We’re less than a month away from Bonfire Night now. Very soon they’ll start building the pyramid of pallets on Soldiers Field, and on the night there’ll be a grand ooh and aah, when it goes up and all the fireworks begin bursting in the air.
But there was one Bonfire Night that stands out from the others in Leeds’ history – back in 1745. The news that everyone feared arrived that night, that the Scots under Bonnie Prince Charlie – the Young Pretender, as he was known – had crossed the border at Carlisle.
Perhaps some had other things on their minds, though…
REMEMBER, REMEMBER – 1745
He fitted the new string on the fiddle and tightened the peg slowly, plucking it over and over as his wrist moved the tuner until it was close to a G. It would keep going flat during the evening and he’d have to re-tune. But it couldn’t be helped. At least it was the bottom string; he’d just try and use it as little as possible.
“Are you ready, Joshua Walker?” Toby called from outside the door.
“Aye,” he said. “Ready and willing.”
By eight, all the bonfires were burning well, sparks rising up into the darkness, people drinking and passing around the jugs of ale from one person to the next. Josh Walker locked the fiddle away in his room, safe from harm.
In the end it had all gone well. The string had been fair with him, staying in tune until a piece was done, and then all through the procession from the Assembly room up to the big fire on the open ground across from St. John’s. He’d been paid and given his share of scraps from the banquet, enough to feed him for a day if he was careful.
He walked up Briggate, the cudgel swinging from his wrist, eyes alert. It was a night for celebration, one where folk stayed out late, even the children. But who wouldn’t want to remember someone trying to blow up Parliament and all those down in London who only cared for themselves. Even if the plotters were all Papists, they’d done something right.
He rubbed the sleeve of his heavy greatcoat over the Town Waits badge, seeing it shine in the light from the bonfire. He was proud of that. It meant he made his living from the fiddle. Well, that and being part of the night watch, but he’d never heard of anyone earning enough money just from music.
After five years of doing this he knew what to expect. The apprentices would have their plans, staying out long after good folk were off to their beds. They’d be looking for a fight and before it was all done the night watch would give them one. There’d be some broken heads and a few waking up in gaol. The new gaol, they still called it, although it had been built before he was born.
They needed to learn some new tunes before Christmas, he thought. It was always a busy season, a time to line the pockets by playing balls and parties all over town. Last year they’d been invited out to Temple Newsam, the year before as far as Harrogate. He’d made enough to buy a new dress for his wife and clothes for his children. Roger was five and he’d just started the lad playing the fiddle, some simple fingering and learning how to hold it, exactly the way his own father had taught him.
He didn’t read music, none of the Waits did, but he had a quick ear. All he needed was to listen to something twice and he could play it, every note perfect. The others would pick it up from him and within half an hour they’d have it arranged and ready to perform. There was a melody he’d had in his head for days, one that wouldn’t go away. Josh was still trying to decide if he’d heard it somewhere or if it was a gift from God. He hummed it as he walked.
So far it had all been quiet. Several people had shot off muskets and fowling pieces, but no one had been hurt. No children had fallen into the flames, there hadn’t been any fights…all the trouble would happen later, once the families had drifted away. And it would come, it did every year. But then they’d be ready for it. This year, perhaps, the apprentices would at least manage to hit the statue of Queen Anne with their stones, unless they were already too drunk.
He stood close to the large fire, watching the shadows jump and warming his bones. Someone passed him a jug and he took a drink of ale, good twice-brewed that went down perfectly. He started to amble away, then turned at the sound of hooves. Someone riding in along the Newcastle Road.
He stood at the side, a hand raised, hoping they saw him. Three horses, together, slowing to a canter as they reached the houses.
“Welcome, friends,” Josh called loudly. “What brings you here so late?”
The man in front reined in close, his mount wet with sweat and wild-eyed. The two behind kept their distance, the animals pawing the ground as they breathed heavily.
“I need to speak to the magistrates,” the man said urgently. “There’s important news.”
People had begun to drift over from the fire, curious about the newcomers and pressing closer to see their faces.
“I know him!” someone shouted from the back of the crowd. “It’s that preacher.”
Josh looked up sharply. The horse moved enough for the light to catch the man’s face. Aye, it was true enough, Josh thought. That was John Wesley. Two months before they’d been quick enough to pelt him with stones when he stood up to speak. Now they were pressing close to hear whatever news he might be carrying.
“I’ll take you,” Josh told him, turning to see Theosophus Johnson and Robert Newman at his side, their cudgels at the ready. “Gentlemen,” he said to the riders, “follow me.”
He’d heard some of the aldermen talking about the Rose and Crown when they’d gathered to light the bonfire. With luck, a few of them might still be there. It was no more than two hundred yards, the light from the flames bright enough to guide them.
The stable lad came out as soon as he heard voices, taking the beasts as Josh led the men inside. Six of the aldermen were gathered around the table closest to the fire. Some of them looked close to sleep, heads lolling, while three of them laughed and drank. Almost a dozen empty bottles sat between them. Josh coughed, hoping one of them would notice him, then again, louder, when no one turned his head.
“Sirs,” he said in the voice he used to keep order in the town, and waited until the men quieted. Eyes blinked open. “Mr. Wesley’s arrived with important information.”
The preacher stepped forward. He stood tall, looking down with distaste.
“I’ve just come down from the north. People are fleeing. I’ve been told that the Pretender’s crossed by Carlisle. He’s in England. You need to prepare, sirs.”
There was a brief moment of silence, when time seemed to stand still, then a babble of voices, each one trying to rise above all the others. Josh saw a couple of men slip out. In the room, Alderman Atkinson tried to calm the noise.
He’d heard all he needed. The Scots were south of the border, the Jacobites were coming. He walked out into the night, the fires still burning. But the crowds had gone, simply vanished into the darkness. A few young men wandered, but they looked lost, without purpose.
He marched down Briggate. What would he do if the Scots arrived? Would he take up a sword and fight? Or would he take his wife and his children on the road south, hoping to find safety somewhere.
Suddenly the tune came back into his mind. It was transformed this time, martial and stirring, an accompaniment to his steps. Yes, he thought, this is it. He could already hear the other instruments. It would be excellent for the upcoming balls. If any of them were still here.