by Andrew Robinson
Every St Martins day (11th November) the windows of buildings across Fenny Stratford near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, rattle and shake while animals scurry for cover as six loud explosions ring out across the town marking the annual firing of the Fenny Poppers.
The Poppers are six miniature cannons in the shape of a tankard, possibly repurposed chambers for breach loading cannons, that are fired in succession at 12 o’clock, 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock in memory of the benefactor of the local church, Browne Willis. The event is organised and maintained by a small informal group of people most of whom are associated with the church and has been led for the last 30 years or more by Peter White. This small English custom, which currently attracts only a handful of people, has a continuous history dating back at least 279 years and follows a well-established procedure.
The poppers are first removed from storage in the church where they are permanently on display. Helpers and interested visitors gather in the nearby cemetery close to the entrance to the recreation ground where the custodian Peter White lays out a selection of materials on the path including newspapers, wood and coal for the brazier, hammers, wooden sticks and gunpowder. The poppers are then brought to the footpath and arranged in order by the numbers on their base. Small wooden pegs are then waxed and inserted in the firing holes before gunpowder is poured into the barrels from six small canisters containing the correct measure for each popper.
Peter then hammers numerous sheets of newspaper into the barrels as wadding until each Popper is filled to half an inch from the top. Friends, spectators and passers by, pause to talk and often to help with the packing of the Poppers. Past participants are remembered and regular attendees catch up on recent news and renew acquaintances. Community news is shared as the Poppers are prepared.
During the preparation Peter likes to explain the history of the tradition in conversation with those present, despite most being familiar with the event. Often visitors are invited to fire a Popper and all who do receive a certificate. Occasionally a Popper is dedicated to an individual, usually someone who has recently passed away.
This process takes upwards of 30 minutes as each cannon is packed with newspaper.
The poppers are then carried the short distance to the recreation ground where small depressions in the earth are created for the cannons to rest in approximately 6 feet apart. A small rest, similar to a fishing rest, is placed behind each Popper before the wooden peg is removed from each in turn and a little powder is added to the firing hole.
At the allotted time, a long, red hot poker is removed from a nearby brazier and carefully carried in turn to each of the chosen firers by a helper. The firer places the poker on the rest and lowers it until the end touches the firing powder. The charge is ignited, there is a bright flash followed by a very loud bang as the cannon is discharged and a shower of shredded paper and smoke drift across the recreation ground. After all six Poppers have been fired the poker is returned to the brazier. The newspaper which has been blown from the cannons is collected and thrown on the fire and the Poppers are carried back to the car in the graveyard. The firing is over within a couple of minutes and the spectators and organisers disperse to return in just over an hour later to repeat the procedure.
The sequence of events takes approximately 45 minutes in total and was inherited by the current master of ceremonies when he took over some 30 years ago and modified over the years for reasons of safety and practicality. Whilst currently attended by only a small audience of approximately 20 people, the six explosions are heard across the community and the event is often covered by the local press and sometimes the national media.
This year I was lucky enough to be invited to fire one of the poppers and received a certificate to prove it. The experience didn’t last long but my ears are still ringing now!
A special thanks to Peter White for his hospitality and help.
Photographs © Andrew Robinson 2019.