and gold autumn beds in with a dark Halloween and the scent of wood smoke and saltpetre from a Bonfire Night remembering the ‘gunpowder, treason and plot’ of Guy Fawkes and others, who wanted to blow up King and Parliament in 1605. How quintessentially British.

In 1935, on the south coast of England, alongside a recipe for Halloween Cake on ‘The Home Page’, the 30 October edition of Portsmouth Evening News published ‘Safety First on Bonfire Night’. ‘When everything goes as it should, November 5 is one of the happiest nights of the year: if anything goes wrong, it is liable to be disastrous’. This dark side should come as no surprise for a British tradition that has as its centrepiece the burning of an effigy of a state-tortured man. Throughout the Portsmouth newspaper column were other indications that Bonfire Night was predicated on British cultures – cultures involving age, domesticity, gender and dress.  ‘Older children … must be out and firing the rockets themselves, and probably risking the lives of their fellows, too. Here it is that the father of the family, preferably assisted by another adult, needs to be on guard to see that no serious injury results’. It was the task of both parents to ‘consider the possibility of sparks, and accordingly see that [children’s] hair [was] safely tucked under caps.’

A few days later, on 6 November 1935 at the opposite end of England, on the North-East coast, Hull Daily Mail reported that two children had been ‘injured as the result of taking part in the “Glorious Fifth.”’ Eleven-year-old James was wounded by an exploding firework. The story of Penny,* aged 15, ‘of Goddard-avenue … [who] was badly burned when she fell on to a dying bonfire in Reynoldson-street’, ended with her swift transfer to the Beverley Road Institution from Hull Royal Infirmary, where she had first been ‘treated for burns to both legs, [and her] right hand, and forearm’.

What became of Penny we know not.  She may have died, as invariably did extensively burns-injured people before the 1940s advent of the ‘golden age of antibiotics’. She may have been lucky. Perhaps the burns did not penetrate beneath the top layers of skin. Perhaps her body healed. But the scars and the potential impact they had on her physical appearance and movements would have remained with her for the rest of her life, moulding who she became and how she thought about fire, her injury and treatment, as well as those who cared for her.

Through Penny, we can begin to map the path a burns incident made through the city. We can see suggestions of how her identity prior to burns impacted on her location and treatment. After the main excitement of 1935’s Bonfire Night had passed, she had made her way from her home to a neighbouring street, where she was injured. She was taken to the hospital with the best staff, facilities and treatment, but was quickly moved to what had been a workhouse infirmary. What could we do with more information – information about the design and material culture of home, neighbourhood, city, nation and country; information about the professions that shaped British emergency and medical responses to burns? What could we do with the full story of the aftermath of a teenage girl’s injury in this much larger cultural landscape?

The new four-year AHRC-funded project, ‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000’ will excavate and retrieve such information in order to explore how burns, scalds and fire have shaped personal, professional, regional and national identity, and to help inform future UK burns prevention strategies. To do so, the project will explore global, imperial and national shifts in knowledge, technology, fuel and transport, from the wood fires and steam engines of the 1800s, to the jets and nuclear energy of the atomic age.  It will also reveal how the changes altered burns and scalds and their treatment – Polar frostbite and Indian sunburn will be examined, as well as mustard gas and radiation, for example.

‘Forged by Fire’ will take in research on rural settings, on Belfast and Cardiff, and on ‘iconic’ national fires. However, it will focus on three urban case studies: Birmingham, Glasgow and London. These three cities offer dramatically different local milieux through which to map the implications of domestic life, class and industry for burns and scalds, from Birmingham’s back-to-backs and ‘a thousand trades’ and Glasgow’s tenements and shipyards, to London’s slums and constant cross-cultural exchanges. These case studies will enable us to see how people lived and how place, age, gender, race, war and play impacted on the sorts of injuries sustained and first aid applied.

L0026924 A log fire with a guard in front, which a little boy touches

The project will also consider the longer-term impact of accident investigation and health and safety on the development of the urban landscape, and also how fires and explosions galvanised political action on the streets and in Parliament. Our investigations will therefore reveal group identities and diverse individual stories of people in Britain – Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English, refugee and migrant. We will engage with the experiences of those injured and those who supported them: fire service and ambulance staff, and the surgeons, anaesthesiologists, nurses, therapists, dieticians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and others who would eventually coalesce into multi-disciplinary teams at specialist burns units.

So rather than remember the story of a terrorist that was deployed to distract people from the everyday tribulations of British life, perhaps recall those like Penny and the countless others who have been injured by the vernacular fuel and safety cultures of the UK. Because in the past danger did not usually come from Halloween ghouls or would-be bombers, but – as is currently being revealed by initial research using coroners’ inquests held at Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Library of Birmingham – was harboured in the hazardous workplaces and impoverished homes of working people.

L0075291 Photographs of flannette garments fire tests, 1910

You can follow the progress of the ‘Forged by Fire’ project via Twitter (@BurnsHistory) and our current WordPress blog (

The newspapers consulted for this blog post are digitised by British Newspapers Online, an online subscription service. The images used are rights free (image 1, via Flickr), or under CC BY 4.0 license via the Wellcome Library, London (images 2 and 3).

*Names retain the first letter of the original but, though the names appeared in the press, they are altered for considerations of anonymity.

The Big Bang: a fairy tale in London


Emma Barrett

Emma Barrett is a doctoral researcher in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Her research interests are the ideological and material interests behind financial deregulation in the 1980s.

Once upon a time… there lived a noble and chivalrous group of knights in a great big castle called the Stock Exchange…

So began John Redwood’s 1984 ‘“fairy tale” on reform of the Stock Exchange’, in which he likened stockbrokers to medieval barons who operated the Exchange like a cartel and pillaged from hardworking peasants.


Fairy tale castle by Alice Barrett


My research into Thatcher’s financial revolution follows networked individuals, chiefly ‘financial politicians’, those like Redwood, who possessed City backgrounds relevant to performance of their role as politicians; and ‘political bankers’, financiers who exercised political influence in or beyond their own sphere.

This conceptualization affords a network analysis of financial deregulation, revealing differing motivations for reform, and importantly, the working of power in modern Britain.  Broadly, key political bankers acted to protect and enhance London’s status as a world financial centre, while principal financial politicians eschewed a rigid plan for the City in favour of an overarching strategy of purposeful intervention. Their objective was to create and maintain markets which would endure a period of rapid change.

Redwood was the consummate ‘financial politician’: He moved seamlessly between City and Government and in 1984 was Head of Thatcher’s Policy Unit, a strategic operator who formulated City policy underpinning financial deregulation.

According to Redwood’s fairy tale, the wise and benevolent Government ended abuses associated with monopolistic practices by introducing free market competition.

Reform of the Stock Exchange was planned by the Government and City from 1983 and was effected on 27 October 1986, thirty years ago this week, when restrictive trading practices ended and computerised trading began.

Changes were implemented on one day to ensure market stability, giving rise to the term Big Bang. The moniker also anticipated an explosion in the volume of transactions resulting from technological capability and Thatcherite Government policy – notably privatisations and the pursuit of a share-owning democracy.

Demolition of the Stock Exchange castle opened the City to international competition, confirmed London as a world financial centre, and established a global economy by freeing capital of any origin to be traded anywhere in real-time.

Culturally, Big Bang marked the ‘death of gentlemanly capitalism’ as new market entrants, mostly foreign multinationals, were impervious to traditional informal methods of ‘moral suasion’ famously exercised by the Governor of the Bank of England. New regulation accompanied Big Bang – notably the 1986 Financial Services Act which introduced a system of self-regulation under a statutory framework, granting the industry a high degree of autonomy.

From 1983, merger and acquisition activity was rife: firms expanded as stockjobber and stockbroker operations (which had previously functioned distinctly) were bought-up by those seeking to offer a full range of services. Changes in ownership structures meant well-capitalised multinational corporations quickly dominated the landscape, seeking easy access to European markets, and the advantages of Britain’s relaxed operating conditions. Their presence led to a ‘Wimbledonisation effect’, as small domestic firms were absorbed and increasingly top players on City turf were foreigners. Geographically the City expanded from the Square Mile to Canary Wharf, fuelled by North American investment capital. Cultural change associated with financial liberalisation was compounded by big City salaries and the phenomenon of the yuppie.

London emerged from Big Bang as a global city for world finance – alongside Tokyo and New York. Its physical location between the two facilitated 24-hour world trading. Language; London’s established infrastructure and access to markets; and its desirability as a place to live added to its attractions. Yet these natural advantages were augmented by political actors who intervened to protect the City by pursuing free markets, light-touch regulation and a low tax regime.

The City, from the time of Big Bang, has evoked a North/South, haves/have-nots binary divide, which is part of a Thatcherite legacy embedded in the British psyche. Thatcherism embraced structural change whilst its policies and practices hastened Britain’s shift from a manufacturing to a service sector economy. Strengthening London as a world financial centre was a strategy to arrest Britain’s domestic and international decline, while providing for the UK economy as a whole.

However distasteful and amoral light-touch tax and regulation is perceived to be, Big Bang ensured the centrality of financial services to the UK’s growth model. In the absence of a viable alternative strategy, UK plc is heavily dependent on its financial sector as the City contributes disproportionately to UK GDP, with financial and related services accounting for 14.5% of GDP in 2014.[1]

In the context of Brexit this truly matters – for the City, in general, was pro-Remain and has since denounced the effects of a hard Brexit for it and implicitly, therefore, the country. During the referendum campaign the Bank of England was accused of acting politically, and while it surely had a duty to articulate concerns, it does have a long history of political intervention on behalf of the City, especially when its status as a world financial centre is at stake.

More recently American giants Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley expressed concerns about the potential loss of EU pass-porting arrangements which allow seamless transactions throughout Europe. They have issued warnings about relocations and tens of thousands of job losses in the City. Clearly competitive advantages obtained with Big Bang are now considered at risk.

The rationale for Big Bang was to win competitive advantage in world markets. If London is to retain its status as a world financial centre and provide for the UK as a whole, it must have easy access to world markets. The history of Big Bang tells us that political actors, particularly those at the heart of Government, are highly likely to intervene to protect the City in the interests of the economy. Yet it is difficult to reconcile Big Bang and Brexit, for there is a contradiction between Conservative advocacy for free markets and a desire to knock down the Stock Exchange castle on the one hand, and advocacy for withdrawal from the EU, and thus the single market, by building a wall around fortress Britain, on the other.


Fortress Britain? Windsor Castle by Francisco Antunes.



Pinning down the Prince of Tricksters


Matt Houlbrook

So what’s it about then?

Good question.

It doesn’t get any easier to explain what Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook is about. How do you reduce a book to a couple of sentences when the clock is ticking and someone is looking at you sceptically?

This is a book about a prolific storyteller, and the power of his stories to both evoke and unsettle the world in which he told them…

This is also a book about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, and how Lucas’s stories offer a guide – unreliable, yet more revealing for that – to a world undergoing far-reaching change.


The easy option: copy-and-paste here, quote myself parrot-like at a coffee shop table.

It is a good question and a difficult question.

Prince of Tricksters tells a story about a life: a smooth-talking confidence trickster; an ersatz aristocrat – the Right Honourable Basil Vaughan; a Borstal boy and down-and-out; a confessing ex-crook, telling his tales for money to the News of the World; a prolific crime writer and criminologist; a literary fraudster and renowned royal biographer; a violent drunk, washed-up, alcoholic, and dead before his fortieth birthday.

A different take: it tells stories about lives that are both bewildering and absorbing. And each of these lives is rooted in the warp and the weft, and the sights and the sounds, of places that are equally bewildering and absorbing. A shabby office looking onto a Toronto park; an elegantly decorated bachelor pad off London’s Piccadilly; a reception room in Madrid’s royal palace; a smog-filled piss-smelling railway arch where a young man slept sought; a prison cell where he shivered and sobbed.


It did not start this way, but it became a book about one man because his stories drew me in –not realising where pursuing him would lead. It became a book about one man because I started to see, and smell, and hear, and feel the places through which he moved. That felt sense of the nearness of the past also drew me in.

Did I end up writing a biography?

Prince of Tricksters follows the shape of a life. It starts with a death – his death – but once that is done it has a beginning, a middle, and an end that map onto the years that passed in the lives of Netley Lucas. The passage of biographical time is not where that shape came from, however.

The book is about the 1920s and 1930s. Telling stories about lives – my way of exploring an historical moment. In the nervous times after the Great War, as syncopated jazz rhythms evoked a pervasive mood of uncertainty rooted in a changing economy, society, and culture, confidence was at a premium. Who or what could be trusted? That question was raised by the charming stranger and the sensational newspaper headline. It was repeated by biographies of the great and good that promised great revelations and the ‘authentic’ life-story, and shouted louder still by boosterish politicians and advertising.


This was a historical moment in which confidence was at a premium, and the confidence trickster became an archetypal figure. Perhaps that is what Prince of Tricksters is about.

Rather than the passage of biographical time, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the book is shaped by my efforts to understand how confidence was cultivated and secured in social, cultural, and political life.

It is about the history of crime – the rise and fall of the gentlemanly confidence trickster; the conditions that allowed him (it is about gender too) to flourish in seaside resorts and upscale hotels like the Ritz; the detectives that tried to put an end to his deceptions. That those deceptions did come to an end means that it is also about prison and Borstal, training ships and penal farms. Setting out that history is my way of showing how the drama of the confidence trick became exemplary of everyday social exchange in a society of strangers.



It is about the history of the press and publishing. The furiously industrious pen of ‘The Prince of Tricksters’ brought into being a succession of newspaper ‘confessions’ and ‘exclusives’ on sensational crimes. Later – once the deceptions on which his tales rested had been exposed – that pen turned to saccharine biographies of Queen Mary and the Aga Khan. I have read all of these so you do not have to do the same, and to make sense of how the transformation of journalism and publishing provided opportunities for a young man on the make. It is about the unlikely ways in which the lines between high, middlebrow, and low culture – supposedly so impermeable in the time of Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot – dissolved in the 1920s and 1930s.



Did I end up in conversation with literary critics and scholars of modernism?

Most unexpected of all: it is about the history of monarchy, as retold through an account of the scandalous rise and fall of Evelyn Graham’s bogus biography factory. A renowned royal biographer went to prison for forging the signature of a courtier and faking the life-story of a queen. A literary scandal – an opportunity to set out the freighted politics of culture and the efforts of courtiers to shape the image of Britain’s royal family at a time when the institution seemed more beleaguered than ever. It is about the making of a modern monarchy which remains familiar today.

So what’s it about then?

Flamboyant lies and lives; crime, culture, monarchy; Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Prince of Tricksters is about all and none of these things.

It is a book about what it means to write history, and the ways in which we might make history differently. There is nothing like an elusive trickster, prone to changing names and stories, to expose the limits of what we can know about the past.

Telling stories about a life might seem an unlikely way of entering into conversation with historical theory and historiography. That is what I have tried to do, however. It has been a deliberate decision to switching from the comfortable rhythms of ‘academic’ writing into the strange-sounding stranger-looking form of a screenplay. History itself is a kind of storytelling. The scholarly apparatus of footnote and bibliography claim our confidence. Set against other ways of telling stories about the past, however, we see more clearly a discipline which is itself a ‘fictive undertaking.’

The historian as trickster – a charlatan of a certain kind, hiding among the masks and mirrors of proper scholarship.

Prince of Tricksters is also an argument about what critical history might me, made through the forms and rhythms of my writing and my subject’s lives.


It is also a book about me, but not always in ways that are immediately obvious.



Hay Festival

David Gange

It was once a well-worn, nostalgically nationalist, trope that the creation of the modern British Isles had involved the gradual detachment of society from ‘the land’. There’s more truth, perhaps, in the idea that the processes of modernity led to disengagement from the water. The number of ferry crossings in the Scottish mainland has plummeted over the last two centuries. Hundreds of small island communities have been lost because of clearances, unrealistic rents or just the demands of modern life. Farmland, edgeland and city have been drained and dried out to ease overland movement.


One of the major differences between the late-modern experience of the north-east Atlantic archipelago and that of earlier people comes from this marginalisation of water. It can be tempting for historians to take today’s geography for granted, despite the fact that Britain was turned outside in by roads and rail. The mainland’s arteries – the M1, M6, and even the West Coast Mainline – now run through the spine rather than along the external sea-roads that once predominated. Coasts and islands carry very different meanings than they once possessed: they’re often thought of as being remote and empty where their history is actually one of commerce and communication.

In recent years there has been a great deal of theorisation of movement as both an object of study and a scholarly method: Tim Ingold’s work is an excellent example, as are the outputs of many psychogeographic centres and study groups. Excellent histories, from Gillian Tindall’s Footsteps in Paris to Matthew Kellys’ Quartz and Feldspar have made use of these developments. Yet they usually equate movement with walking on land. In his otherwise wonderful Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (2011), Ingold even dismisses all travel over water in a single footnote.

The last couple of years have seen some pushback against that situation, particularly within the growing coastal history movement. The first Coastal History conference was organised by the University of the Highlands and Islands in March this year, bringing together over a hundred scholars interested in the perspectives on history that the edges of land and sea provide. The diversity of methods and ideas about the place of coasts in history was staggering.

It’s in that context that I decide to start a project writing British history from the perspectives of Atlantic coastlines, and to research it by kayak. I’ve now kayaked all the Atlantic coasts of Shetland and Orkney and am currently half way down the Western Isles, meeting bigger seas than I’ve had to deal with so far:


The book that results from this will be called The Frayed Atlantic Edge: a Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel and will be published by Harper Collins. You can find more about it at

Places such as Shetland and Lewis are astonishingly culturally different from one another. One of my tasks is to explore how similar ingredients of weather, land and sea have been transformed into widely divergent communities through the processes of history. This is the itinerary I’ve taken on:


It’s a version of the British Isles in which only the final leg (of 12) takes place in England and the number of languages encountered will be greater than many people realise exist in this region.

Although the coast itself – littered with the ruins of millennia and full of communities with long collective memory – is the main archive, this is also a kayak between some extraordinary archival collections. Ironically, many places that often go unmentioned in general histories of Britain – Shetland, Orkney, Lewis – have some of the best resources.

The Shetland Museum and Archive is perhaps the most wonderful archive I’ve ever used: it’s huge, well-staffed and prominent in Shetland life. The Orkney Sound Archive is full of extraordinary descriptions of uses of the sea from generations of Orcadians.

Alongside the large central repositories, there are a host of rich local collections. From the archive of the Unst Boat Haven, to those of the Westray Heritage Centre and Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society on Lewis) there’s an extraordinary amount of material that is well-thumbed by those writing local studies but entirely unintegrated into general British histories.

These are also regions in which experiments in historical method have been different than elsewhere. The Gaelic scholar Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart has, for instance, written intriguing things on the use of oral studies for the medieval and early modern history of Lewis. The archaeologists Antonia Thomas and Dan Lee have done fantastic work on the meanings of the Norse and Neolithic landscapes of Orkney to nineteenth and twentieth century crofters. The idea of ‘the archive of the feet’, championed by historians such as Jim Hunter, is better established for these Atlantic edges than anywhere else in Britain.

So there’s an extraordinary amount to work with in attempting to conceptualise how British history looks from the perspective of these coastlines. The effort to find ways of writing about how movement and observation from the water can be a historical method might need a little more ingenuity. Another priority, in our current historical climate, will be to find a mode of writing in which people, environment and animals play equal roles. After all, I’m rarely waking up from my waterproof sleeping bag without finding something staring me in the eye: