History of the Harwich Guy Carnival by Chris Root

It seems there have been various incarnations of the carnival through the centuries, each one different to the last. So, when did it all start?

It was revealed in The Harwich and Manningtree Standard in 1996 (and has been maintained to this day by some) that the Guy Carnival was started by the Royal Naval Shipyard Apprentices (Shipwrights) in 1854. The shipyard had just been modernised, so the employees decided to commemorate the event by holding a procession in the style of a public demonstration.

The Essex County Standard and Eastern Counties Advertiser tells of Protestant Harwich recollecting Guy Fawkes in November 1855. The juvenile portion of the community brought out various specimens of guys and carried them through the streets, chanting ‘remember, remember the fifth of November’. This continued throughout the 1850s and 1860s, but in 1862 the annual procession had started looking more like a carnival, rather than just a Guy Fawkes celebration. Some of the people in the procession carried Chinese lanterns, torches and a number of participants wore ‘highly grotesque and fanciful costumes’. The Royal Naval Shipyard employees (now Harwich Dock) were taking part with their band and ‘Guy representations’ by 1878, they also carried lighted torches attached to poles. Earlier in the day, the children of the town had paraded their own guys.

This continued through the late 1800s and had become the Shipwrights Guy by 1890. The procession past through the streets of the town and collected money from houses, shops and businesses. The carnival, now larger than in previous years, featured many people in costumes and not just the Royal Naval Shipyard apprentices. The Shipwrights had built scale replica models of ships that had been built at the yard, reportedly ‘lighted by numerous torches and lanterns’.

Mrs Margaret Doubleday, born in 1899, revealed in her 1985 memoirs that the carnival was started by the men employed by Harwich Shipyard and Parkeston Quay, who raised money for themselves for Christmas, plus local charities. Many people appeared in the same costumes year after year and the procession was headed by a brass band ‘probably the Salvation Army’. There was also a collection of lighted torches burning a substance which left lumps of burning sack in the road.

Mr Grenville Tyrell, the man who revived the Guy Carnival in 1952 and 1956, doesn’t believe the true origins of the event have, or will, ever be ascertained. He recalls seeing six foot models of fully-rigged sailing ships that were carried on a type of stretcher, illuminated from within by oil lamps and carried on the shoulders of the Navy yard employees. Some of these models were kept until well into the 1930s.

Mr Philip J Cone, the man behind much research on Harwich, has stated that the year 1854 is of no significance to either the town or Harwich Dock. He has found evidence of a carnival as early as 1862.

Some of the Guy Carnival pithy pars programmes from the 1930s featured photos and details of the event. In one programme they unmasked that ‘no one knew when the carnival began, but it was most certainly the Navy Yard apprentices that conceived of it. Through the ill-lit, cobbled streets the revelers meandered, their illuminated ship models of canvas, piece de resistance of the show, standing out boldly in the gloom of a winter night’.

Newspaper coverage from the early 1900s sheds no light on the carnival’s origins but stated that the procession had been a leading feature in the town for some time.

Mr Leonard Weaver, who had published much research on the history of Harwich, briefly mentions Guy Fawkes celebrations at Harwich quay as early as 1803. Jubilant revelers would set off fireworks from the ships berthed at the quay. One particular Guy Fawkes night was even printed in the Times newspaper.

So, where did the term Guy come from?

It is agreed today that Guy means ‘to make fun of’ or ‘poke fun at’ or to ‘ridicule’. This has at least been the case since 1956, when the Guy Carnival was revived by The Harwich Round Table. The idea is to highlight something topical – a local topic, a local person or a local news item.

Before 1927 the carnival was the Shipwright’s Guy. Shipwrights were apprentices from the Royal Naval Shipyard, now Harwich Dock. There is no evidence before 1927 that the idea was to highlight and make fun of local issues or local people.

The event was sometimes referred to as the Guy Fawkes Carnival over the years.

Up until 1938 the carnival was held on two dates, the 5th November (Guy Fawkes night) and the 9th November. This is another plausible source for where the term ‘guy’ originates.


Surely the thrill and enjoyment or the competitive honour of taking part should be enough to induce carnival participation. Cash prizes were awarded to floats and fancy dressers in 1956, however the Round Table soon realised that having two trophies – one for large float entries and one for small – was sufficient. At a public meeting in October 1957, both members of the public and the Round Table decided that it seemed unnecessary to give money prizes to people who partook in an event that raised money for charity.

More than twelve awards have been donated to the Guy Carnival over the years, which do not include prizes given to the fancy dressers. Here is a list of them:

  • The Harwich Round Table Shield (1957) – usually awarded to large firms and organisations.
  • The Harwich Rotary Club Shield (1957) – usually given to small firms and organisations.
  • Les Hostler Trophy (1963) – for individuals or small groups.
  • Harwich and District Community Association – awarded to a pub or club.
  • Harwich 41 Club Trophy (1980) – for outstanding and spectacular floats.
  • Doug Jennings Shield (1970) – for local topicality.
  • The Harwich Lifeboat Crew Trophy (1994) – for man-powered contraptions.
  • Dave Southgate Trophy (2000) – for the wittiest float slogans.
  • Jeff Sallows Trophy – for the best adult fancy dress.
  • John Cheesman Collector’s Cup – for the individual who collects the most money.
  • Alderman AC Green Cup – no longer in existence, but used to be awarded to the champion collector.
  • LVA Trophy – no longer in existence, but used to be awarded to the pub that collected the most money.
  • The Guy Gal Trophy (1967) – no longer in existence, but was awarded to the loveliest looking girl in the Guy Gal parade. The successful girl would partake in the procession as the Guy Gal, a few weeks after the Guy Gal parade.
  • There is also Merit awards given to the second and third places, not including the prizes given to the children fancy dress categories.

Big Heads

Ray Gladwin and Peter Wildney of Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops made the first bigheads that appeared in the carnival. Using some of the abundant materials at the quay, they constructed the heads using wire, brown ‘post’ paper and lots of papier-mache. After the heads were built they were painted and glossed by the workshop painters.

‘They inspired the rest of us to make our own bigheads’ says Les Hazelton, a former Parkeston Quay bighead. ‘My friend George Harper saw a postcard of two drunks and thought they would make perfect bigheads, so we made them. They were in carnivals for years and years’. The bigheads became so popular that a workshop was held at the Anchor Hotel on how to make them. Typically, they would march behind the Marine Workshops band in the carnival.

The original crew that paraded with the Parkeston Quay bigheads were John Warner, Ken Lord, Geoff Stokes, Les Hazelton, George Harper, Irvine Richmond, Chris Barker and Derick Neal. After the 1950s the numbers of bigheads increased and were no longer just made by the Workshops at Parkeston, as people from across the town built their own.

When the carnival was brought back in the 1950s, a major feature of the procession was the Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops Band. The Marine Workshops worked at Parkeston Quay repairing ships and ship parts, and also played musical instruments. The big heads were made by the Workshops, often making caricatures of employees, as well as famous characters. The town actually had a summer carnival for many years, where the big heads would always make an appearance, and would often partake in other carnivals around East Anglia. There is a very famous photo of several Harwich big heads standing next to Hollywood star, Jayne Mansfield, in 1959! Big heads have grown in popularity over the years, and organisers admit that there were years when the number of big heads in the procession was thin on the ground. In 1997 Rotarian Terry Howlett made a plea for people to come forward with big heads that had been dust covered in the loft for years. The result was an increased presence of big heads. Everybody has their favourites, but some of the famous big heads include Herman Munster, TV chef Gary Rhodes, Wallace and Grommit, Dennis the Menace, Goofy, Bob the Builder, clowns, mad cows and Dr Evil.

Carnivals in the early 20th Century (1900 – 1926)

The Shipwright’s Guy was a well-established event by 1900. It was described by the Harwich and Dovercourt Free Press as a celebration of pomp and circumstance, with many flames and fireworks and ‘sectarian spirit’. The concise little article added that the event had been a leading feature in the town of Harwich for sometime, but for exactly how long wasn’t mentioned. Despite the admirable support for the event in the early days and the respectable monies raised for the East Suffolk Hospital, it was never an official event and was arranged by the Royal Naval Shipyard employees. This is very likely the reason for its lack of in depth news coverage, with little more than a paragraph for the event at the back of the newspaper each November. However as the amount of money donated at each event increased incrementally, its charitable cause made it more worthy of a mention. £17 8s was collected in 1901, compared with £44 17s in 1903 including a notable donation from Mrs Vaux and F Napier-Clavering Esquire! The procession began in the market place in Harwich and included many people in costumes with collecting boxes, plus representations (they weren’t called floats in those days) usually carried on a type of stretcher lit by candles. Effigies of local figures were also prevalent. Advertisements for the event started to appear by 1909, when the coverage in the newspaper grew.

The community of Harwich was far more homogenous then, so it was no surprise that the pomp and circumstance included Mr W McLearon the Mayor, a pillar of the community in those by-gone days. The tradition continued into the era of King George V, supported staunchly by locals that were keen on donations to the poor, the needy and mostly the hospital. The First World War hiatus did nothing to prevent the carnival from being revived in 1919, as this was a manner of bringing much needed financial assistance for local hospitals to treat people. It also came as some relief for those who lost husbands and sons in battle. £134 was collected from the two processions and the local newspaper even printed the names of those that had kindly donated.

By the 1920s the event was larger, but still didn’t feature the topicality that it did in later years; there were representations of national icons such as kings or queens, but only with modest hints of public figures being masqueraded. In 1923 the Harwich and Dovercourt Standard believed the event ‘would ever live’, yet by 1925 the event was ‘not what it used to be’ and ‘feared over’ as reported by the same newspaper. By 1926 the event was still going, though minus the usual enthusiasm, but enough, according to the carnival secretary Mr P Skargon, to stop it dying completely. This prompted a rethink by the organisers. Taking the carnival back to its roots suddenly provided rehabilitation and the 1927 ‘comeback’ proved that Harwich people wanted the carnival as much as ever.


You would be wrong if you thought that comebacks were only for celebrities. The Guy Carnival’s first ‘comeback’ was in 1927, when a committee of local traders, councilors and volunteers completely reorganised the procession. It was renamed the Harwich and District Guy Carnival, receiving plenty of support from local people and raised much money for both the Ipswich and Suffolk Hospital and the Harwich hospital. The event was still held on two nights, a tradition that was part of the original procession, one close to the 5th November and one on mayor-making day, the 9th November. The procession would feature the Mayor’s Corporation, journeying passed the house of the new Mayor when he would appear in his garden on a podium and make a short speech to the people in the procession. The rejuvenated procession with elements of the old-style carnivals brought back the community spirit and the sweet cause of charity. Pictures of the event were now appearing in the local newspapers and larger adverts were being put up about the town, which contained the Pithy Pars (although they were also being printed in the official programme). The 1937 carnival apparently didn’t live up to people’s expectations, with a dedicated few participating. The news of the burgeoning World War in late 1938 somewhat put a dent in everything a few days before the event, resulting in just two tableaux taking part. A virus had also spread in the community among local children, causing the organisers to cancel the children’s fancy dress. The Harwich and Dovercourt Standard made the bold, and premature, statement that the 1939 carnival would be bigger and better than ever. There were no more carnivals until 1945!

1945 saw an attempt to revive the carnival, but so little money was raised from the first of the two processions that the second one was cancelled, despite the publicity and preparations for it.

It was a local man called Gren Tyrell, who in 1952 was Officer Commanding the 519th St Nicholas Company of the Church Lad’s Brigade that revived the old carnival. With assistance from friends that had been involved with pre-war carnivals, the old Harwich custom was back on its feet again. The event (held in November) received a reasonable amount of coverage in the local press and raised a respectable amount of money. But the revival lasted barely two months, as the North Sea floods at the end of January 1953 destroyed all the equipment that the Church Lad’s Brigade had bought with the money. Most of Bathside (where they were based) was ruined by flood damage, and the carnival once more disappeared.

The Harwich Guy Carnival had yet another revival in 1956, brought back by Harwich Round Table. Gren Tyrell, who had revived it in 1952, was the chairman of the community service committee for the Table and decided that a revival of the Guy Carnival should become the Table’s fund raising project. They purchased a Workman’s Bedford Minibus for £800 and renamed it the Harwich Round Table Community Coach. Its purpose was to allow local residents to travel and see their sick friends and relatives at the Black Notley Hospital, in Essex. Mr Tyrell suggested that proceeds from the carnival could pay for the maintenance of the vehicle, but other local charities would also benefit from the money raised. A major press campaign to promote the new carnival began in August 1956, with articles appearing in the Harwich and Dovercourt Standard on a regular basis throughout September and October.

The first ever ‘pre-carnival’ meeting was held at the Anchor Hotel on 3rd October 1956, where many local firms and organisations expressed their intentions of participating. Despite the ruling by the police that the procession was not allowed to halt in the High Street in Dovercourt, the event was given the green light. Late night extensions were granted for local pubs by the Harwich magistrates, enthusiasm was renewed down at the Marine Workshops in Parkeston Quay where they had been preparing a float. A plea was put in the Standard for youngsters to come forward and carry the flaming torches to light the procession. A week before the revived carnival it seemed there was more interest than anyone could imagine! When 3rd November came there were 25 floats, hundreds of fancy-dressers and thousands of locals lining the streets in support of their new carnival. The standard of tableaux entered was so good, that the judges made seven of them equal third! It exceeded everybody’s expectations and was described as a first-rate community effort. £192 was raised by the comeback, which eventually was divided between the Harwich Old People’s Welfare and the Harwich Round Table Community Coach. The comeback rejuvenated much support from the town. The Marine Workshops reformed their band at Parkeston Quay and played in every carnival for the next twenty years, young boys and girls flocked to help carry the torches every year and the Guy Carnival once again became one of the most popular winter events in Essex. The community coach was driven at the front of each carnival from 1959. There has been a Guy Carnival every year since 1956, and it was all thanks to the Harwich Round Table.

Harwich Dock (Navy Yard Wharf)

The place where the carnival began. Harwich Dock Company, the place that started the Guy Carnival, became the place it is today in the early 1960s, when the quay was developed and renamed. It opened in Christmas 1963 and both the bosses and employees wanted to show the town that they had community spirit. Their first float in 1964 was a giant plastic model of Moby Dick, with a mouth that opened and closed, powered by a hydraulic crane. There was a small model of a car in the mouth of the whale, accompanied by jets of water that sprayed from the whale’s mouth. They are renowned for their magnificent float entries over the years, and eventually built up friendly rivalry with fellow carnival entrants from Parkeston Quay and The Vacuumatic. The three of them were large companies that could afford to spend lots of money on extravagant props for their floats.

The Dock’s tableaux were so good they were even asked to enter floats in other carnivals in Essex. In 1975 they built a scene from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and showed the dwarfs repairing the holes in the streets of Dovercourt. In 2000 they sent Thunderbirds 1,2,3 and Lady Penelope’s pink Rolls Royce along to save the town from bad weather, floods and poor public transport. In 1978 they decided to use Star Wars to somehow highlight the plight of Dovercourt swimmers, for which they picked up a prize. Their 1998 float entry was a magnificent pirate ship, complete with crocodiles, guns, mast, smoke and pirates. They were poking fun at ferry company Stena, whose High Speed Ferry had experienced many mechanical problems that year. One of their slogans said ‘From the Caribbean we made good speed, we heard that Stena was in desperate need, of another ship to do her run, so sail with us and have more fun!’

Other Dock themes have included a replica of the Treadwheel Crane, the children’s television show F Troop, Paint Your Wagon, Robin Hood, Julius Ceaser, Dad’s Army, Trumpton, Harwich’s Saint Nicholas church, ‘Pummy Rose’, the battle of the Chinese take-aways and in 1983 they made a wonderful, life size model of a paddle steamer. It took them nearly three months to make and rumour has it that someone from the Ministry of Transport had to visit the dock to ensure that the tableau was safe!


  • The Guy Carnival was recorded by BBC World Radio in 1957 so it could be part of a special broadcast that went out across Turkey and Cyprus.
  • The police had to intervene and pull a float out of the procession in 1994, as the frivolous youths on the float were chucking beer from the trailer.
  • Although some people revel in mercilessly dismissing a carnival if it rains, the rain has failed to bother more than a handful of carnivals in the last 50 years. The worst year to date was 1967, when it rained the week before and all during the carnival.
  • A petition signed by 200 locals in August 1960 was handed to the Harwich Round Table, in protest against moving the route of the carnival, after considering that it could start in Dovercourt and end in Harwich, but this never happened…until 2001!
  • Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, there was always a ceremonial bonfire with a giant Guy Fawkes. In the early days this took place on the famous Bathside ‘muds’, but as the years progressed there were various bonfires around the town after each procession.
  • Traditionally the chairperson of the carnival’s organising committee should lead the Guy Carnival in fancy dress. Both the Round Table and the Rotary Club have managed to keep alive this custom. The Guy Carnival Chairperson of 1987 walked ahead of the procession dressed as a Widow Twanky, while the chairperson of the 2004 Rotary carnival committee walked ahead of the torchbearers dressed as the Grim Reaper. Apparently he walked quite a way ahead of them, as his costume was highly flammable!
  • For many years the official carnival programme and Pithy Pars had the following statement on the back page: The organisers regret that due to the lack of roadworks the route may be altered. This nonsensical sentence was a guying reference to the local council, who would inform the organisers of sudden roadworks at the last minute, causing alterations to the carnival route.
  • In the Shipwright’s procession 1896 seaman Frederick Barwood of Trinity Service Harwich, suffered slight internal bleeding when he tried to climb to a balcony at Orwell Terrace. He fell 20 feet after attempting to hold his collecting tin to a lady at one of the balconies, but luckily suffered no broken bones. Two local doctors were summoned immediately and assessed the poor man’s condition.
  • This is the earliest existing photo of a float that was available before this book was printed. It dates from 1929.
  • Harwich Round Table organised the carnival from 1956 to 1996, then handed over the baton of responsibility to Harwich and Dovercourt Rotary in 1997.
  • Dr Brian Collins, one of the judges in the 1973 carnival, managed to watch the floats as they left Bathside, dash off to assist with a birth, then get back to Dovercourt train station and help hand out the awards.

Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops Band

Formed in 1934, the band was originally invented to lead the Harwich summer carnival, and eventually began playing a part in Guy carnivals from 1937. They had their own club, based at the High Street end of Orwell Terrace. They disbanded at the outbreak of World War Two and were around for the beleaguered 1945 Guy carnival, but went on to attend carnivals and events outside the town.

The Parkeston Quay Marine Workshops Band saw the 1956 comeback of the Guy Carnival as the perfect chance to show off their big heads (see Bigheads). Like the carnival itself, the band had been out of existence for some time. Jack Horwood was a member of the ‘Stour Wanderers’ band before World War Two, and it was his idea to revive the Marine Shops band (they were in fact the main carnival band as far back as the 1920s and even earlier). The bands’ first new, public engagement was the revived 1956 Guy Carnival. The idea proved more than successful and before 1957’s carnival came around, workers were adding their names to the ever-growing list to join the band. There were 48 members and despite shift-work at the quay, 40 usually turned up at each function. The biggest turn out for the workshops band was 1959, when 44 bandsmen took part in the carnival. Right through the 1960s, Parkeston Quay Workshops band were the main attraction at carnivals, not only Harwich but all over the county. Led by drum major, Ron Avis, they attended functions at Basildon, Colchester, Chelmsford, Harlow, Felixstowe, Southend, Brightlingsea, Witham and Grundisburgh. They even performed for Hollywood star Jayne Mansfield at Illford in 1959. They had endless engagements and successes. In 1973 drum major Ron Avis, chairman of 12 years, had felt the band needed fresh blood and he stepped down. The band attended 139 carnivals and fetes, and Mr Avis attended 119.

Pithy Pars (carnival programme)

A rather unique, idiosyncratic feature to Guy Carnival time in Harwich is the Pithy Pars (now known as the carnival programme and pithy pars). Gren Tyrell, who helped revise the carnival in the 1950s, recalls that they are likely to have begun during the early, pre-war days of the carnival. Instead of an actual programme there were notice boards outside the many pubs in the town, where people would add little cryptic comments about others that they wanted to ‘have a go at’ or poke fun at. This was incorporated into the Guy Carnival programme from 1956 onwards, as the Round Table thought this would arouse interest from those that remembered the event from before WW2.

Torch Bearers

Undoubtedly one of the oldest traditions of Guy night that is remarkably still with the event today, the flaming torch bearers were the original source of illumination for the procession for over a hundred years. When the carnival of the 1800s paraded the local Harwich streets, it was a sight to behold when the Royal Naval Shipyard workers carried small, replica models of ships they had repaired at the dock. Dressed to protect themselves from the unsociable winter weather, the flaming torches must have made them glow as the spectacle toured the town.

As Gren Tyrell, the man responsible for reviving the carnival on two occasions, described in 1997:

‘I can clearly remember seeing illuminated models of fully rigged ships being carried by two people on a type of stretcher as far back as 1932. I can also remember the early torches being rather frightening things consisting of a piece of 2×2 timber, with a wire-bound tar soaked sacking attached to the top. When lit it resembled a miniature bonfire.’

When the carnival was brought back after World War Two the torches used were ex-RAF, formerly used to light the flight pathway of aero planes. From the 1950s right through to the 1970s these torches were carried by youngsters, placed throughout the carnival. The idea was that they would provide illumination to the floats, which in the old days would never have had the advantage of generators to power lights. For many years these youngsters were rewarded with a couple of coins for their time. There are no records of the torchbearers being in the carnival at all after the late 1970s, but the Harwich Society revived them in 1988. Rather than place themselves throughout the procession, they lead it. However the old tar soaked rags have now been replaced by the safer Harwich Society design, fuelled by fire-lighters.

Article by Chris Root