Bonfire Prayers

Remember, remember the Fifth of November The Gunpowder Treason

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Bonfire Anthem

Now is the time for marching Now let your hearts be gay Hark to

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The 1847 Lewes Bonfire Riot - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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The eight unfortunate Bonfire Boys who were arrested after the Lewes Bonfire Riots of 1847 must have been quaking in their boots when they realised who was to judge their subsequent trial at Horsham Assizes: Lord Chief Justice Thomas Denman, the second-most-powerful lawyer in the land. And it was their misfortune that Denman was a Liberal Peer, as the trial had strong political connotations.

There had been bonfire celebrations in Lewes since the 17th century, and Sussex’s county town had seen unruly citizens building bonfires and throwing squibs around for many decades, but events came to a head in the mid 1840s, when attitudes towards the annual saturnalia split Lewes’ ruling class right down the middle.

Lewes was a town coming to terms with a number of recent socio-economic changes; as well as fulfilling its traditional role as a thriving market town, it was by then also a hub of light industry, home to four foundries, four breweries, a large print works and a ship-building works; its population had doubled to around 9,000 since the turn of the century.

These inhabitants were represented in Parliament by two political parties, which had opposing views on the traditional November celebrations. The Liberals, puritanical in their outlook, viewed the celebrations to be a dangerous threat to public law and order. The Tories were more libertarian in their outlook, seeing the festivities to be little more than a patriotic spirited group letting off of steam. Since the 1830s, Bonfire Boys had taken to rolling tar barrels down the High Street, ‘blacked up’ to avoid recognition by the four-strong local constabulary, who could do little to stop them from their annual revelries, though some arrests were usually made.

On the Fifth in 1846 a mob built a bonfire from three such barrels at the entrance to the house of a Liberal magistrate, the 70-year-old Sir Henry Blackman, a well-known opponent of the lawlessness of the occasion, and thus a targeted ‘enemy of Bonfire’. Blackman attempted to arrest one of the ringleaders of the group, and was bludgeoned to the ground, his senseless body dragged back into his house by friends.

Lewes’ two newspapers, each representing a political party, both condemned the Bonfire Boys’ actions, but their subsequent editorials proposed markedly differing courses of action. WE Baxter, the Tory supporting editor of the Sussex Agricultural Express, suggested that the bonfire celebrations should be moved out of the centre of town; George Bacon, Liberal-leaning publisher of the Sussex Advertiser, proposed an outright ban on the celebrations, which he dubbed ‘riotous and brutalising orgies celebrated by a class of men taken from amongst the lowest ranks of society’.

This view was backed by a pamphleteer, calling himself ‘An Old Inhabitant’ (widely believed to be schoolteacher William Lower) who wanted action to be taken to rid ‘the town of Lewes of this abominable and disgraceful nuisance’. In September 1847, a group of 32 leading citizens of Lewes, most of them Whigs (after that year’s election, the ruling party) signed a petition to the Lewes Bench of Magistrates, calling on them to adopt measures to suppress that year’s celebrations.

They agreed, and recruited a formidable force to enforce a ban on the festivities, with the help of the Secretary of State. The whole of the Sussex Constabulary was drafted into Lewes for the night, as well as a body of 80 policemen from London, and 170 local tradesmen and gentry were sworn in as special constables (though 108 eventually managed to evade this duty). It was also arranged for two troops of Lancers to be stationed at Ashcombe, a mile away, in case they were needed.

In an attempt to outwit the forces of order, the Bonfire Boys attempted their first action at midnight of the fourth. A reported 70 men and boys, armed with bats and bludgeons, appeared at the crest of St Anne’s Hill, pulling a flaming tar barrel with them. A group of 80 policemen were waiting for them at the foot of the hill. They had set a trap: a chain across the road, which they raised as the Bonfire Boys came running down. Their leaders tripped over, and eight were arrested; the others fled.

The next morning a provocative poster was put up around the town by Bonfire Boys, aiming to stir the townspeople into action. ‘NOTICE’, it read. ‘GUY FAWKES presents his compliments to his friends in general, and requests that they will remain quiet THIS EVENING. Given at our rendezvous, this 5th day of November, 1847. G.F.’ The scene was thus set for confrontation.

At noon the London police arrived at the train station; at 4pm the special constables had mustered at County Hall (now the Law Courts) for instructions. By 8pm a large crowd had assembled outside the building, ‘in expectancy’ as one reporter later put it, ‘of an outbreak of rowdyism.’ They positioned themselves either side of the main doorway, where the police were congregated.


Insults and rockets were thrown. Matters came to a head when the Brighton mail-coach arrived outside the White Hart. A squib was thrown at the horse, which panicked and ran the vehicle into a building on the corner of St Mary’s Lane (now Station St). The driver was thrown to the ground; a passer-by was run over by the horse. Henry Pelham, the Earl of Chichester, chose this moment to read the Riot Act, meaning that any assemblage of people were required to disperse, or face punitive action.

This speech was followed by the police forming into two lines, one facing west, the other east, and marching forwards in formation. ‘The crowd flew in all directions,’ it was later reported, ‘as if a troop of cavalry were at their heels’. There was little more trouble that night, and the reinforcement constables returned to London the next day. But the police hadn’t heard the last of the Bonfire Boys that month: there were disturbances every night in November, with the offices of the Sussex Agricultural Express, in particular, singled out for attacks with rockets and stones.

Lord Denman made an example of the eight men arrested on the night of the Fourth. Four were imprisoned for a month, and fined £10 to keep the peace. Two, Thomas Starbridge and James Winhurst, were sentenced to six months’ hard labour. One of the jurors was Henry Blackman, recovered from his injuries at the hands of the mob a year earlier. Denman, summing up, suggested ‘persons of a superior station in life were absurd and stupid enough to employ these poor people in this way, to annoy a class of persons who did not agree with them’, thus implying the Tories had funded the mob.

Old Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations : First Bonfire Societies 1853A compromise was reached the following year, when Tory landowner John Ellman offered his land in Wallands Park as use for a firesite. Revellers were ‘enticed’ to the park, where a huge bonfire had been made, from the High Street by a band of musicians. Once there, they ‘harmlessly amused themselves’ until midnight.

A similar arrangement was reached in 1849. Lewes’ raucous Bonfire Night celebrations might have eventually petered out entirely had Pope Pious IX not re-stoked the fires of anti-Catholicism in the country in 1850, with his Papal Bull restoring the Catholic hierarchy in England. The result, in the words of historian EL Watkins, was that ‘a tornado of no-Popery hysteria swept the country’.

The Bonfire Boys moved the celebrations back into town in 1850, much to the Sussex Express’ disgust. “From six to midnight,” wrote their reporter, “there was an unceasing discharge of rockets of all sorts and sizes… The scene reminded one far more of the orgies of infuriated savages than of the amusements of even a semi-civilised people’. The police did nothing to intervene, and the centre of town was reestablished as the focal point for the night’s activities.

By 1853, however, matters had calmed down, and by 1853 the first Bonfire Societies were formed, instilling a discipline among their members, who wore uniforms and marched in formation. The modern era of Lewes Bonfire had begun.

By Alex Leith : Viva Lewes


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