A Southdown Saturnalia - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations
November 3, 2014 at 12:01 am by v
In turning over my collection of Sussex Ana in the early days of one November,
I came across the following extract from an old churchwarden’s account-book belonging to one of the parishes of Lewes:
“1723. Nov. ye 5th. Item: pd ye Ringers being ye Day of Deliverance from ye powder plott…….2/6.”
So, the anniversary of this “Day of Deliverance” being again at hand, I summoned Amicus, and said to him: “Come, let us go and assist in the worship of Moloch.” “If I am to take part in any mummery,” he answered, “I must know first what it means; for if I have prejudices against either Popery or Protestantism I should prefer not to exhibit them in public.”
“Chut!” I said. “This celebration, which we are about to witness was shorn of all real religious significance long ago. Lewes prides itself upon its Protestant feeling, but efforts to invest the Saturnalia with a religious association are useless. It is a survival and a revival of those old-time demonstrations against Roman-ism, which were the excuse for a licence for men to lose their reason during a few short hours in the year.
In Lewes the event is looked upon in the light of a local ritual: former residents return to the town to celebrate it, but all who take part in the affair have the one and only object of a night’s amusement, and it would be absurd to consider their excuses. I cannot allow you to miss the celebration; it is one in which Lewes leads England, for no other place approaches it in the splendour of the display. Let us go.”
In this manner was Amicus at length reassured. Then, with the old cry of “Io Saturnalia!” we set forth to Lewes to play our part in a celebration which, in Sussex, is, as I shall presently show, no small matter.
Shortly before five o’clock we found ourselves in the principle street of the ancient town, bustling with people, protected by patrols of police, and resounding with the blows of hammers as carpenters boarded up doorways and windows, and covered in area gratings. All businesses had ceased; the front of both the County Hall and the Town Hall was closely covered with wooden hoardings; the windows of the White Hart Hotel were guarded with wire blinds; while those of shops, public buildings and private houses were barricaded with deal boards or special shutters, as if for a siege, this precaution being necessary for protection against the Bonfire Boys inherent practice of throwing fireworks in all directions.
All these things were done because Lewes is the strong citadel of Bonfiredom, for the celebration of “The Fifth” acts like a fever upon the Lewesian, and it is surprising how many sedate inhabitants of this sleepy Sussex town awake from the somnolence of three hundred and sixty-four days to the delights and the revelry of the three hundred and sixty-fifth. To the heart of the Lewes Bonfire Boy, November the fifth is dearest of all the days in the year. He looks upon its Saturnalia as an event of national significance-some would say of religious significance as well, and that to him it takes place of a saint’s day in the Papal Calendar.
The hooligan element is in strong force, though the streets are so well policed that, as a rule, the rough confines his antics to the lusty shouting of popular songs, or just sufficient horseplay to mark his character. Still, it is better to carry a stout stick than to go unprotected, for a hard felt hat has a strong attraction for the hooligan. Also, it is well to wear old clothes and to cover the eyes with wire goggles against stray sparks. Thus armed and guarded, we were prepared for the fray.
According to custom, the proceedings open at 5pm, with the Bonfire Boys “prayers” in Commercial Square, a quaint ritual in which all join in intoning a condemnation of Roman Catholicism, and the attempts of Guido Fawkes to blow up the Parliament of King James the First in 1605; but, as the local rhyme says, “By God’s providence he was catcht,” and his fell design thus frustrated. After the recital of the “prayers” the first procession is formed, for each society has five or six, whose efforts, later in the evening, culminate in a grand display of their united forces.
Then to the tune of the special march, “Bonfire Boys are out To-night”, the first procession gets under way. It is brave with banners, bearing such inscriptions as “Our Faith and Freedom we will Maintain,” and “May we never engage in a Bad Cause or Flinch in a Good One.” For a time the masqueraders march in total darkness, but on reaching the tunnel on the way to the Wallands, a signal is given, torches are suddenly lighted, and the Saturnalia is seen emerging into the sylvan scenery of the park, the effect being at once imposing and picturesque.
Each society proceeds independently with its celebration in a similar manner, until the hour arrives at which the “Grand Procession” has been announced to start. The ordering of this, the event of the evening, occupies some considerable time, and while the officers are marshaling their men and distributing fresh torches, the fusillade of fireworks and the shouts of the populace almost drown their words of command. At length all is in readiness, a sky-rocket gives the signal to start, and at once the whole column bursts into flame.
We find it well to hold on to a wall to avoid being swept away by the great throng of people. At the head of the procession ride twenty “Lady Lancers”, followed by the “Commander-in-chief” with a brilliant staff of Bonfire Boys in miscellaneous military uniforms: lancers, dragoons, hussars, horse artillery and mounted rifles. Every kind of costume appears to be represented in the procession, and many of them are really splendid, for the Bonfire Societies offer prizes for the best.
Following the first brass band is a line of “ecclesiastics in full canonicals.” They support the “Archbishop,” who is to deliver a patriotic speech at the fire, and commit the effigies to the flames. These figures include monstrous representations of Guido Fawkes, of infamous memory; one of the pope, an effigy that the Bonfire Boys are careful to declare stands for a system and not for a particular person, and one or more representations of noted criminals of the year. All these effigies are of elaborate workmanship, and manufactured locally, are stuffed with fireworks, and are sometimes made with mechanically moving heads and limbs.
The “Ancient Key of the Borough of Lewes” is carried in front of the Town Society’s procession; and at intervals in the long column large firework wheels are lighted, and borne aloft on specially constructed platforms. Then, after many more bands – for the Bonfire Societies are proud of their music – come tableaux, illustrating events of national and topical interest, drawn on trolleys, filled with fireworks, and executed with such expense of money and ingenuity that it seems a pity that they should have to find their fate in the fire. But Moloch refuses nothing that is cast into his maw; and his fanatic priests, the Lewes Bonfire Boys, think nothing is too good for his sacrifice.
The column of masqueraders and spectators flows down the narrow High Street like an unfolding ribbon. Hundreds of torches illuminate it; at intervals big blazing tar-barrels are dragged by iron chains; red and green fire, burnt in long iron ladles, illumines the fantastic faces of the revellers like the witches of a Walpurgis Nacht, and flares in the face of the old houses of the town, where calmer feminine Lewes observes the show from the safety of windows.
The Saturnalia is no fit spectacle for a woman to witness from any place outside the walls of a house, for every petticoat – and there are not a few – attracts a storm of fiery serpents, and frequently the night is filled with sudden shrieks of frightened females, the victims of unwelcome attention on the part of the firework throwing Bonfire Boy.
The danger of these detonators may not be despised, for the Lewes celebrant is a master in the making of “chasers” and “rousers”. His specialty is the “rouser” of terrifying power – filled with powder from the mills of Battle; and he has a peculiar manner of firing it. He either lights the touch, puts the firework on the ground, and directs its course with a notched stick; or he places four “rousers” together, pointing in various directions, and then firing all at once, spreads consternation everywhere. The thickest crowds receive the largest amount of attention.
Amid the prodigal blaze of Bengal lights the procession reaches the first “funeral” pile in the Square before the County Hall. The bonfires are built in the public streets, and this is one of the biggest. The Square is absolutely impassable, and the air is suffocating with the fumes of sulphur from discharged fireworks. The “Lord Bishop” of the Borough mounts a platform and delivers his oration, hardly a word of which reaches the crowd, so great is the uproar.
No one heeds him, for on the morrow all that he says will be read in the local papers, and we shall learn that his address glowed with patriotic feeling and Protestant sentiment, that he condemned the evils of the day, such as “alcohol” racing and capitalism; congratulated the local mayor on his election to office; that his remarks were full of other topical allusions, and that he concluded by thanking subscribers and press for their support in enabling the Society to carry out the celebration.
Then the Borough Bonfire Boys effigies are beaten with sticks, the torch is applied to them, and they emit ten thousand sparks from concealed fireworks; a bomb, hidden in each head, blows off that member, the poor remains are cast to the flames, and the fanatics dance around the fire, screaming the bonfire hymn. And when the last effigy has been cremated the procession is reformed and the march is continued to Commercial Square.
The Commercial Square Society is considered the wealthiest brotherhood of Bonfire Boys in Lewes. It is noted for the splendour of its dresses, for the magnificence of its tableaux, and for the profusion of its fireworks, torches and coloured fires. The Society’s “grand” procession is marshaled about 10.30pm, and, without exaggeration, it may be described as a splendid and imposing pageant.
The “obsequies” are under the direction of the “Archbishop” of St. John Sub Castro and his staff, and, though similar to those of the Borough Society, owing to the number of set pieces, the fireworks resemble in character those seen at a Brock’s benefit. A popular device is the Union Jack; and the “wheels” gerbs and roman candles would do credit to a Crystal Palace display.
The ceremony of speech-making and cremation proceeds as in the manner of the first fire. So fierce are the flames that some of the spectators place their hats before their faces as a protection against the fiery heat, and the men holding the effigies in front of the fire are preserved from its flames by protecting shields. The pushing of the crowd, confined by the limits of the Square, is not to be denied; women faint in the press; and woe to him who falls!
By the time the fire has died down to a mere glow of embers, the crowd appears to have reached the highest pitch of abandonment, and now lets loose all that remains of its pent up energy. Several of the most daring men and boys dash through the burning mass, which has become so hot as to drive the spectators back against the walls of the houses.
It is now that screeching is loudest; now that the unwary may be hurt. The hissing of fireworks, culminating in alarming detonations, is appalling. People are scattered right and left, or press one another against the walls of the buildings. At every discharge of fireworks the crowd sways in an alarming fashion. It is a wonder no one is crushed to death, for the object of the Lewes Bonfire Boy is to spread confusion, and confusion reigns supreme in the old streets of Lewes for some eight or ten hours.
Then the thousands who have crammed Commercial Square make their way to the superb of the Cliffe, where the street being narrow, the crush of people is immense. Here again the ceremony of speeches, and the committing of effigies to the flames is repeated, until the time comes for the procession to proceed to Southover for the last fire of the evening, where the rites are conducted by the “Lord Chancellor of the Manor of Southover” a dignified personage, attired in full judicial robes, who is attended by a page, a trumpeter, mace and sword-bearers, and who dons a black cap before he commits the figures to the flames.
On the stroke of midnight, the fire-brigade visits the site of each fire and extinguishes the dying embers by means of the hose. Each Society returns to its own headquarters to conclude its ceremonies with “bonfire prayers” and the singing of the National Anthem. A few minutes later come the Corporation dustmen with their carts, and collect the charcoal and remains of burnt wood. By one o’clock the streets are comparatively quiet, and next morning, with the exception of a rocket-case lying here and there, and the blackened patches in the roadway that mark the places where the fires have been, the streets have resumed their normal appearance of old-world sobriety.
For the majority the Saturnalia exists as a mere memory until another year; it is only the poor unfortunate folk who have more painful reminders of the celebration in the shape of burns and bruises, by whom the event is remembered with regret. On the morrow I observed to Amicus that such a Saturnalia as we had witnessed must have a history of no little interest to one who professed to concern himself with the manners and customs of the people. “I am going,” I said, “to seek out the oldest Bonfire Boy in Lewes and ply him with my questions.”
“I decline to go with you,” he declared, “and I regret that you prevailed upon me to play a part in the licenced riot of last night. I have hitherto regarded myself as a respectable citizen, but during the last few hours I have had to reconsider my claim to that position. I wish you well in your quest, but I will, on no account, either aid or abet you.” So saying, he buried himself in the morning paper, and, for my purpose, I set out to find the oldest Bonfire Boy in Lewes.
I discovered him in Mr William Banks of Southover. When I had explained my mission he provided me with a copy of an old pamphlet from which I have gathered certain of the following particulars. The annual commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot in Lewes is traced back with certainty for a century and a half, though it is believed that the celebration had its origin at a much earlier date – so far back, indeed, as two centuries ago.
It is proved that the carnival had died down before the accession of James the Second, but on its revival during the days of that monarch it became an exceedingly popular event, and the burning of the pope’s effigy was a spectacle in which the common people took a peculiar delight. The figures of the pope and Guy Fawkes were elaborately executed in wax, and the former was expensively clothed in a handsome robe and tiara.
Seated in a Papal chair, this effigy was carried on a car in a procession of persons representing Cardinals and Jesuits. On the car stood a buffoon, disguised as a devil with horns and tail. After perambulating the town the “pope” was presented to the flames, amid the shouts of the populace. Even in these early days, no expense seems to have been spared in carrying out the carnival; and the procession itself cost no less than £1,000.
For reasons not recorded, local interest in the commemoration seems to have subsided until the early years of the nineteenth century, though some sort of celebration was always carried through – chiefly the lighting of huge bonfires built in prominent places. During the first quarter of the century certain Lewesians determined to put new life into the annual demonstration, and the popular event was properly organised.
Unfortunately, the revived Saturnalia was characterized by the perpetration of acts of incendiarism and damage to private property; and Lewes brought itself under the notice of the law. In 1829 the custom of dragging flaming tar-barrels through the streets was inaugurated; and the use of such dangerous combustibles as fire-balls became common. The magistrates therefore, by issuing cautions, sought to suppress the proceedings. The Lewes Bonfire Boys merely laughed; and carried out the carnival of the following year with greater energy than ever.
In 1832 the town authorities made another attempt to extinguish local enthusiasm in the display, but to no purpose; though no serious disturbance is reported until the year 1838. On that occasion a local magistrate ran foul of a number of Bonfire Boys, who were engaged in burning a tar-barrel on the Cliffe Bridge; and owing to the free use of the bludgeon, made use of by certain roughs, rendered bitter by a feeling against the authorities on account of attempts to suppress their proceedings, several arrests were made by the police, and fines of £15 and under were inflicted upon the most riotous offenders by the bench.
For the next few years the Lewes Bonfire Boys were inclined to carry out their proceedings in a peaceful fashion, though fireworks and blazing tar-barrels in the public streets were still characteristic features of the fete. A big bonfire blazed on the Coombe Hill; and peals were rung on the bells of Southover Church. Had they been left to continue these devices the demonstrators might have been satisfied; but in 1841 the police, determined to stop the custom of throwing fire-balls and dragging lighted tar-barrels through the town, swore in a number of special constables to assist the regular force.
These plans coming to the ears of the Bonfire Boys, they armed themselves with staves, with the result that several free fights took place, Superintendent Flanigan was knocked down with a boulder, beaten with a bludgeon and trampled upon; and many of his men were severely maltreated. At the following assizes some twenty rioters were indicted and sent to prison for terms varying from a fortnight to two months; and at the expiration of their sentences were required to enter into reconizances in sums of £100 and £50 to keep the peace for two years.
The result of this firm action on the part of the police was apparent in the demonstration of the following November. The Bonfire Boys reduced the number of their tar-barrels to two, but compensated themselves for this show of deference to authority by introducing, for the first time, a band of music into the procession.
Having gained even so small a point, the police endeavored to prevail upon the leaders of the Bonfire movement to give way upon others. Persuasion was directed principally against the holding of the Saturnalia in the streets, and other places, less public, but certainly safer, were suggested. The Bonfire Boys promptly declined to listen to the proposal; and on the evening of the 5th of November 1846, some hundreds of men and boys, mostly disguised, and carrying sticks and staves, marched through the town, and then, to the alarm of the more peaceful inhabitants, rushed through the streets at a great pace, dragging flaming tar-barrels in their train.
Not satisfied with this, the mob proceeded to the house of Mr. Blackman, a local magistrate, piled a number of barrels in front of the building and set them alight, the flames rising to such a height that the inmates were much alarmed. In order to allay the fears of his household Mr. Blackman went out, and in a mild but firm manner desired the mob to disperse. But its members who were in no mood to heed the magistrate’s request, received his remarks with a storm of derisive jeers, and aggravated their action by adding fresh fuel to the fire, until the flames flared more fiercely than before.
Finding his persuasive efforts futile, Mr. Blackman exhibited more courage and determination by attempting to take one of the transgressors into custody, when another of the crowd dealt him a heavy blow over the eye with a bludgeon, and he fell to the ground, apparently lifeless.The magistrate was taken within doors in a condition of insensibility; his recovery being slow and attended with much suffering. In spite of this cowardly act, the demonstrators did not disperse until they had done further damage.
The proceedings of the Bonfire Boys on this occasion inspired “An Old Inhabitant” (said to be the late M.A.Lower) to publish in a pamphlet some “Observations on the Doings in Lewes on the evening of the Fifth of November 1846, with a few words to parties interested.” The pamphlet was an attack on the Saturnalia, and an appeal to the inhabitants to discountenance further demonstrations. The writer describes the scene as “a disgusting parade of disguises, bludgeons and riot,” distinguished by “the burning of tar-barrels, thirty or upwards in number,” and states further that the mob held the streets from six p.m. until the remains of the fire were put out at half-past twelve.
The author of these “Observations” declared that no individual inhabitant of the town dare allow himself to be suspected of being unfavourable to the demonstrators; if so, he was a marked man, liable to personal ill-use and insult, his house was likely to be beset, and tar-barrels burned before it. If a memorial, requesting the magistrates to exercise their powers and prevent a recurrence of the Saturnalia, were sent around the town for signatures, it would be found that many of the most respectable inhabitants would decline to sign it, “not because they do not feel the impropriety of the proceedings, but from the want of a proper moral courage, and from the fear that their property or premises may be injured by the hand of the malicious villain, or perhaps the midnight incendiary.”
“An Old Inhabitant” continues to inveigh against the Bonfire Boys of Lewes, likening them in their love of costume and disguise to assassins, and characterizing such disguise as worthy of “the poison-cup and the stiletto of the Italian bravo”. Finally, he appeals to the inhabitants to suppress a recurrence of the carnival, and points out its dangers to the interest of local trade, the foolhardiness of letting off fireworks, of blazing tar-barrels, and the burning of a huge bonfire in the street in front of the County Hall, “so that the sparks and flames fly higher than the top of the building, which is the depository of the whole of the County Records, and in which not one room or closet is fire-proof.”
Prior to the proceedings of the next commemoration, the magistrates determined to put a stop to the celebration. Among the Bonfire Boys this decision caused considerable consternation. In pursuance of the order of the bench, the police served summonses on the principle tradesmen and other respectable inhabitants, requiring their attendance at the County Hall to be sworn in as special constables. This action was unpopular. A strong disinclination to serve was manifested by many, and a special private meeting of the parties concerned was promptly held at the Star Hotel.
There the common feeling found voice. A memorial was promoted, suggesting that the means proposed by the magistrates to suppress the celebration were not the best to employ in effecting the desired object, inasmuch as if special constables were commissioned, private interest and sympathy would effectually check any exertion made to apprehend the offenders. Other means, advised the memorialists, should be made and use of, and the magistrates were requested to withdraw the summonses.
A deputation of citizens presented the petition, containing 108 signatures out of a possible 170, to the bench before a crowded court. After listening to the views of the memorialists, the magistrates expressed their inability to accede to the desire of the petitioners; the chairman said that the bench had taken every precaution in their power, and were then in communication with the Secretary of State, with a view to stopping the demonstration; and, with a few exceptions, the whole of the persons summoned were promptly sworn in as special police.
The Bonfire Boys took prompt action. On the night of the 4th November, the special constables held a meeting, and on their way to the place of assembly they were assaulted by bands of defiant Bonfire Boys, who awaited them in different parts of the High Street. The demonstration of the following night promised sport for the rough and the rowdy. In anticipation of this, Lord Chichester and Sir Henry Shiffner Bart, two members of the bench of magistrates, promptly came into the town.
On the same night (the 4th), the demonstrators began their battle against authority by lighting tar barrels in several byways, and causing disturbances in some of the principle streets. But the police, also, had made their plans. Captain Mackay, in command of a large force of constables, had caused a chain to be fastened to the railings on each side of the road near Keere Street, and, with a number of his men, lay in ambush in Rotten Row.
Nothing of an alarming character happened until midnight. Then a blazing tar-barrel was seen coming down St.Ann’s Hill, drawn by some seventy or eighty men, and, on arriving at the chain, several of them stumbled and fell. At once the police rushed upon the rioters, a severe scuffle ensued, and after a free fight about a dozen of the ringleaders were secured and led to the cells. This preliminary skirmish promised much for the morrow.
The morning of “The Fifth” saw an excited people in the old streets of Lewes. The Bonfire Boys were set upon resistance; the police expected this and were prepared for it. At midday a hundred men of the A Division of the Metropolitan Police came into Lewes, and, at dusk, were formed up in front of the County Hall. The town had been divided into districts, and each district was paraded by a body of “special constables”, armed with staves. As evening approached, the streets became more populous, squibs, crackers and other fireworks were discharged with impunity, but beyond watching these proceedings, the police offered no opposition.
Eight o’clock came, and the crowd had greatly increased. Presently the mail-gig from Brighton dashed by the County Hall at a furious pace, the horse having been frightened by a firework. All efforts of the driver to stop the animal were unavailing. The gig dashed down the street, and inclining to the right, came into violent contact with the protruding window of a house at the corner of St. Martins Lane. The driver was pitched to the ground and picked up insensible; a passing pedestrian was run over and severely bruised. The Bonfire Boys had begun their display in no undecided manner.
The fact was immediately realized by the magistrates, who promptly determined to clear the streets. Mounting the steps of the County Hall, Lord Chichester promptly read the riot act, counselled in his own words, the people to disperse, and gave them five minutes by the clock in which to act upon his advice. Only a few of the more timid attempted to depart, and the five minutes being passed, the police were commanded to charge the multitude. By these means the streets were cleared, but in the melee many Metropolitan constables were seriously hurt. On the following morning their departure was attended by a crowd who hooted them heartily and insulted them mercilessly.
Nor did this memorable celebration end here. Some evenings later a number of Bonfire Boys assembled, rolled blazing tar-barrels round the town, and fired squibs and crackers in the High Street, without any interference on the part of the local police, who had been instructed not to interfere. This system of semi-rioting was continued for several evenings, and those persons who had publicly manifested hostility to the proceedings of the Bonfire Boys had the windows of their houses broken.
So much for the proposal of the police to employ force in the suppression of the demonstration. The authorities now realised that they must use other means if they wished to preserve peace. The question of compromise was considered. In the following year two of the leaders of the Bonfire Boys decided to wait upon the magistrates and request them to leave the custody of the town in their hands.
The magistrates very properly agreed. To promote their plans for the proper conduct of the proceedings, the Bonfire Boys accepted the aid of the constabulary, a proviso being made that no tar-barrels should be burnt, no fire-balls should be thrown and no persons should be permitted to perambulate the streets in disguise. The head-boroughs and some of the leading inhabitants were called upon to lend their support and a committee of tradesmen was formed with the idea of considering the question of celebrating the anniversary outside the town.
To serve this end, Mr.John Ellman offered the Bonfire Boys the use of the Wallands Estate. The offer was gratefully accepted, and in the presence of many thousands of spectators, a splendid display was carried through in a manner satisfactory to all parties. This plan was pursued during many succeeding celebrations, each of which was signally successful and free from the objections which had characterized many earlier carnivals.
About 1850, the pope made a determined attempt to persuade the people of England to his Church. The year is looked upon by the perfervid Lewesian as one of the most important in the annals of local bonfireism. The pope’s proceedings led the townspeople to give a willing licence to the Bonfire Boys to use the streets of Lewes for the purpose of giving vent to the full manifestation of that Protestant feeling which, at this date, was always the excuse for the celebration.
Two great fires were lighted in the roadway – one in front of the County Hall, one in the main street of the Cliffe and a third on Cliffe Hill. Rockets and “rousers” were used in great profusion, burning tar barrels were dragged through the thoroughfares; enthusiasm and excitement prevailed everywhere. At midnight a tar-barrel was set ablaze near the spot where the Marian Papists burnt their Protestant brethren to death. The celebration of 1850 seems to have been taken as a permanent permission to return to the old customs connected with this Sussex Saturnalia, for, from that date, the Lewes “Boys” made the public streets the scene of the demonstrations.
It was not until 1853 that the Bonfire Boys of Lewes decided to organize themselves for the purpose of marching in procession through the streets. Until that date the demonstration had been due to individual enterprise; but in that year the principal tradesmen of the town formed themselves into associations properly organized and officered.
The first societies thus formed were those of the “Town” and the “Cliffe”. Each had its captains and lieutenants of the procession, of flags and banners and tar-tubs. At this date the “Guernsey” pattern of dress had become popular, and it was decided that the uniform of the members of the first society of Bonfire Boys should be a blue-and-white striped Guernsey, white trousers and a white cap; the officers being distinguished by a red sash. This uniform prevailed for some time, until it was succeeded by the general adoption of fancy dress.
The effigies of the 53 procession included in addition to those of the pope and Guy Fawkes, a bear, representing Russia (for the Crimean War was on the political horizon), and a pig labelled “Peter the Papist”, standing for a Sussex newspaper proprietor of the day, whose continued articles against the demonstration had rendered him exceedingly unpopular with the Bonfire Boys.
The co-existence of two societies at first caused considerable jealously, which was let loose when the rival processionalists met on the bridge over the Ouse and came to blows. But in the passage of time the Town and Cliffe societies became reconciled, with the happy result that both bonfire associations agreed to assist each other in carrying out the celebration. Nevertheless, the old rivalry was marked for many years in the custom (that still obtains) of the Borough Bonfire Boys carrying a blazing tar-barrel to the bridge-the line of demarcation between the Town and the Cliffe and throwing it over the railings into the river.
The two societies were so well supported that other brotherhoods of Bonfire Boys were brought into being during succeeding years, including the “Commercial Square” and the “Waterloo”. All were financially flourishing, and the spirit of the rivalry led each society to endeavour to eclipse the shows of its competitors in point of spectacular effects.
Each society confined its preliminary processions to its own part of the town, but though rivals in respect of their early parades, every Lewes Bonfire Boy was alike in the desire to surpass all other towns in the display, and, finally, having formed one grand procession, all the societies perambulated the streets with united forces, the fire of each society being visited in turn for the “obsequies”.
Owing to the scourge of typhoid attacking the town in 1874, the High Constable persuaded the Bonfire Societies not to carry out the demonstration on the usual date. It was decided, therefore, that the Saturnalia should be celebrated on a future occasion (when the devastating fever had subsided) as a “day of rejoicing!” On “The Fifth” therefore, the various societies formed themselves into bodies of special police and patrolled the town to prevent sundry persons from discharging fireworks or making other disturbance. The “day of rejoicing” came on the 31st of December, after a fall of snow; and it is stated that the effect of the torches and coloured fires in the white streets and on the buildings was peculiarly weird and picturesque.
The headquarters of the Bonfire Societies are at local hotels; and at the first meeting of members for the year the secretary cries “The books are open”, and those present throw coins on to the table, as much as £20 sometimes being thus collected in an evening. The officials are elected and in Lewes it is considered great honour to hold office in one or other of the societies. Collectors are then appointed to visit the inhabitants, whose response is free and unstinted.
To this strong financial support is due the splendour and magnificence of the processions, the extravagance of the firework displays and the fact that the societies, when in the height of their prosperity, burnt no less than two hundred tar-barrels and used no less than from 6,000 to 8,000 flambeaux to illuminate their processions. The bonfires-each of which is as big as a cottage-are built of great piles of faggots and brushwood on a foundation of barrels, and covered with a dressing of petroleum.
Such is local enthusiasm for, and pride in the Saturnalia, that the event is referred to in many a Protestant pulpit; and an annual thanksgiving address is given in the Jireh Chapel on the Sunday preceding the celebration to a crowded congregation of Lewes Bonfire Boys and their friends. I have before me a newspaper report of one such service, in which the remarks of the special preacher were received with frequent applause, and certain of his references to things Papal with laughter.
It is not to be expected that this annual feast of the fireworshippers of Lewes should pass off without accident. Burns and bruises have been common enough, and misfortunes of a more severe character have occasionally occurred. On at least two occasions, a prominent Lewesian lost an eye; in another year a shed used as a store for torches provided a splendid premature blaze. A big fire in the town in 1904, about a month before “The Fifth” caused the possible dangers attending the celebration to be pressed forcibly upon the inhabitants, and, in consequence, the use of the famous Lewes “rouser” was prohibited.
Recollections of Lewes Bonfiredom call up on the names of not a few curious characters, who have been connected with the annual commemoration. Among them was “Old Betty”, the sextoness of Southover Cemetery, who, with a short pipe in her mouth, and bearing her distinguishing label of “Tubs, No. 9,” walked in the procession dragging a flaming tar-barrel by an iron chain.
There is an old Bonfire Boy, a late “Lord Bishop of Lewes,” who boasts with pride of preaching the annual carnival “sermon” at the Borough fire for thirty-three years and who, although he made a target for the fireworks of the mob while delivering his address from the steps of the County Hall, was never once burnt, in spite of the fact that, on one occasion, a rough endeavoured to burn him with a Roman candle, but who, in consequence, had his fingers broken by the cudgel of some person standing by.
During the days of the war of 1914-18 the Bonfire Boys of Lewes were too busy with more important affairs to concern themselves with the annual event that made their town famous. With the restoration of peace came a revival of the celebration, and though it grows in strength every year, it is safe to say that it will never again reach the dimensions of the past. Aforetime, other Sussex towns followed the example of Lewes in celebrating the Gunpowder Plot, but in their case the custom is now dead; Lewes alone possesses an undying, if diminished enthusiasm for the celebration of the Saturnalia.
The above article is a transcript of a photocopy, that a friend of mine gave to me which turned out to be an article from the 1924 re-edition of the original 1909 edition of The Spirit of the Downs book titled the Southdown Saturnalia entitled also as “Impressions and Reminiscences of the Sussex Downs” and was written by Arthur Beckett.
I have only lightly adjusted the grammar, paragraphs and spelling to bring it up to date to the modern reader without (I Hope) compromising on his quaint but honest description of the Lewes Bonfire Celebrations, His fluidity and word flow is amazing.
FOOTNOTES : “Star Inn” = Now the Lewes Town Hall, “County Hall” = Now the Lewes Law Courts, “Lewes Assizes/Magistrates” = Long gone now but was in the middle of the road between the White Hart and the present Law Courts I believe.
Posted in: Articles, Lewes Bonfire History, Media, Fun, Blog, Other Stuff Tagged in: bonfire celebrations, bonfire night, bonfire society, BonfireNight, fifth of november, lewes bonfire, LewesBonfire, november 5th, popery and religion, remembrance
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