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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Borough Bonfire Society - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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BOROUGH BONFIRE SOCIETY : Death Or Glory

In the first half of the nineteenth century the ‘bonfire boys’ of Lewes became notorious for their riotous antics on November the fifth. It wasn’t until a series of clashes took place with the authorities in the late 1840s that this anarchic state of affairs transformed itself into the modern era of Bonfire, resulting in the birth of the oldest bonfire society of Lewes old town: Borough.

Borough Bonfire Society Death Or Glory

Photo 1921 : Roy Geer

In 1846, a magistrate named Henry Blackman was assaulted by revellers outside his home, which led to an attempt by the authorities to end further celebrations. A major clash ensued on 5 November 1847 when Lord Chichester was forced to read the Riot Act to disperse an ugly crowd; nevertheless the bonfire boys continued with their activities every night for the rest of the month.

Compromise was reached the following year and the magistrates agreed to give a small group of bonfire boys control of an isolated part of the town. This resulted in the celebrations moving away from the town centre, from the High Street to Wallands Park. This worked for the next couple years until September 1850 when Pope Pius IX issued a Papal Bull stating the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England.

This was seen by many as an act of Papal aggression and, in response, Papal effigies were burnt across the country. Lewes was renowned for its anti-Catholic feeling and, with the sudden fear of Catholic infiltration, the bonfire boys once again marched through the centre of town to demonstrate their religious sentiments with some vigour. A fire was lit outside County Hall, where a crowd of 3000 were addressed by a Cardinal Wiseman impersonator (a central figure of condemnation), then effigies of the Pope and the Cardinal were burnt.

The bonfire boys were aware that, in order to remain on the streets, their riotous behaviour would have to be curtailed. This resulted, in 1853, in the formation of Lewes Bonfire Society, and Cliffe Bonfire Society, which represented the then-seperate borough. The first procession saw 60-70 Town Bonfire Boys march four abreast through Southover, up St Mary’s Lane and into the High Street. They were uniformly dressed in Guernseys, a shirt of blue and white stripes. The Grand Procession was followed by a ‘No Popery’ banner and carried back to the High Street where a fire was lit.

From the very beginning reference was made to other topical events and individuals within the tableau. The year of 1853 saw effigies of the Czar burnt with the Pope and Guy Fawkes alongside a large Russian bear outside the White Hart. In 1855 Lewes Town Bonfire Society issued their first programme of proceedings laying out the procession route and order of banners. By 1859, The Lewes Bonfire Society had changed its name to Lewes Borough Bonfire Society, and Borough celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2003.

Vicky Funnell : Viva Lewes

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