Health & Safety Failings

Guy Fawkes – where’s your risk assessment?

With bonfire celebrations in full flow, how many of us really think about and appreciate what we’re doing there celebrating?
The festival is now just a chance to take our families out to a pitch-black field in the freezing cold and admire an array of fireworks.
Nowadays, we don’t often see event organisers putting stuffed dummies or ‘Guys’ onto the bonfire to burn.
Most displays are now called ‘bonfire night’ with no mention of Guy Fawkes at all. The reason for celebrating November 5th has almost been forgotten.
Could you imagine if we celebrated an attempted plot to kill the British monarchy or government these days, and would we?

A little background…

King James 1st was the monarch on the throne in 1605, and he was a protestant.  There had been several centuries of religious unrest between Catholics and protestants, and this is where the gun powder plot comes in.  A group of rebel Catholics plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and start uprisings at the same time in the Midlands.  This was so they could abduct Princess Elizabeth (James’s daughter,) convert her to Catholicism and use her as a ‘puppet queen’.
But it all failed – although the date of November 5th remains with us today.
Here are a few facts about Guy Fawkes and the infamous failed plot.

He was a Spanish guy – Guy Fawkes, originally christened Guido Fawkes was a Spanish Catholic.
Guy was not the leader – Fawkes was not the brains behind the actual plot, he was just hired by the main conspirators to carry out the plan.  There were 13 conspirators in total, but Guy has remained the most famous. He was hired due to his skills gained as a soldier, his expert knowledge of gunpowder and his devotion to the Catholic cause.
Undercover – As part of the plot, Fawkes managed to gain a job as caretaker under the pseudonym of ‘John Johnson’, at the Houses of Parliament.
You just can’t tell some people – The main reason that Guy Fawkes was discovered was due to his fellow teammates growing a small conscience regarding the Catholic MPs that might be in parliament when it blew up.  So, the Fawkes team sent an anonymous warning letter to the Catholic MPs. One of these MPs, called Lord Monteagle, showed the letter to King James 1st, who then ordered a search of the Houses of Parliament.  The conspirators were warned by one of Monteagle’s servants that the plot had been found out, but they thought it was a hoax and carried on with their plans.


Gunpowder has a sell-by date – Guy Fawkes and another conspirator went overseas to gain foreign support.  When they returned, they found that the gun powder had decayed in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament and had to get more.
Caught in the act – On discovery of this letter, the King ordered a search of the cellars beneath parliament where Guy Fawkes was found just getting ready to light the fuse to blow up 36 barrels of gunpowder.  The thing is, he was discovered twice! The first time, Guy was asked who he was, and he lied, and the Lords who were searching the building left him alone.  It was only because Fawkes gave the name of one of his team as his master that it raised suspicion and the Lords returned to arrest him.
Spill the beans – Guy Fawkes confessed under torture, and Tudor torture was very gruesome indeed! He gave the names of his co-conspirators and their plans to blow up the Houses of Parliament. He made two confessions; the second confession was 8 days after the torture had finished.  In total, he gave the name of 7 other plotters that were involved.

Click here to see the original confession

Guy had a lucky break? – On 31st January 1606, Fawkes and three of the other plotters were dragged opposite the Houses of Parliament, the very building they had planned to destroy.  His fellow prisoners were hung, drawn and quartered.  However, Fawkes – whether weakened by torture or by throwing himself from the platform on purpose – fell and escaped the agony of his intended execution by breaking his neck and dying.  He was still quartered, and his body parts were sent to the four realms of the country to be placed on display.
You will celebrate Guy Fawkes night – It was law to celebrate Guy Fawkes night for 250 years after the failed plot happened.
Penny for a guy? – It hasn’t always been a guy on the bonfire. The original figure/ effigy to be placed on the bonfire was one of the Pope, and later, others – such as Guy Fawkes – followed, including and other notorious politicians.

Can you imagine if this happened in modern times and if health and safety had come in to play?
Let’s call them the Guy Fawkes team.  Perhaps if they had done a risk assessment and seen that there were COSHH issues related to the gun powder, or if they had realised that lone working was a risk to Fawkes then the Guy Fawkes team may have been able to:
1. Pull the plot off earlier because the gun powder wouldn’t have been ruined due to it decaying;  perhaps they would’ve read the safety data sheets and looked at how to store it properly.  Imagine, if they had been ready to blow the Houses of Parliament up earlier, and therefore, avoiding discovery.
2. If the Guy Fawkes team had produced a safe system of work, they surely would have been aware that being discovered was a foreseeable risk? After all, they were hiding the gun powder, so they didn’t want anyone to find them.  They should have considered the risks of lone working and put a safe system in place to warn Guy Fawkes if someone was coming to the cellars to find him.  Finally, they may have checked the mindset of the Catholic politicians that they wrote to and confirmed that they were anti-parliament too.  If they hadn’t sent the letter to the MP, the Houses of Parliament would probably have gone up in a ball of flames.
Then there are the Houses of Parliament’s health and safety failings!
1. They obviously didn’t research their employee’s background back then, if they had done any form of a criminal check they may have realised that their new employee was not someone they’d wish to employee.
2. Can you imagine trying to sneak several large barrels of gun powder into a building these days?! There’s very little chance due to security measures that they would be able to do this.
3. If the Houses of Parliament had done Safety and Security inspections, perhaps they may have discovered Guy Fawkes and the gun powder lit sooner.  It’s reported that he was discovered just about to light the fuse, bringing new meaning to the term “cutting it fine”.
4. They discovered Guy Fawkes twice but left him with the undiscovered gun powder the first time! Then they returned a second time and arrested him. What’s hard to understanding is this: there’s a terrorist threat against the Houses of Parliament, you find a man underneath the building in a cape saying he’s looking after firewood; he tells you his name is John Johnson, but quite clearly has a Spanish accent and you let him carry on!  They only took him from the area when they arrested him on the second check.
5. And last but not least; scaffolding inspections.  It’s not clear from historical records whether it was the scaffold that failed, or if Guy Fawkes threw himself from the platform before execution.  Luckily for Guy he escaped a very painful death, but King James 1 did not get to see justice (his perceived justice,) given out to Guy Fawkes.

All in all there were a serious amount of Health and Safety failings throughout the entire plot, but due to the pure luck of receiving a letter, disaster was avoided by the King James 1st’s government. And we get to enjoy fireworks every year!

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