This article will explore the interplay between a traditional fête in Devon and Oxfordshire, the celebration of the Fifth of November, and the last significant wave of English food price disturbances in 1867. Both popular culture and collective action mutated, of course, as underlying economic and social structures changed; but even in those regions where the pace of change was rapid, to neglect the factors of persistence and survival would lead to a history written according to a too simplistic formula. To say that culture and collective action changed in the nineteenth century as society and the economy changed can even become a truism, telling little about the processes through which these relationships worked themselves out. Without overdrawing the case, an effort has been made here to focus precisely upon persistence and survival, and to show how, in regions such as the southwest or Oxfordshire—and by implication, many other regions of Britain as well—the pace of nineteenth century cultural, economic, and social change was more leisurely than studies based exclusively on the industrializing north might lead one to conclude.
Besides remaining the celebration of the failure of the Popish Plot of 1605, Guy Fawkes acquired a number of new meanings for those involved in nineteenth century Fifth of November manifestations, and some other novel “uses” as well. Annual celebrations all over the south were frequently organized and mounted by secret or semi-secret societies of “bonfire boys” or “Guys.” Members of the bonfire gangs usually concealed their identities with masks or soot and appeared in uniform or grotesque costumes to preside over the collection of wood and other combustibles, the begging or extortion of money from the wealthy, and the fabrication of suitable effigies to be ritually consumed on the bonfire.