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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s