“Remember, remember the fifth of November of gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
- Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
For most of us living in the UK, Guy Fawkes Night is an autumnal night to enjoy a friendly get together with family and friends around a cosy bonfire and maybe watch some spectacular fireworks, weather permitting. I always thought that the bottle-clinking and the shared warm meals helped us gain the strength we need for the colder months following half-term holidays and daylight savings until I remember, remember the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a plan to blow up the parliament with King James I in it devised by a group of English Catholics. Fortunately, the assassination was foiled when Guy Fawkes was found guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the parliament.
Like the coal cellar in our house, the undercroft stored coal to heat the parliament. Until the turn of the 20th century, coal was brought to a house or a business by a team of coalmen – typically, a shoveler who packed coal into a sac on another coalman’s back, then aided by another coalman who loaded the sack onto a carriage for delivery. In houses like ours, the sacks were dropped directly into the coal cellar from the pavement. In other houses, a coalman walked the length of the house with the sack on his back then jamming the sack into a coal hole. These teams of coalmen were expected to deliver 10 tons of coal to houses and heat an entire nation every day.
We know today that coal is responsible for about 40% of the world’s global fossil fuel emissions, and this is why during the November 2021 COP26 meeting on Climate Change in Glasgow, 190 nations pledged to quit coal. This Guy Fawkes’ Night I’ll remember this promise to transition to renewable fuels and move toward zero carbon emission. But I’ll also remember the coalmen who, with their back-breaking work, brought us the warmth we needed to get us through so many cold winters.
Warmed our houses through winters
Kept us going strong