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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Bricks And Martyrs - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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Bricks And Martyrs : “A lasting sermon in stone”

A crowd of thousands trooped down Cliffe High Street and up Chapel Hill on a rainy May afternoon in 1901 to see the unveiling of the Martyrs Memorial. Among them were women carrying their children, an old man who had come eighty miles, the Mayor, who was ‘pluckily’ taking part despite having a cold. By 3.15pm, when the ceremony started, there was a steady downpour, though the Sussex Weekly Advertiser claimed that ‘now and again, the sun broke through the laden clouds, and seemed to direct rays of approval on the dull, grey monument pointing skywards`.

The Martyrs' Memorial

After a hymn, which ‘the 5,182 people present sang as one’, there were some speeches, and then the unveiling. ‘A great solemn silence spread over the vast assembly’ as they waited for the Countess of Portsmouth to draw back the curtain which covered the inscription. When she did, ‘the prevailing silence broke into a great cheer, again and again renewed’. After this, there were more speakers, who were well received, by the soggy audience.

Whatever the weather, there has been an annual procession to the monument ever since, except for three years during WW2. The Cliffe Bonfire Society organises the march, which has become quite elaborate: at 7.10pm on the 5th, they wheel a firework-covered replica memorial up Chapel Hill to the actual memorial, and then back down to Cliffe Bridge, where they set off the fireworks.

The idea of a memorial to the 17 Lewes Martyrs was first raised in about 1890; five years later, the town council denied permission for a memorial tablet in the Town Hall. In 1901, the Mayor claimed that request had not exactly been refused, it was just ‘considered inexpedient’ to grant it.

The search for a site in the town centre proved fruitless, so a local solicitor Isaac Vinall offered a piece of land on his Cuilfail estate. This was gratefully accepted, and the first stone was laid there at a grand ceremony in October 1899. The organising committee had planned to use Portland Stone, but the budget stretched to granite, as ‘contributions came in so plentifully’ from all over Britain, as well as India, Canada, the Us and Brazil.

The obelisk was built by Charles F Bridgman, a highly skilled monument specialist based in Eastgate Wharf, who used a traction engine to pull the huge stones up the hill. Remakably, none of his employees were hurt while building the 35ft, 230-ton structure. It’s still in great condition, though it’s had two close encounters with falling objects. During the great storm of October 1987, several Cypress trees near the memorial were uprooted and fell, ‘narrowly missing the obelisk on two sides’.

On Saturday 5th October, 1940, German planes dropped bombs over Lewes, which fell in a line from Cockshut Road to near the Martyrs Memorial. One dropped into a house in Chapel Hill, but didn’t explode. The residents had to move out ‘for a few days’ so the bomb could be defused.

Steve Ramsey : Viva Lewes

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