Variously called Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night, Firework Night, Plot Night, Squib Night, November the Fifth was officially declared a day of national celebration and commemoration in response to the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and other Catholic sympathizers to blow up both King James I and Parliament in 1605. As originally decreed, a special thanksgiving service was to be offered on the day, church bells were to be rung, and the people allowed to celebrate with bonfires and merrymaking. This was nothing unusual at the time, as bonfires and bells were the normal means used to mark national celebrations, and this encouragement by the authorities continued for many years. A custom which legitimized the position of those in power and which combined religious polemic with political mobilization would clearly have continued and powerful support, and it is no coincidence that November the Fifth was one of the few public customs which was not suppressed during the rule of the Puritans in the 17th century.
Nevertheless, the custom changed considerably over the years as the people gradually appropriated it for their own purposes. Effigies were burnt as early as the 1670s, although until the 19th century these were more likely to be of the Pope or some domestic political enemy rather than Guy Fawkes himself. Orderly processions and controlled bonfires soon gave way to the carrying and rolling of blazing tar barrels, letting off of guns or fireworks and general noisy, drunken, and dangerous mayhem became the norm. When these activities took place in the confines of city streets rather than more spacious rural areas, serious questions of public order and the safety of property were raised, which was not helped by a generally held notion that November the Fifth was a day on which extra licence was permitted.
By the 19th century respectable people in many towns were beginning first to withdraw their support from such crowd-based customs and then actively to oppose them. As these people also held power as vestrymen, councillors, and magistrates, they were able to use the full authority of police and even, when necessary, local militia, to suppress the more boisterous and dangerous aspects of the custom. Lighting fires and setting off fireworks within towns were forbidden and perpetrators increasingly harassed by the police. Many towns in England were the scenes of protracted and often bitter struggles between those who wanted to keep their old customs intact and those dedicated to suppress, or at least reform, them. Straightforward suppression was sometimes ameliorated by the suggestion of different ways of carrying out the celebration, such as encouraging celebrators to move to a nearby public open space where the custom could be better controlled. A less overtly manipulatory development was the tendency to privatize the custom by encouraging people to hold their Guy Fawkes celebrations in family groups within the privacy of their own gardens and yards, and many of the better-off families had already withdrawn to the safety of their own property some time before mass celebrations were finally suppressed. These private celebrations had become the norm by the early 20th century, and continued to be the basic pattern until fears over safety and other societal changes in the 1960s and 1970s brought about another, again partly orchestrated, move towards controlled public displays. At the time of writing (1997), the private back-garden celebration is still on the decline and the organized set-piece display, provided again by local council or local group or charity, has become the commonest way to enjoy fireworks and bonfires. A few places in England still preserve some of the older traditions associated with the Fifth: Lewes (Sussex) where impressive torch-lit processions and giant effigies are the main feature, while Ottery St Mary (Devon) and Hatherleigh (Devon) maintain the spectacular, but dangerous, blazing tar barrels.