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 Lewes Riot 1857 - Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations

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November 17th, 1857, 5.30pm, and the Haywards Heath Express had just arrived in Lewes’ sparkling new railway station bearing some much anticipated, but largely unwelcome passengers. “It was evident,” wrote an anonymous eyewitness reporter in the subsequent edition of the Sussex Express, “that the town was in a considerable state of excitement.”

John Mason Neale Lewes Bonfire CelebrationsLeading the passengers in question was the 39-year old clergyman John Mason Neale, an imposing figure with fierce black sideburns and steely blue eyes. He was followed by eight nuns from the Society of Saint Margaret, which he had set up some years previously in East Grinstead, and a coffin bearing the body of a ninth sister, thirty year old Emily Scobell, aka ‘Sister Amy’. ‘As soon as the funeral procession appeared from the station gate,’ wrote the same reporter, ‘it was obvious that it was unlike any that had previously been seen in Lewes’.

We were twenty years into Queen Victoria’s reign, and a theological battle was raging throughout the country, between ‘high church’ advocates, espousing certain elements of Roman Catholic ritual in Anglican church services, and their ‘low church’ counterparts, dedicated to a simpler, more Puritan syle of worship.

Neale, a classical scholar, medievalist, hymn writer (author of O Come O Come Emmanuel and Good King Wenceslas) and linguist, was a vehement supporter of ‘high church’ values, who had been banned from conducting services in the Diocese of Chichester by the Bishop, Ashurst Gilbert. Gilbert was a ‘high church’ sympathiser himself, but even he thought Neale to be too ‘Romanist’ in his tendencies.

Emily Scobell, who had died of scarlet fever five days before, was to be buried in the family vault in the north-east corner of All Saints Churchyard. Her father, John Scobell, was none other than the rector of that church (as well as of St John’s in Southover). A stern man, his religious principles were as highly developed as those of Neale, though he was very much a follower of the ‘low church’ philosophy.

Scobell had been mortified when his daughter had left home some months earlier to join his nemisis’ Sisterhood; all the more so since he learnt that Neale had made several clandestine visits to Lewes, and written some 40 letters to Emily, before she had fled her family home (the large house by the cemetary that was later to become St Annes School).

To further stoke the flames, Rev Scobell had not managed to see his daughter on her deathbed – she had been in a fairly stable condition for some days, but it had suddenly worsened the night before her death, and there had been no means to contact her father in time for him to see her alive.

When he did arrive in East Grinstead he was informed that Emily had made a will shortly before dying (she had inherited money from a grandmother), leaving sums of money to her siblings, as might be expected. as well as £400 to Neale’s Sisterhood. She had also made Neale, and the Mother Superior of the Sisterhood, executors of this will. The Guy Fawkes revelries of less than two weeks before would still be fresh in the minds of Lewes townsfolk. Bonfire had already entered its modern era, with Lewes Town, Cliffe, Waterloo and Commercial Square societies already in existence.

There would be no other town in England with such high proportions of its population so manifestly and vociferously anti-papist. If the mob waiting in the street outside the station, numbering in the hundreds, were hoping for a Roman Catholic-looking procession to jeer at, they weren’t disappointed. Neale wore a cassock and cap, the lead-lined coffin, on a bier, was draped in a crucifix-decorated pall; the eight sisters were dressed in black headscarves, and grey habits. The Sussex Express eyewitness reported that the air rang to cries of ‘No Popery’.

There are several accounts of what happened next, but certain elements tally. As the procession approached the church, John Scobell and other members of his family stepped out from a house in Lansdown Place, and, after a discussion with Neale, took their rightful place, as next of kin, directly behind the coffin in the procession, which moved on, into the packed-to-the-rafters church. Hundreds more mourners and bystanders crowded into the graveyard, torch-lit for the occasion, outside.

During the service, it was noted, the eight sisters stood in a circle around the coffin. Afterwards, as the body was borne to the vault, members of the crowd blocked the passage of Neale and the sisters so they couldn’t follow it to the vault, the burial took place in front of the immediate family only, and afterwards the gate to the vault was locked.

The flashpoint that turned this situation into what has subsequently been called ‘The Lewes Riot’ occurred when Neale, finally arriving at the vault, demanded that the gate be opened, so he could get in, announcing he would ‘stay till midnight’ if necessary.

What he wanted to do he never revealed, but the crowd obviously suspected some funeral ritual alien to that of the Anglican canon. To put it mildly, all hell then let loose. The Express’ eyewitness reports ‘such a row and confusion as never before seen in a churchyard’; anti-papist slogans were chanted; the sisters veils and dresses were torn; Neale lost his cassock, his cap, and for some seconds his footing, as the crowd surged back out into the street.

Four of the Sisters found refuge in a kindly schoolmaster’s house, the other four and Neale were carried within the packed mob as it flowed down past the station and into Priory Street. The police finally managed to restore some order outside the Kings Head, forming a cordon to enable the five refugees into the pub.

Neale, it seems, tried to assuage, the angry mood of those who managed to get into the pub behind him, by buying a round of drinks, hundreds remained locked outside, shouting threats and slogans. After an hour or so of this strange siege, with the help of some of the policemen, he made his escape over the nine-foot wall at the back of the pub garden, through the Southover Grange gardens, and to the railway station, where he donned a cap and coat to disguise himself. The sisters joined him after being evacuated in a fly carriage. The dishevelled group caught the 7.40pm home, barely two hours after arriving with such pomp.

The story by no means ends there. Neale was determined to get into the vault, and, extraordinary as it may seem he returned to Lewes the very next evening to effect his ambition. He made two attempts to get hold of a key, from the church warden, and from Scobell himself, but both times he was turned down. Meanwhile, word got round of his whereabouts, another angry crowd formed, and again he was forced to seek refuge in an inn, this time the White Hart. The police, once again, came to his rescue, whisking him back to the station in a fly carriage, chased down St Mary’s Lane (Now Station Street) by the mobs. Some managed to get to see his train off. As it pulled away, Neale, perhaps rather provocatively, thrust his head out of the window.

Labourer Charles Rooke was later arrested for throwing a rock, which hit the train six inches above Neales’ head. As far as I can ascertain, the priest never came to Lewes again; the situation, he later wrote, ‘could only have taken place in a town so notorious for the lawlessness of its mobs as Lewes has always been’.

Over the next few months the dispute continued, as both Scobell and Neale put forward their version of events in the form of letters to the local and national newspapers, and pamphlets, printed at no little expense. Neale suggested that Scobell had orchestrated the riot in order to dishonour him; Scobell denied any such charge, accusing Neale of stealing away his daughter from the family home.

There was little doubt which man had more support in Lewes. On November the Fifth the next year, as well as the usual straw-filled figures of Guy Fawkes and the Pope, Cliffe Bonfire Society paraded a seven-foot effigy of ‘Old Neale’ around the streets, ‘filled with squibs, crackers etc.’ The noisy destruction of the effigy, the subsequent Sussex Express reported, ‘appeared to afford delight to all present’.

General delight at the explosion of an effigy of a High Church advocate who had just a year earlier been all-but lynched by the mob; in the mid nineteenth century, it seems, anti-Catholic-fervour in Lewes, the ‘tradition’ of which is still aped today, was all too real a phenomenon.

By Alex Leith : Viva Lewes

Posted in: Articles, Lewes Bonfire History, Religion And Popery Tagged in: , , , , , , ,

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