A Brief History of the Origins of the Glastonbury Carnival
Early Celebrations of Bonfire Night
The first recorded reference to an organised Procession taking place on the 5th November is in the 9th November 1854 edition of the Central Somerset Gazette (CSG). This appears to indicate that there was a carnival procession of some sort in 1854, and therefore that the Glastonbury Carnival was established some 160 years’ ago.
It should be noted that at this time the High Street was nothing but a dirt track with open sewers running down it. In 1865 there is reference to the Town Council stating that Cholera might be expected.
Various references have been found, in CSG, to Carnival Processions over the years up to 1870 including observations on there being no band, and that were it not for a few Bonfires and a display of first class Squibbing it would have been difficult to believe it was the 5th November. On one occasion two glass windows were broken at the Rev. Allnuts residence. It was being suggested that Avalonians had grown tired of Bonfire Festivals.
In 1870 the following letter appeared in the CSG:
Our attention has been lately occupied by the report of the Government Inspector sent to Glastonbury to inspect the nuisance which exists in our Town. I mean such as one which occurred on Saturday night last. THE FIRING OF SQUIBS and other things, exposing property to fire. If those entrusted with Law and Order in the Town will not do their duty, the sooner we get the stipendiary magistrate in their place the better.
Signed: A LOVER OF LAW AND ORDER
In 1875 it was reported that Bonfire Night was a decidedly tame affair compared with other years, old hands have given way to youngsters and the result was anything but favourable to those who liked to see the anniversary kept up with éclat. There was no procession, no Guy and very few Tar Barrels. This suggests that processions had been held in previous years, and also confirms that for many years it was the practice on the 5th November, to race down the High Street with lighted Tar Barrels.
A report of the 1880 Bonfire Night read: The Anniversary of the frustration of the gunpowder plot was celebrated with more than the usual spirit on Friday evening. Proceedings commenced with a Firework Carnival in Benedict Street School, admission was by ticket, here the fun ran high, music was provided by the Avalonians Band. Soon after 9pm the Band paraded the Town and spirits were aroused. At the top of the Town a procession was formed and marched to the Market Place (Cross). Squibs and crackers were let off en route. Around the Cross and up the Town again to the strains of the Band, on turning at the top of the Town an individual took the lead with a Tar Barrel which he bore aloft in triumph and at last deposited it in front of Mr Barnes shop, where it blazed away cheerfully). The proceeds were brought to an end at 11pm, when the Deputy Chief Constable told the crown that he would not summons anyone for what had been done previously. This piece of good Generalship earned Deputy Bisgrove three hearty cheers and the crowd dispersed.
This the first clear reference to an organised procession but lighted tar barrels, and races with them down the High Street to the Cross, continued to be a feature.
Later on in 1891, it was reported in the ‘Avalon Independent’ that two rival groups had been competing to organise the November celebration. These were the ‘Bonfire Boys’ who had been responsible for many years’ organising the Bonfire on November 5th, and a new a new group calling themselves the ‘Carnival Club’. Agreement could not be reached and a public meeting was eventually called, attended by several hundred people. Here it was resolved that a new Committee, to be styled ‘The Glastonbury and District Carnival Club’, would be formed to organise the event. However, the ‘Bonfire Boys’ did not accept this and arranged their own huge bonfire at the top of the Town, while the new committee organised theirs at the Market Cross. Two separate processions were held and they paraded along Benedict Street, Magdalene Street, Bere Lane, Chilkwell Street, Manor House Road, and Northload Street.
In the account in the 7th November edition it was noted that when the two processions met in Northload Street, there were no problems and they made room for each to pass by. At the conclusion of the processions, a grand display of Fireworks was held in the Market Place, tar barrels were lit in the High Street, and the fun was kept up ‘til Midnight. At this time Mr Bisgood, Deputy Chief Constable, appeared and congratulated everyone on such a peaceful display, saying his Officers had enjoyed a “night free of duty”.The crowd called for three cheers for the popular Deputy Chief Constable, the Fire Brigade then extinguished all fires and the crowd wended their way home. (The full article is contained in an appendix to this brief history)
There is a record of a meeting held by the Glastonbury Bonfire Boys in the Crown Hotel, on Monday 17th October 1900, to consider the steps to be taken to celebrate November 5th that year. They decided to hold a bonfire and Carnival at the Market Cross on the 5th November, with the Town Band in attendance, but that no procession would be held. A balance sheet was presented to the meeting showing a balance from the previous year’s income of £3 9s 5d, suggesting that some form of carnival procession was held.
In 1901 it was reported that the Guy Fawkes Anniversary celebration was low key. There were no bonfires and the town was enveloped in a pall of fog, which dampened the effect of a few fitful Squibs let off by juveniles. Similarly in 1902 it was observed that Guy Fawkes Day passed by largely unobserved, apart from a few desultory explosions of a cracker or squib by youngsters, a did not compare with the ‘spirited’ events of past years. During the First World War, 1914-1918, there were no celebrations.
In 1920 the following comment appeared in the CSG: Glastonbury Guy Fawkes Carnival like many other old time local customs has now been relegated to ‘Has Been’. Since it has disappeared form our midst, the festivities have been unorganised and spasmodic, but we were not allowed altogether to forget the 5th November. There was a large exodus to Bridgwater Carnival on Thursday last. However some did have a Bonfire at Hill Head and Chilkwell Street for the children to dance around.
It appears that this was the low point from which the modern town Carnival and Bonfire Night has gone from strength to strength. From here on there has always been some kind of celebration held on 5th November within the town. Bonfires were customarily held at Chilkwell Street, Hill Head and a the Market Cross, and some squibbing and marching bands were arranged.
The Modern Carnival
The origins of the present day Glastonbury Chilkwell Guy Fawkes Carnival lie in discussions at some time in 1920/21 in the Rifleman’s Arms public house, in Chilkwell Street. A group of a dozen pub regulars, including Harry Ford, Frank Talbot, Frank Green, Lou Nurse, William Hersey, Frank Green, Les Walters, Harry Maidment, Len Fowen, Jim Maidment, Fred Mortimore and Sgt. Goddard, decided to organise a ‘Chilkwell Guy Fawkes Carnival’.
In 1923 it was said that there were indications of approaching fun several days beforehand. On the 5th November a large party of masqueraders paraded through the Town with a guy, accompanied by frequent explosions of Squibs. A number of Bonfires were lit, in Benedict Street, Hill Head and Chilkwell Street, and dancing took place in the paddock, corner of Bere Lane and Chilkwell Street. Refreshments, including a barrel of cider which was soon consumed were provided by Harry Maidment,
In 1925 it was reported that a large fire was lit in Chilkwell Street, by kind permission of the farmer George Mapstone, and after the procession around the Town, a squibbing display was held in there too. The CSG newspaper carried an advert for the Wells City Carnival Procession with prize money of £50.
By 1928 the organised procession now included ‘carts’, with many now coming from Bridgwater and surrounding areas, as well as walking entries. The ‘carts’ were literally horse-drawn farm carts, before the advent of motor vehicles. The use of ‘torches’, cans of paraffin held on a long pole with a thick taper into the tin, which when lit they would burn for several hours, meant that ‘carts’ could have rudimentary illumination. The route started in Chilkwell Street and then went down the High Street and Benedict Street, and then back up again into Magdalene Street, up Fisher’s Hill and Bere Lane to finish in Chilkwell Street.
The total income, reported by the Treasurer William Hersey was £11 3s. 4d. To augment this the Committee held raffles, Harvest Home sales, jumble sales, house-to-house collections, concerts, dances in the Assembly Rooms, horse racing in the Abbey Park, and fetes and open air dances in the Park. A Xmas Party was held for the local children in the Assembly Rooms.
A Carnival Queen featured for the first time in 1934. Together with her maids they received £2 for dresses. The 1936 committee accounts showed expenditure of £31 on Carnival Prize Money, 1s. 6d. on powder for dance floor, 16s to hire of Burtle Band, £2 7s. 6d. for hire of the Assembly Rooms, £1 to hire the Town Band and 6s. 4d. for their refreshments, and 8s.for refreshments for the Wells City Fire Brigade.
No carnivals were held during the Second World War, 1939-45 In 1946 more carnival club entries were appearing including several clubs (Lime Kiln CC & Golden Lion CC) from Bridgwater, and from Wells (Clare’s CC). The Somerset County Carnival Association was formed in 1952 with the aim of ensuring consistency of rules and safety requirements across all participating carnivals. Glastonbury joined this grouping in 1953, the following year.
According to the CSG in 1960 the Carnival commenced at 7pm and had finished by 8.30pm, and Public Houses were closed at 11pm. The Devonshire Arms CC of Bridgwater won the Open Tableau and Lime Kiln CC also of Bridgwater the Open Feature. The street collection totalled £127.
In 1963 the Carnival Committee, having incurred a loss of £19 from the two previous Carnivals and facing costs of £200, decided they could not organise a Carnival that year. However, with some public support the local King William Carnival Club staged a reduced event of five carts, including those of Lime Kiln CC of Bridgwater and Wick CC, on 22nd November.
By 1964 a new Committee had been formed with support from Morlands, with Councillor Maurice Bush as Chairman and Ron Moss as Secretary. The Carnival carts were now much improved, and were being drawn by farm tractors together with a small generator for lighting in place of the old flaming torches that had disappeared in the late 1950s. An occasional horse drawn ‘cart’ still appeared, mostly with the Young farmers Clubs, and was still very popular with the spectators. Between 1965 and 1968 the Carnival continued still made a loss although the event survived and, by making the Chippenham Crackpots the main collectors, things began to improve.
Carnival steadily improved and by 1974 there were several more local clubs entering including Falcons (of Walton), Goldfinch, Avalon and the Phantoms carnival clubs as well as support from Wells and the surrounding area. During the 1970s the Mid-Somerset Gangs and Features association was formed, with all affiliated clubs now bound by common rules and conditions of entry. However, Bridgwater clubs still dominated the Prize List.
In 1987 the street collection was over £10,000 for the first time, with the Avalon Round Table taking over the collecting, and there were over 70,000 spectators in the town. Over £6,000 was given out in attendances and prizes, and local clubs, such as King William CC, were challenging the established Bridgwater clubs for the awards. The Carnival committee became a limited company in 1991, and by 1994 there were 80-100,000 spectators with £12,000 being distributed to charities.
The original procession route throughout the 1960’s and 70’s was from Benedict Street into Northload Street, up Manor House Road into Archers Way and down the High Street finishing back in Benedict Street. Later on the procession continued to form up in Benedict Street (spreading into Mill Lane as well) and then progressed up the High Street, along Lambrook and Chilkwell Streets, then along Bere Lane, and Fishers Hill before finishing in Street Road with dispersal on the Street bypass. With the opening of the A39 relief road from 1996 new possibilities opened up for forming up on there and starting from Beckery or Northload roundabouts towards Wirral Park, along Street Road and into the town along Magdalene Street and the High Street and into Wells Road before dispersing back on the relief road.
Also in 1996 the Committee began raising funds to build facilities for itself and local Carnival Clubs, however costs escalated from £100,000 to over £168,000. Eventually the Butler Carnival Park, named for Herb Butler a key member of the fundraising committee and initially comprising four cart-building sheds, was opened on 12th August 2000. Further sheds have been added and, in 2014, are occupied by Wick, King William, Key Kids, Cobra, Gorgons and Mendip Vale carnival clubs.
In 2005 the record collection of £29,000 was achieved. From 2012 Glastonbury has been the final of the Guy Fawkes circuit occurring always on the third Saturday in November.
Research by Ern Holley-Simpson with additional material by Peter Lander from 1987 onwards.