Amazing Bonfire Night which left a group of Preston teenagers in the money

Guy Fawkes night when the flames revealed an astonishing surprise

By Mike Hill
Thursday, 5th November 2020, 7:00 am
Memories of a Bonfire Night surprise
Memories of a Bonfire Night surprise

There have been many memorable Bonfire Nights down the centuries in Lancashire, and Preston is no exception when the time comes for the fireworks, bonfires and treacle toffee. For one group of Preston youngsters, though, the last Bonfire Night of the 19th century turned out to be more memorable than most.

Although street bonfires were generally frowned upon by the Fire Brigade, they did take place amidst the terraced streets and the youngsters of Great Hanover Street area, off St Paul’s Road, managed to stockpile plenty of timber in the week before to make quite a pile.

As November 5, 1899 was a Sunday, the firework celebrations were planned for the Saturday night. As it turned out it was not a very inspiring day for fireworks and bonfires as it rained heavily, but this did not deter the youngsters of the Great Hanover Street area, or elsewhere in the town, from creating their bonfires with Guy Fawkes on top.

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Lancashire Evening Post report of the sovereigns found in the bonfire

Wanting to have the best bonfire in town the youngsters went scavenging again on the Saturday and managed to obtain a dilapidated and dirty mattress from the council destructor site on St Paul’s Road, where it was about to be destroyed. Full of enthusiasm the youngsters carried it from there and placed it at the heart of their bonfire which they built in neighbouring Egbert Street confident it would make their blaze the best in town.

When the bonfire was ignited it lived up to expectations and it became a roaring success with flames shooting up into the night sky. During the evening the lads poked the mattress with sticks, in order to see the sparks fly upwards. One lad after poking the mattress with his stick struck something hard, and out of the glowing embers tumbled a bag that contained hot discs of metal.

The youngster thought he had come across a hoard of beer house checks – the nominal value of which was one half pint of beer. When the discs had cooled down a little he picked one up and offered it to a bloke who was warming himself by the fire.

The man seemed very pleased, and seemingly in a generous mood pocketed the disc in exchange for half a crown as he disappeared into the night. While the lad stood aghast at his good fortune, there was a sudden realisation that in fact those metal discs were actually gold sovereigns and at once a general scramble got underway. One lad was soon running home with a fair collection of the coins in his cap, while other youngsters pocketed anything from £10 to £20 worth of coins in the melee which followed.

Stockpiling wood for Bonfire Night on Preston’s streets

The bag had clearly contained a large haul of gold sovereigns and one lad claimed he had seen a roll of bank notes burning, but remarked that he had been too intent on picking up the burning hot sovereigns to pay much attention to the paper.

Buckets of water were quickly thrown on to the bonfire and a minute search was undertaken amidst the dying embers, with occasionally another coin being discovered. At the break of dawn next morning an old woman could be seen bent over the smouldering debris and to her delight she was rewarded by the discovery of two further coins.

Later in the day the rubbish was thoroughly riddled, but it yielded no more gold. Preston Borough Police were eventually notified about the gold bearing mattress, which had contained well in excess of £100. They undertook inquiries and learned the truck upon which the mattress was conveyed to the council destructor site was hired from Mr Wilson, hay and straw dealer, of Cunliffe Street, by a person unknown to the lender.

Chief Constable Major Little then issued a statement for the owner of the mattress to contact them. The police had managed to recover about £20 worth of the coins with the latest date being 1867. Those who had gathered the coins were asked to hand them over to the police on the understanding they could claim them at a later date, should the owner not be found.

Preston’s fire crew of the 1890s outside the old Tithebarn Street fire station with, pictured right, Supt Alonso Savage Snr

Understandably, the plea did not get much of a response, as many of the coins had already been put to good use. Many of the lads had made a visit to the Market Place after obtaining their unexpected bounty and enjoyed a spree. Money had flown around at a great rate, and the catch-penny fraternity who frequented the precincts of the Market Place could not remember a better run of trade than they had for a few hours that Saturday night.

Partly due to the damp conditions, the Preston Fire Brigade, which was based on Tithebarn Street, had a relatively quite night. Under the guidance of fire chief Alonzo Savage Snr, from 1883 they had earned a reputation of being a formidable fire fighting force.

That year had seen the firemen, who numbered up to 30, deal with a serious fire at the shipbuilding works of Messrs. Allsop & Co. on Strand Road. Hampered by a lack of water pressure, the brigade had difficulty in quelling the blaze and keeping the flames away from oil reservoirs and it took several hours despite their energetic response.

Two fireman suffered slight injuries from falling debris and had to be taken home in a cab. Fortunately, the main building on Strand Road, where up to 200 were employed, was protected from the ferocious blaze.

Among the others who had cause to thank the Preston Fire Brigade that year were Benjamin Wignall, leather merchant, of Main Sprit Weind who saw his blazing premises brought under control; the owners of Brindle Lodge where a fire was hastily quelled as a horse drawn engine raced to the scene with eight firemen aboard; the residents of Brackenbury Road as a drapers shop engulfed by flames was brought under control, and the workers of Park Lane Spinning Mill who saw Supt Savage and his men prevent a boiler house blaze spreading.

The most spectacular fire they had to deal with came in early December that year. It broke out on a Wednesday night at the Oxheys Cotton Spinning Mill in the boiler house. The mill had its own firemen but they were unsuccessful in mastering it and the call was made to Tithebarn Street.

Upon arrival they found all the floors of the four-storey high building to the west end of the mill were ablaze and as they prepared their equipment the roof fell in with a terrific crash sending up a great volume of smoke and sparks.

With great skill Savage and his men prevented the fire from spreading to other departments as they sprayed seven jets on the burning structure using water from the mill lodge. Tackling the fire required much bravery and William Savage, a son of Supt Savage, was enveloped by a dense volume of smoke as he sprayed water on the spinning room, being rendered unconscious and needing to be ferried home.

A large crowd gathered on waste ground in Ripon Street to witness the spectacle and when steam pipes from the boiler room burst the spray caused injury to two spectators. One side of the building fell into the mill lodge with a tremendous splash and it took many hours before the blaze was conquered. The damage caused by the fire meant the whole of the weavers and spinners employed at the mill would be thrown out of work for sometime.

Alonzo Savage Snr remained as Fire Chief until his retirement in 1909 when his namesake son Alonzo Savage took over as Fire Chief to continue the family’s great firefighting exploits.

On Bonfire Nights these days organised fires are the order of the day and thousands of eager youngsters still flock to the various events organised in and around Preston.

No doubt, they will marvel at the fireworks which light up the sky as the glow from the bonfire warms up the chilly November night. And those trays of treacle toffee, hot potatoes, toffee apples, slices of parkin and bags of parched peas are likely to appear once more. But one thing is for sure they are unlike to find a bag of gold amidst the flaming timbers.

As for Oxheys Mill it survived the blaze of 1899, but was eventually destroyed by fire in December 1948 although a weaving shed survived and is still used today as an industrial unit on Ripon Street.