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Houghton-le-Spring's George V Coronation Bonfires

Houghton's Coronation Bonfire at 11pm on June 1911

Upon the death of King Edward VII on May 6th 1910, his second son ascended the throne and was crowned George V, King of Great Britain and Ireland, on June 22nd 1911 at Westminster Abbey, London.Copyright © Books of the North 2008.

The Coronation celebrations of London were continued further up north in Houghton-le-Spring, when a gigantic bonfire was constructed and set ablaze on top of Houghton Hill, overlooking the old Hillside Cemetery and town below.

The finished structure measured fifty foot in height, with a base measuring thirty foot by thirty foot. Having carried fencing posts up the steep bank of Sunderland Street for conservation work in Hillside Cemetery, I sympathise with the team who constructed this bonfire – it was made from over 150 tons of material!

Houghton's Coronation Bonfire, 1911

The impressive details continue; the bonfire featured railings and stairways, and was adorned with union flags. The local children and Scouts posed proudly on the monument. A photograph exists showing local lad Leslie Holbrook surveying the rooftops of Houghton from the summit of the bonfire

(Click the photo above to see the brave lad).

The people of Houghton were made to wait patiently for darkness, with the sun not setting until late on that June evening. The bonfire was set alight at 11 o’clock on the night of June 22nd 1911 and burned brightly and ferociously for the whole town to see.

We can only imagine the heat generated by such a monster, let alone how the fire must have looked from across the wider district. Copyright © Books of the North 2000 - 2008.

Houghton's Coronation Bonfire, 1911

Houghton's Silver Jubilee Bonfire, 1935


Almost twenty-five years later, in May 1935, as part of the celebrations of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, a bonfire was erected on Warden Law summit by Houghton Boy Scouts. It was only a third of the size of the Coronation Bonfire, but a grand Royalist gesture nevertheless.

(Click the photo to the left see a comparison of the two bonfires).


It would appear that Houghton has a fondness for Royal celebrations:

:: The Coronation of Queen Anne in 1702 is mentioned in the Vestry book of Houghton Parish Church: “spent upon the Queen’s Coronation day at the bone fire, 1s.” The National Archives' currency converter tells us that this is around £3.90 in today’s money!

:: On December 21st 1837, several trees were planted at Houghton-le-Spring in celebration of the Coronation of Queen Victoria. This was echoed 100 years later when Houghton Urban District Council planted 36 elm trees on the Chilton Moor Housing Estate for the Coronation of King George VI.

:: The Coronation Committee, which was formed in 1937 to steer the festivities for George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, consisted of Cllr JE Johnson, chairman of Houghton Urban District Council, Mr W Plews, Clerk to the Council, Mr SW Warwick, Local Organiser, along with representatives from religious bodies, police, school staff, Council staff, the British Legion, Houghton Miners’ Lodge, the Towns Women’s Guild, Boy Scouts Association, Church Lads’ Brigade, Church Girls’ Brigade, all ably led by Cllr JA Hall, Chairman of the Ward Celebration Committee.

Coronation mugs and decorated boxes of Sweetmeats were presented to the local children in Houghton’s schools on May 11th 1937. Parents with children under the school age were invited to collect their commemorations from the old Council Chambers on Newbottle Street [now the row of shops opposite the Britannia public house]. The King was, of course, crowned the next day, on May 12th 1937. Copyright © Books of the North 2008.


With Houghton Feast now out of the way, and Hallowe’en just around the corner, Bonfire Night will be upon us before we know it. Nowadays, there is a flavour amongst the Local Authorities to put a stop to community bonfires, in particular those which are held on public land without permission. Apparently each bonfire can cost up to £400 for removal, and if the fire brigade visit to extinguish it, can cost an additional £1950, let alone the cost to human life if the fire tender was needed elsewhere.

But can you remember the days, not so long ago, when community bonfires were just that? Organised on the local field by the movers and shakers, allowing neighbours and their kids to gather together with hot soup and jacket potatoes, while the bonfire burned out into the night.

Houghton Feast fireworks, 2008

Bonfires haven’t changed – they’re just as dangerous as always – but the people who light them have. Society has changed, and the bonfire has become the burning beacon of the yobbo chav.

However you celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night, please ensure it is a safe one. Copyright © Books of the North 2008.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Paul Lanagan wishes to place on record his thanks to the following:

:: With thanks to Heather Williams for the glorious photographs of the bonfire.
:: John Brereton’s copy of a bill detailing Houghton Ward’s Coronation celebrations.
:: 1837 information from North Country Lore & Legend Vol II, 1887


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PAGE UPDATED: 19/05/2012