It must have been the lead up to bonfire night 1974 or 1975, I was 11 or 12. At least I think I was 11 or 12; in fact when I started writing this, I began to question whether what I am about to recount ever really happened at all.
Perhaps we all do this, or maybe it is just a quirk of mine, I don’t know, but as I get older I have a tendency to disbelieve some of the things my memory is telling me or rather to question whether I am at least remembering it correctly......
Anyway, let’s get on with the tale.
Beeston, The area of Leeds that I lived in, was undergoing a comprehensive demolition of outdated Victorian housing: Row upon row of cheek to jowl back to back terraced housing was being demolished and cleared. Making way for the last bloom of local authority social housing to be built in England.
The empty houses attracted kids like magnets, exploring, and getting up to no good (at least in the eyes of adults), and never more so that that Bonfire season.
There was always rivalry between the kids of the district’s neighbourhoods as to who would have the biggest and best bonfire, it was a source of much local pride.
Raiding parties were frequestly despatched; a group of kids would venture out and steal wood from neighbouring bonfires.
As the days rolled closer to the 5th and excitement and rivalry increased between the groups, it was not uncommon for a bonfire to be ‘mysteriously’, and needless to say prematurely lit. If you couldn’t nick their wood, you’d burn their wood!
We posted guards whenever we could.
The house clearances were a rich source of material on our chumping expeditions (if the word chumping is unfamiliar to any of you, it is the term for gathering wood for the bonfire, and I believe is a term that is pretty much exclusive to the former West Riding of Yorkshire).
We would scout the area, hunting down old doors, window frames, tea chests, furniture, anything that would burn. We were like soldier ants a co-ordinated and well directed force spreading out from the hub of our bonfire site, which was a piece of scrub land behind the garages on St Luke’s Green.
We used to start in early October, home from school, tea eaten and then out till half seven week days (always had to be in before Coronation Street started). We’d scavenge weekends too, a good few hours until we got bored with the chump, when we’d usually just sit around in the best of the old chairs and sofas that were littered about the growing pile of timber that was our bonfire.
The sofas and chairs were always the last to be put on the pile, they were an impromptu Autumnal al fresco youth club.
To try and control the kids' enthusiasm for breaking in to the condemned properties, the demolition crews would strip out the wooden doors, window frames, and staircases and leave them stacked for the chumpers; it was always a mad rush, bogeys, prams and trolleys to the fore, piled high to get as much of the bounty ahead of our rivals.
Now, that particular year, Beeston Congregtional Church was to be demolished. This was in our patch, and not much more than a stone’s throw away from our bonfire site.
Built in 1865, the church was a rather splendid red brick Italianesque building. In it’s day it could seat 700 and had a large open hall with rows of rustic pews fronting an alter pulpit at the rear of which was, at least in the eyes of an 11 year old Beeston lad, a magnificent church organ, replete above and beside with an array of silver painted wooden organ pipes.
The church soon came under our scrutiny, and recce parties were despatched to assess what was available. Despite a makeshift fence being erected around the church and frequent visits by a security guard and his dog, it wasn’t long before we got inside.
It was like an Aladdin’s cave, wood was everywhere, the pews, wall panels, stairs to the upper galleries, and there in all their spectacular glory were the organ pipes, standing to attention, and demanding our attention.
I can’t recall the actual organ itself, nor the pulpit, and looking back now I hope and pray that we did not ‘liberate’ those items, but much to my shame and now utter remorse I can confess that we did, for sure, take those organ pipes.
They were removed one by one, and hauled over the shoulders of our troop back to our site. At the time the longest of the pipes seemed to be truly massive, and I think they surely must have been because we dismantled our amorphous woodpile and arranged the pipes in wigwam fashion to reform the skeleton of our bonfire. Clothed in a flesh of wooden doors, skirtings, dadoes, palettes and ultimately the sofas and chairs, the evidence of our pilfering was hidden within, for no one to see.
We never did get the pews or stairs as when our scavenging came to light the site was quickly cleared by a salvage company and, well, that was pretty much that.
Our bonfire was zealously guarded, the biggest and the best of course.
Families started gathering around half past five on the fifth, with their biscuit tins of Standard fireworks, Sparklers and bangers galore, cinder toffee, parkin and pie and peas. The inevitable drizzle never damping our excitement and enthusiasm. The hubbub increasing as 6.15 approached – lighting time!
The Guy was hauled out, a manikin of old trousers and jumper stuffed with newspapers, a paper mache’d balloon for a head, painted with a grin, and hoisted to the top of his pyre. King of his castle, master of all he surveyed.
I can’t remember if we needed petrol, sometimes we did sometimes we didn’t. But, lit it was, much to the pleasure and delight of the gathered throng, cheering and chattering.
The burning bonfire held peoples’ attention for the first few minutes, before dispersing to small groups, letting off their Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and Chrysanthemum Fountains.
And then, it started.
The whirl, a high tone, grabbing people’s attention.
"What was that?"
All eyes returned to the fire, Guy Fawkes glaring down as the high pitched groan extended.
Holding its tone, pitch perfect.
And then a duet, a trio....one by one the pipes started to sing.
The fire blazing and Guy staring, laughingly down, as the super heated air was dragged relentlessly by the ravenous flames through the organ pipes, each coming on song, the flames licking and dancing to their combined tune.
Everyone looked on, stunned, silent, until the fire loosened it’s collar, gave away it’s secret, the tops of the organ pipes revealing themselves in all their screaming glory. Guy smoking, but still laughing before yielding to the lament of the fire’s song, which trailed off quickly after.
Clips around lug’oyles were deftly administered, but pretty soon forgotten.
Bonfire Night 1974 or 1975