Custom survived: Penny for the Guy

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A few years back I was in discussion with someone and the topic of Penny for the Guy arose. At that moment we both realised that we had not seen this once very common customs for decades. Indeed, it was so common perhaps it was less commonly reported by folklorists being so ubiquitous. There are a wide range of accounts. In the 1974 Folklore of Staffordshire by Jon Raven records:

“During the nineteenth century the children made their collection for the Guy and would sing the following ditty:

“Pray a hapenny for a taper

An a hapenny for a match,

An a happeny for a faggot

An another for a match

Pray gee us for some money

For crackers and powder

To charge all our canons

An mack them sound louder

Pray gee us a jacket

To dress Guy the infernal

Of a fire eternal.”

In the 1976 Folklore of the Welsh borders Jacqueline Simpson records:

“Gangs of children roaming the streets demanding pennies”.

The decline is also hinted by Doris Barker in her 1977 Folklore of Hertfordshire states:

“Groups of children – no longer just the poor – many with paper mache masks instead of the soot blacken faces customary in many places until the middle of this century, still go from door to door in villages and towns with traditional Guys asking ‘Penny for the Guy’ – with inflation expecting more -for money to buy fireworks and sometimes for charities.”

The decline is perhaps first noted by Enid Porter in their 1974 Folklore of East Anglia:

“Still celebrated with bonfires fireworks and making of Guys, though the children who take round their guys or stand with them on street corners, seldom chant the old rhymes.”

In the 1976 Folklore of Warwickshire Roy Palmer notes:

“By the 1920s the groups of children going around wealthier homes were usually asking for pennies to buy commercially produced fireworks.”

I personally remember it in the late 70s and through the 80s but cannot recollect it after that but apparently the tradition was surviving.  For example records of it still continuing in some areas can be found, as a Dave (Notts Breamer) notes in a angler’s forum:

“… I saw 2 kids outside Asda today, they had a tin full of money, its a dying game, but those that do bother to do it, earn a fortune.”

This suggested a siting in Nottinghamshire well at least in 2011 and as an ASDA but which one? Looking for a custom such as this is without the preverbal ‘needle in a haystack’. Where? What time? What day? Etc Etc?

Penny for your thoughts

The difficulty of finding such a custom combined with a desire to discover whether it was still extant somewhere made me turn to the 21st century solution. The internet and a blog. Therefore I set up the PennyfortheGuy sighting page to solicit from members of the public.

The site went live in 2013 and the first reports came in. They asked for a description, where it happened, the age of the children and response of the public. It started with a rather positive one!

In early Nov 2012 or 2013 I was with my dad and we saw some kids with a “Penny for the Guy” near the local Co-Op store in York Parade shops in north Tonbridge. My Dad remarked he’d not seen this type of thing for years. Cant remember the exact details exactly – jeans and jumper+hat?
Geographical location: York Parade, Tonbridge, Kent, TN10
Age of children: 12-13?
Response of public: none
Date and time: afternoon, early Nov
Length of time observed: just in passing”

And one rather negative one:

Description of Guy: unfortunately not a good story! we went to local pub Saturday night and around 10 pm 2 girls came in and the barman asked what they were doing “toilet” one said “OK be quick” said barman. But instead of going to the toilet they went round pub asking for Penny for the Guy but all they had was a normal baby type Doll. The barman asked them to leave and also asked where their parents were but all he got was abuse, the girl with the doll was around 12 years the other around 10 years. Is this a sign of the times???
Geographical location:Nottingham Old Basford
Age of children: 12 years & 10 years
Response of public: horrified
Date and time: 10pm Saturday 19th October 2013
Length of time observed: 10-15 minutes

Time: October 23, 2013 at 11:05 am

Then the following year a report from Bristol, Stockport, Stoke on Trent, Wigan and Manchester the later suggesting that it was not a dying custom at all if anything is to go by from the less than enthusiastic entry

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Manchester
Description of Guy: Countless crap ones, usually in wheelbarrows being wheeled to my front door or dumped outside shops and petrol stations, with accompanying urchin children begging for loose change.It’s not a dying tradition. It’s annoying.
Age of children: 7-15
Response of public: usually abusive
Date and time: later than they should be out
Length of time observed: anytime between halloween and bonfire night”

Then in 2018 I received a report from fellow folklorist and author Richard Bradley. His report reading:

“Geographical location I.e where in the UK?: Morrisons Supermarket, Hillsborough, Sheffield Description of Guy: Consisted of a stuffed black child’s hoodie and grey trousers with tied-off arms and legs, its face being a mass-produced Halloween mask (a skull wearing shades and red teeth). Asked makers if they were going to burn it on a bonfire and they said they were. Age of children: 3 young lads, would estimate around 9 or 10 Response of public: Indifference from majority; great excitement from me! Date and time: 30th October 2018 12:50pm. I asked if they knew of any other Penny for the Guys and they said outside Southey [Green] Co-Op there was one where the makers had used a large teddy bear for the body and dressed and stuffed it.”

Dying of Guying

It was clear that from the reports the custom was still alive but in decline. A series of theories have been put forward or could be suggested for its decline and disappearance some mine some others.

Theory 1: The inability to buy fireworks – This is seen as one of the commonest reasons for the decline mainly because this is cited as a reason children did so. Although there is no firm evidence that this was exclusively all that the money was used for and it does seem unlikely that it would stop the custom. Certainly the children interviewed had no concern over how to use their money and one could argue it could still be given to parents to buy fireworks

Theory 2: The rise of Hallowe’en trick or treat. This is often seen as the main reason for the decline. Why would children make something and spend hours collecting money when they can get free sweets and sometimes money by dressing up and going around houses on one night? However, versions of trick or treat have existed side by side with making Penny for the Guy and indeed in a way they both involve for the diligent student effort. Indeed one could argue that putting a mask on some newspaper filled clothes involves less effort than dressing up or sourcing a costume. Similarly, the collection is different – sweets versus money – Money could be considered more useful especially when potentially large volumes can be collected.

Theory 3: Stranger danger. Increasing concerns from the 1970s onwards of the risk of children from members of the public has influenced the custom no doubt, with rightfully concerned parents preventing children in having the freedom previous generations enjoyed. This has combined with an increasing toxification of children as ‘gangs’. However, children still assembly in groups from aged 11 onwards – ages which have been reported as doing Penny for the Guy – so this in itself in some areas cannot be a major factor

Theory 4: Anti-begging – any cursory examination of a parental forum post on this subject such as Mumsnet would indicate that many see it as begging and this being now not acceptable. Of course the custom is, but this cannot be seen as a major influence in areas of low incomes and in a way this is a class driven view which probably always existed and indeed was espoused by parents when I was younger.

Theory 5: Rise in affluence. The general rise in average income and in particular its effect on pocket money would certainly have reduced the impetus for students and thus the number that would entertain the idea of Penny for the Guy

Theory 6: Other entertainments. With all manner of games have kept children indoors in and in many cases have replaced face to face communication

Theory 7: Lack of back garden bonfires and street fires. The smallness of new estates, increasing lack of waste ground and a push to encourage families to attend civic firework ceremonies means less domestic ones and less demand for Guys.

To summarise I feel that the rise in general affluence, lack of private bonfires (giving the Guy a raison d’etre), stranger danger and distraction of other entertainments has had an effect. Therefore the custom should survive I areas where there are low incomes and large areas as well as a close knit community.

Looking for a Guy

It would seem that from this research (as of 2019) via the PennyfortheGuysightings site that Guy strongholds could possibly be are Sheffield, Cheadle/Manchester and Stoke on Trent. The Sheffield report by fellow folklorist Richard Bradley suggested multiple Guys but the city was the only place where academic research had been undertaken by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

“Among the schoolchildren sampled, about 23% made Guy Fawkes figures in 1981, with eleven-year-olds showing the most involvement (32% active). Thirteen-year-olds at Bradfield and eight-year-olds at Wisewood were the most active (52%). Hallam- Tapton students showed least involvement at 17%-a figure that would be even lower had fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds been included in the sample there. In both the Wisewood-Wisewood and Bolsterstone-Bradfield systems, interest remains surprisingly steady from early years until the Sixth Form, when participation in the custom falls off entirely. In 1981 children made their guys as early as October 10 and as late as the morning of November 5. Many made them a few days before Hallowe’en. Tracy, 12, made hers two weeks before November 5 and continued to improve it during the days leading up to Bonfire Night.”

Therefore it seemed to be a good place to try and search out these surviving Penny for the Guy. I decided to pick a weekday in the school holidays which fortunately was close to Guy Fawkes Night, close enough I feel for any Guy makers to make good of the potential. My first arrival at Hillsborough Morrisons was unsuccessful there was no sign of a Guy as people busily went around their shopping. It looked an ideal location however. I then travelled to Southey Green a smaller settlement but again no luck. However, I was not put off so I decided to travel around the area. Then passing a small shopping strip I did a doubletake. There was a Penny for the Guy attended by four children. After all this time I could not believe it. I quickly went over to them. I could not believe it after 20 plus years there were some children doing Penny for the Guy. This was no folk revival but genuine folk custom naturally undertaken as had done so for a generations.

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The group appeared to be loosely organised with an older boy around 12 being in charge. The Guy was laid against the wall of the post office outside where the boys were situated, and had a white V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes Mask suggesting the boys knew their heritage! I spoke with them at length and they explained why they were doing it and that they intended to throw it on one of their parents backyard bonfires.

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So why had it survived in this area of Sheffield? I spoke to a women who was curious why I was interested in the boys. She was naturally suspicious but once I had allayed her fears that I was not a risk to the boys she discussed why. She said that it was a close knit community everyone knew everyone in this area of Sheffield despite being pure urban city it had a village mentality. This certainly benefited its survival. No one would be annoyed by the custom as they knew the kids and the kids would be polite as they knew they were known by the community. I spoke to the children again and they said that the previous year they had made £60 which they spent on games for their Playstations. Thus destroying the theory that the belief that Hallowe’en giving free sweets trumped the Penny for the Guy monetarily. Even whilst I was there one of the group was speculating to accumulate by one of the boys who was taking some of his cash to buy another mask to set up another group. Indeed, the women who spoke to me said the groups increased after dark and there were at least three groups on this small area of five or six groups. Indeed, another boy turned up whilst I was there interested what I was doing and when he found out took to some bins behind the arcades were he had his retired Guy and another he was working on. Three Guys after 20 years! The general descriptions of the Guys was that they were made of tracksuits sown together and filled with newspaper. The arms and legs tied closed with tape, the top had a hoddie which enabled it to be filled with newspaper and a mask stuck inside it or over it – both I was informed had been used for Hallowe’en beforehand or in the past . They were not as varied as described again by Ervin Beck in 1984 in Children’s Guy Fawkes Customs in Sheffield in Folklore 95:

The simplest guy constructed by children in the 1981 survey belonged to Rachel, 9, who put a cardboard box with the figure of a man painted on it on top of her bonfire. But the typical guy was built around a pair of Mum’s discarded tights, stuffed with paper, clothed in someone’s tattered trousers and jumper and topped with a head made of a paper or plastic bag with a face drawn on it with a felt-tip pen. Depending on whose old clothes were used, the figure was either adult- or child-sized, with the smaller size apparently predominating. On top often sat an old bowler, top hat, ‘crash’ hat, ‘pompom’ hat, safari hat or paper party hat. Only two wigs were reported, one made of a dishcloth, the other of cassette tape in all its tangled, unwound glory. Masks sometimes replaced felt-tip pen in supplying features on the bag heads. Discarded footballs were also favourite materials to use for the guy’s head, as were turnips (Whistler’s ‘mangel-wurzel’). Penelope, 16, painted her turnip with felt-tip pen; Nicola, 12, stuck a carrot nose on her turnip head. Carl, 13, used the pumpkin lantern he had earlier used for Hallowe’en trick-or-treat.”

The boys said of another group they knew of but there was not anyone there however it showed this was indeed a thriving area for the custom. Indeed, it was pretty clear these kids were not doing for tradition although generous passers by did recall that they had done so themselves in the area – they were doing it for cash. When money is involved folk customs can suffer but when they make money they obviously can survive. So it is clear that in areas with a strong community and dare I say it economically less well off Penny for the Guy will survive as my theory beforehand suggested. I am sure it will survive for a long period in these areas with its only threat being the fabric of those communities. Change may come and it may survive. But until then on the streets of some parts of Sheffield can still be heard:.

“Penny for the Guy”

Inflation had not yet hit it I add!

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