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Golowan History


A little history of our festival

Golowan: Penzance’s midsummer festival in the 19th century

Today’s Golowan festival, created in 1991, brings back to life many of the traditions and practices recorded in Penzance during midsummer celebrations centuries.

Many of the familiar parts of the festival: crowds, fireworks, serpent dancing, market stalls, roaming bands, fireworks and the Mock Mayor have their roots in an ancient midsummer tradition celebrated up to the late 19th century, where bonfires were lit in the Greenmarket, on Market Jew Street, Queen Street and countless other locations.

golowan festival

There are many accounts that record the festivities around the town. The newspapers are particularly useful, containing colourful reports of the events that went down in this heady week. Yet what is the earliest reference, and where does the word ‘Golowan’ come from?

In the Morrab Library is an original copy of Observations on the Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall (1754) by the antiquarian and rector of Ludgvan, William Borlase.

He writes: “In Cornwall, the festival fires, call’d bonfires, are kindled on the Eve of St John the Baptist, and St. Peter’s Day, and Midsummer is thence, in the Cornish tongue, call’d Goluan, which signifies both Light, and Rejoicing.”

This is the earliest printed reference to the word we use today – Golowan. This is made out of two Cornish words – gool – Cornish for feast, fair or festival – and Jowan – the name John. So Golowan means the Feast of St John.

Decorating the town

In the letters page of the Royal Cornwall Gazette, on July 4, 1801, T. J. R writes:

“No sooner had the tardy sun withdrawn himself from the horizon, then the young men began to assemble on several parts of the town, drawing after them, trees and branches of wood and furze ; all which had been accumulating week after week, from the beginning of May. Tar barrels were presently erected on tall poles ; some on the quay, others near the market, and one even on a rock in the midst of the sea ; pretty female children tript up and down in their best frocks, decorated with garlands ; and hailing the Midsummer-eve as the vigil of St. John.”

“The joyful moment arrives, the torches make their appearance, the heaped-up wood is on fire! The tar-barrels send up their immense flame, the ladies and gentlemen parade the streets, or walk in the fields, or on the terrace that commands the bay! Thence they behold the fishing-towns, farms, and villas, vying with each other in the number and splendour of their bonfires.”

Then comes the finale : no sooner are the torches burnt out, than the inhabitants of the quay-quarter, (a great multitude) male and female, young, middle-aged, and old ; virtuous and vicious, sober and drunk, take hands, and forming a long string, run violently through every street, lane, and alley crying “An eye! an eye! an eye!” 

At last they stop suddenly; and an eye to this enormous needle being opened by the last two in the string, (whose clasped hands are elevated and arched) the thread of the populace run under, and through: and continue to repeat the same, till weariness dissolves their union, and sends them home to bed.”

This is a good description of the Serpent Dance that we do today, through the town, down Chapel Street and onto the Quay.

The Quay Fair

 ‘TJR.’ then paints a picture of the quay fair the following day.

“The custom is, for the country people to come to Penzance in their best clothes, when they repair to the quay and take a short trip on the water. On this occasion numbers of boats are employed, most of which have music on board. After one cargo is dismissed, another is taken in ; and till nine or ten o’clock at night, the bay exhibits a pleasant scene of sailing-boats, rowing-boats, sloops, sea-sickness, laughter, quarrelling, drum-beating and horn blowing. On the shore there is a kind of wake or fair, in which fruit and confectionary are sold, and the public houses are thronged with drinkers and dancers.”

Why did Penzance’s midsummer revels disappear?

By 1890, as far as our research can tell, the streets were quiet during Midsummer. No bonfires, no revelling and dancing in the streets. Only some organised firework displays. What happened?

There was constant friction between revellers and the Penzance borough authorities. The chief concern in a busy town was that of fire and fireworks, the latter being homemade from gunpowder. The Gunpowder and Fireworks Act of 1860 meant that licenses to manufacture fireworks had to be applied for, but in reality this was hard to enforce, and this was reinforced or replaced by the Explosives Act 1875. Section 80 of this act, which still applies today, makes it an offence to set off fireworks in the street. It is also an offence to make or store them without a license. Substantial fines could be applied for those in breach of the law.

Explosive and glittering compound

This couldn’t have helped Penzance’s cottage firework industry that went into overdrive as midsummer approached.

The Cornish Telegraph, on June 30, 1875, reported: “Some of us have been busily engaged in the secret recesses of out-houses in the rolling-up of rocket cases. Sheet after sheet of pasted brown paper, tightly enveloping an iron bar, have been made the depository of a mixture of gunpowder and steel filings. This explosive and glittering compound has been smartly compressed, the top of the hand-rocket finished off with a piece of touch-paper, and, dozen after dozen, the completed weapon placed in a secret corner for re-production and use on the famed Midsummer Eve.”

Secret committees

In the same 1875 piece, we learn that “a trusted few formed themselves into what we call a committee – an anonymous but representative body to whom is confided a large sum of money, never larger than this year, with longer pockets; and these find money for a band of musicians, all the tar barrels and other casks of the neighbourhood, firewood, furze and men to place and ignite the combustibles. All this self-imposed labour – some of it highly dangerous, as is the pastime to which it leads, and yet the gods of misrule seem never to have permitted a serious accident – is in honour of saturnalia which are as old as the hills.”

mazey day

Band of roughs?

By 1875, the midsummer celebrations were bigger than ever before, well-organised, and with decent budgets. The same year the Explosives Act was passed, an event that probably went unnoticed and unheeded by Penzance’s midsummer revellers. 

By 1880, the Cornish Telegraph picked up on the tensions that were starting to form after some particularly rough behaviour: “Considerable discomfort was caused by the presence of bands of roughs who arm-in-arm rushed among the town knocking people down. The son of Mr Rogers, butcher, Market Jew Street, was knocked down and had his collar bone broken. No town in England, not even Exeter or Lewes now, can equal the scene presented by Penzance last night.

There were reports of lit rockets being stuffed unknowingly into people’s pockets, and windows were broken by rocket fire.

In 1881, the Cornish Telegraph reported that on St Peter’s Eve, a firework smashed the window of a sitting room above a shop in the Green Market (where some of the bigger bonfires were traditionally burned) and struck a man in the eye, which also set another man’s coat on fire, and burnt another’s arm. The writing was on the wall for fireworks and bonfires in the streets of Penzance.

We may just as well let the custom die out

A letter in The Cornishman, published the same year, lamented: “Much as I uphold old customs, for ‘old fashions please me best’, and should regret seeing fireworks in our town put a stop to ; yet, if better conduct and less rough play cannot be obtained, I think that we may just as well let the custom die out. Several visitors who had read of, and were anxious to see, the ancient custom, went away from the Green Market thoroughly disgusted, and it is a pity that the reputation of the town should suffer by the conduct of a few low roughs from the back slums.”

By 1883, there was a 10pm curfew, enforced by the police. No bonfire crackled and burned in the Green Market, only smaller ones on side streets.

“A ten o’clock curfew might, to all appearances, have been in force, for as the last stoke died away the fires everywhere went out, the street lamps were put out, the moon came out, and most folks went in and long before midnight Penzance, like a well-conducted little town, was snugly tucked in bed and perhaps asleep and dreaming.” (Cornishman, July 5, 1883)

By 1884, people letting off fireworks in the streets were made examples of by the police. At the West Penwith Petty Sessions, several people were charged and pleaded guilty to fireworks offences.

Just a fond memory

In 1885, a public fireworks display was held in the town, to which people were charged entry. By 1896, in the Now and Then section of the Cornishman, the St John’s Eve revels were just a fond memory: “I can look back on the Greenmarket, Penzance, when King Pyro held universal holiday there. Ah! Law is stronger than synods.”


Here we go again...

In 1991, the tradition was revived by Alverton School, members of Kneehigh Theatre, Penwith Peninsula Project and Penzance Town Council.

From the one day of celebration, Mazey Day, and with the continuing support of Penzance Town Council, Golowan grew to revive the old traditions of the Feast of St John with the Golowan Band, Serpent Dances, the Quay Fair, Mock Mayor Election, greenery, banners and giant imagery on parade.

In the week leading up to Mazey Day, there is an election of the Mock Mayor of the Quay and, on Mazey Eve, a spectacular fireworks display with the appearance of Penglaz, Penzance’s ‘Obby ‘Oss, accompanied by the Golowan Band.

Mazey Day, launched each year by the Mayor of Penzance and the Mock Mayor of the Quay, is the centrepiece of the festival in which artists, schools and other community groups fill the streets with music and giant sculptures in a series of parades. Thousands of people line Market Jew Street, which becomes a huge market place for the day, with traders selling all manner of goods as well as food from all around the world.


Some past Golowan Festival themes

After two years of lockdown and distancing, Golowan bounced back with the theme Back To the Future.

We look back with pride at 31 years of wonderful community celebrations and embrace the future in warm anticipation of all the joys to come! The theme was a chance to reflect on the past of Golowan and its traditions and to vision what the celebrations may look like in the future!

The theme of Golowan Goes Green was reflected in the wonderful parades –  from the Green Man and  the huge green turtle to the environmental aspects highlighted by the challenging images of huge fishes filled with plastic debris and of the structures reminding us of threatened species.

2018 saw another well-attended and very much enjoyed Golowan Festival the theme of which was Golowan Goes Wild  – about all creatures great and small.  This theme was perfect for schools and groups as a starting point for their parade structures. Also, for 2018, Golowan took steps towards becoming more environmentally friendly and sustainable and again this theme was reflected in the parades with several schools recycling collected plastic items to use in the creation of their parade pieces.

The 2017 theme of Golowan was The Never Ending Story that gave the schools and groups plenty of ideas for Mazey Day.  We expected the parades to be peopled with book characters and we weren’t disappointed! The 2017 Golowan Festival was another huge success and everyone enjoyed themselves.

Golowan 2016 was planned and delivered by a community interest company and was entering a new phase in the story of its existence with the prospect of continuing success in the future.

This year’s theme was Alive at 25! Celebrating Golowan – a great history and a glorious future!”

The theme for Golowan 2014 was Golowan Goes Global and there was an emphasis on the celebration of world music, dance and food and on the history of the Cornish Diaspora. This was the year when local schools and community groups excelled themselves: a Chinese dragon, a giant Australian surfer, a Cornish lugger and a Hindu temple all featured in the parades and a giant Humphry Davy walked through the main streets of Penzance!

The theme of the 2013 Golowan was Giants and as you can see from the pictures here our local schools certainly came up with some striking Giant procession pieces.

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