It has been great this year to be able to offer Halloween and October half term activities once again (although a little more low key than in the past). Normally museum staff and volunteers would be off for a power nap in a darkened room with a cuppa once October half term and Halloween are over. However it is now back to it as the Christmas preparations such organising presents and building grottos and putting up decorations and putting the finishing touches to events begin. The week or two around Halloween has become one of the busiest times on the museum year calendar as we welcome loads of visitors and host many events and activities for all ages. When Sandwell Museums first started doing Halloween events about 25 years ago there was a spooky evening tour for adults which then developed into ghost stories and fright nights. In fact we were one of the first places doing this kind of thing although the museum curator at the time thought ‘this was something you shouldn’t do in a museum’. Some people may still think that but it has certainly grown in popularity.
We hope you enjoyed our creepy fun, history and online videos and stories.
Back to this later but why have we been running around in purple wigs and black capes, playing creepy games, running spooky activities and telling terrible tales at the end of October for the last few decades? How has this time of year become associated with ghouls and ghosts? It’s all a bit of fun now but where has it all come from?
If you ask many older people they will say that Halloween is an American invention and that when they were children it was more about Bonfire Night and Halloween was far less important than it is today. Even in my lifetime (I’m in my mid forties) I remember children having created scarecrow like figures of Guy Fawkes out of old clothes and wheeling it around in a wheelbarrow asking for a ‘penny for the Guy’. The idea being that the ‘Guys’ would then be burned on the bonfire. This is a sight that is pretty much never seen today. I also remember there being a few Halloween parties when I was a child but there certainly wasn’t the choice of costumes and accessories that there are today and people rarely went ‘Trick or Treating’. In fact as most of you over 40 will remember there were 2 choices of Halloween costumes – white sheets or bin liners and maybe a mask or a wig! These days it seems Halloween has taken over as the dominant autumn festival over Bonfire Night (as well as there are now lots of other autumn festival celebrations to brighten up this time of year with new communities moving into Britain over the last 100 years-showcasing how many cultures have autumn light festivals)
However, we’ve only been celebrating Bonfire night since the year after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Almost immediately the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot was celebrated with bonfires and the burning of effigies of the pope and later Guy Fawkes. It was very convenient for the Protestant government that Robert Catesby and his fellow Catholic conspirators tried to blow up King James and parliament on 5th November just after Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls celebrations as this was a rather Catholic festival (Protestants weren’t keen on the idea of saints as they believed that they should talk to God directly and not ask saints to intercede on their behalf) . This autumn festival of lights, with fires, celebration and commemoration was shifted somewhat, in England at least, away from All Hallows and All Saints and onto Bonfire Night and commemorating the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. This new festival reinforced anti-Catholic feelings while allowing people to keep their autumn festivities. So for many hundreds of years Halloween took a back seat in England. So if you have enjoyed a good bonfire party in the past then this year take a moment to remember while you are waving your sparkler around, that the festival is born out of religious tensions, the crushing of a terrorist plot forged out of persecution, which led to brutal executions- just saying!
Like Easter and Christmas, Halloween probably has its origins in much older festivals that were later incorporated into Christianity. These festivals noticeably follow changes of seasons and celebrations of new life, coming of light, harvests, encouraging spring to come back, light in mid-winter etc.
It is believed that the ancient festival of Samhain marked the end of the life of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter and death. The festival symbolised the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This was a sentiment taken on into Halloween celebrations once the festival became a Christian one.
Like Easter and Christmas the autumn festival of Samhain was taken on and changed by the church in the 700s CE. All Hallows’ or All Saint’s Day was originally a day to remember those who had died for their beliefs, celebrated on 13th May until Pope Gregory had the date moved to 1st November. It is thought that in doing so, he was attempting to incorporate the old autumn festival of the dead with a related but church approved celebration. Catholic countries today still commemorate the dead at this time (eg think of the Day of the Dead in Mexico which is a big festival and in other Mediterranean Catholic countries November is the month of the dead when you visit your deceased relatives).
The night or evening of Samhain therefore became known as All-hallows, seen as a time of the year when many believed that the spirit world can make contact with the physical world, a night when magic is at its most potent.
All Hallows eve became Halloween traditionally celebrated by games such as bobbing for apples (in itself possibly associated with a Roman tradition celebrated on 31st October), telling stories and carving faces into hollowed-out swedes and turnips (which isn’t easy as they are very hard vegetables). These faces would be lit by a candle and the vegetable lanterns displayed on doorsteps to ward off any evil spirits or light the way for spirits to get back to their own world. Bonfires were also lit to ward away evil spirits so light was very much part of Halloween celebrations. So it is easy to see how some of these traditions easily developed and shifted in a Protestant world towards Bonfire Night after the Gunpowder Plot.
However in the last few years Halloween has been making a come back and in a major way – and yes there are American imports such as pumpkins and ‘trick or treat’ but in essence Halloween is very much a festival which was celebrated in England centuries ago. In fact even the ‘trick or treat’ may have come from a much older European tradition which certainly until very recently was still practised in Scotland. Children dressed up and pretended to be evil spirits and went ‘guising’. In centuries gone by it was thought that by disguising children in this way they would blend in with the spirits that were abroad that night. Children arriving at a house so ‘disguised’ would receive an offering to ward off evil.
This all however must be taken with a VERY BIG warning – in the later 1700s and 1800s in many areas an attempt was made to reintroduce ancient traditions which actually weren’t ancient at all but reinvented or just invented -so it is difficult to say how many of the ancient traditions are fully ancient.
As for the Gunpowder Plot- Well Sandwell had it’s very own Gunpowder plotters!
The West Midlands found itself very much at the heart of the Gunpowder plot. Even though Guy Fawkes was discovered with barrels of gunpowder in London, many of the conspirators had land and houses in the Midlands. Many gentry families in the early 1600s in the Midlands remained Catholics whereas the up and coming ‘middling sort’ such as the Turtons who later built Oak House were Puritans (staunch Protestants), so would not have been sympathetic to the plotters cause.
The showdown against most of the plotters and the Sheriff of Worcester took place at Holbeche Hall in Staffordhire not far from Kingswinford and just to other side of Himley park, but two of the plotters had already left on their way towards Rowley Regis. The two plotters were Robert Wintour and Stephen Lyttleton. They were on their way to find sanctuary with Stephen’s relative, Humphrey Lyttleton at Hagley House. Before the plotters reached Hagley House they took shelter in barns and farms in Rowley Regis which would have been part of Humphrey Lyttleton’s land. The Rowley farmers who sheltered the plotters were Thomas Smart and John Holyhead and it is even suggested that troops searched the barn where there plotters were hiding but did not discover them. Stephen Lyttleton and Robert Wintour were eventually discovered in January 1606 at Hagley House, given away by a servant and taken to London for execution. The Rowley Regis farmers didn’t get away with having hidden the plotters and were hung, drawn and quartered in Wolverhampton.
There is another tale – a ghost story! It is said that a servant of Stephen Littleton, Gideon Groves who also fled Holbeche House was run down in the woods at Himley and it is said his ghost still roams the area. We use this story as one of our schools activities but in our story Gideon does not die but makes it to Oak House and the school children have to look for clues and discover his true identity and story! You can currently use our online schools resources and do this session online at https://sandwellmuseumslearningfromhome.wordpress.com/2021/03/02/the-tale-of-gideon-grove-the-gunpowder-plot-in-sandwell/
We hope you enjoyed this year’s autumnal activities at Sandwell Museums and we hope to see you very soon – visit http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/joininmuseums to find out what’s on next.