Fringe Box



Rioting Guys Were In Other Surrey Towns

Published on: 28 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 28 Feb, 2012

Retired Surrey firefighter Ron Shettle has researched and written extensively on the history of fire fighting. Here he adds some interesting facts about the rowdy and often violent behaviour that took place around Bonfire Night during the 19th century – not only in Guildford, but other towns in Surrey as well.

“The word ‘Guys’ was used to denote those who, on November 5th occasions, would dress in weird clothes, often covered in shiny paper strips, along with a face-concealing mask, so that in the dark, it was almost impossible to identify the wearer.

“Such precautions, including secrecy aspects, were essential in avoiding identification for unlawful behaviour.

“‘Guys’ is a word believed to have been used across the country for those wearing this style of dress and was not special to Guildford.

“In his book about 1830 Dorking, Charles Rose recalled that ‘on Guy Fawkes’ Night the streets at night were the scenes of unrestrained lawlessness. The contest between law and lawlessness,
order and disorder, went on from year to year.’

“He remembered a mob rising connected with agricultural worker unrest in November 1830, which entailed the reading of the Riot Act, along with a force of cavalry with 25 sabres and 53 special constables to ‘restore the situation’.

“A further similar military force intended for Dorking, he said, was ‘diverted to Guildford, which was also experiencing unrest. Although taking place in November, these instances do not seem to have been occasioned by Guy Fawkes’ Night’.

“When the focal point was November 5th, George Sturt, who lived near Farnham, wrote in his memoirs, A Small Boy In The Sixties, that ‘on these occasions the town went mad. Lewes was, if possible, the wildest in its celebrations, but otherwise, in all of Southern England, there was no other town ran riot so wantonly, so recklessly as Farnham did. At least, we were proud to think so.’

“Another Farnham man, John Knight, recorded that it was unsafe to drive a horse through Farnham on such occasions.

“Neither was such activity confined to Guy Fawkes’ Night. Minutes of Guildford Borough record that in anticipation of trouble, the Town Beadle was required to ‘Cry down fireworks’ on October 25th, 1798, and September 22nd, 1800, in addition to November 5th occasions.

A brave policeman faces the rioters. Picture from ‘The Guildford Guy Riots’ by Gavin Morgan.

“Local laws were passed prohibiting fireworks in the town in 1776 and 1799. In 1774, a clergyman dining at the White Hart hostelry, then near Holy Trinity Church, recorded a riotous mob burning the effigies of two unpopular tradesmen, again unconnected with November 5th.

“From 1803, the penalty for firework transgression in the town was a fine of between £2 to £5 and if unable to pay, committal to the county jail for up to six months.

“In 1809, the use of fireworks was forbidden for celebrations of George Ill’s 50th anniversary of his reign, so dangerous had become the lawlessness on such occasions.

“It was a bad riot on the Prince of Wales wedding day in March 1863 which forced the Guildford borough elders to take more positive action, when they appointed Mr Jacob as mayor, who would remain in office until the riots were stopped.

“One report referred to the military quashing the riots in 1865. Records show that the Home Office granted the use of a company of soldiers to assist in 1863, which succeeded on November 5th. However, as soon as the troops had left, the rioters turned out in force on the 21st, causing severe damage and, it is said, threw a policeman on their bonfire*.

“The following year, the police had been armed with sabres and dealt with riots on November 1st but had nothing to do on November 5th. 1865 saw the last of the riots, although in that year, a policeman was badly wounded by the ‘Guys’.

Several of them were sentenced to 12 months in jail, the further threats of which probably more effectively closed the Guildford situation.

Bridge Street, Godalming, in the 19th century. The town also witnesses violent disturbances relating to Bonfire Night, with lighted tar barrels dragged through the streets.

“Godalming also had similar problems and 1864 saw a special constable very badly wounded, along with a passerby, while 1876 newspaper reports referred to lighted tar barrels being dragged through Godalming streets, accompanied by mimic warfare between crowd factions, with two people injured.

“A similar serious riot was recorded as late as 1884 at Worthing, entailing the use of the military and the Riot Act.”

* Through Time editor David Rose adds: I’d like to thank Ron for this article that widens the story of violent disturbances across Surrey in the 19th century. The reference to the policeman being thrown on the bonfire at Guildford is an interesting point. However, Gavin Morgan stresses this story is, in his opinion, a myth. I have spoken to the former curator of Guildford Museum, Matthew Alexander, who believes the story may well have originated from Dr George Williamson. He was a former historian who did much to record the town’s history, but such was his enthusiasm it seems he was prone to making claims that could not always be substantiated! For example, take the wooden club with iron spikes through it, now in the collection of Guildford Museum. It is believed to have been used by one of the Guildford Guys. However, Matthew said that it was recovered at a later date, so we can’t be sure that it was ever used at one of the disturbances. It has a lovely engraved silver plaque attached to it that was added by Dr Williamson. On it, it states that the club was ‘used to kill a policeman’.

Share This Post