KEVIN GORDON - Bonfire survives history’s rough ride

My great-grandfather (centre) holding his bonfire speech.
My great-grandfather (centre) holding his bonfire speech.

I recently had the honour of introducing the visiting Bonfire Societies to Seaford for the local Guy Fawkes celebrations. I love bonfire and probably recite the Bonfire Prayers - “Remember Remember the Fifth of November” more than most people. As a tour guide in the Palace of Westminster - the House of Parliament I recite the Bonfire Prayers several times a week while standing in the Princes Chamber which is immediately above the cellars where Guy Fawkes was caught red handed in 1605.

The Gunpowder Plot came within living memory - just 50 years, of the Marian Persecutions. During the reign of Queen Mary, 17 Protestant martyrs were executed in front of the Star Inn, now the site of Lewes Town Hall and the people of England (but particularly Lewes) celebrated the arrest of the perpetrators of the ‘Catholic Plot’ by building bonfires topped by effigies, not only of Fawkes but also Pope Paul V - the pope of the time.

Bonfire Night celebrations in Lewes are briefly mentioned during the 1700s but gained popularity by the 1800s. Although our county town has been the focus for Sussex Bonfire celebrations, it should be remembered that, at this time, most towns and villages in Sussex had a bonfire display and many had bonfire societies. In 1850 it was reported that Seaford celebrated the ‘Popish Plot’ in the ‘normal way’ suggesting that the celebrations had been going on for many years.

Local magistrates tried to ban the wearing of costumes as it was reported that in previous years bonfire boys in disguise had assaulted members of the local constabulary with bats.

Bonfire was always an opportunity for young people to dress up and to let off steam. In 1891 someone listed the costumes seen at Seaford - Cavaliers, court ladies, Red Riding Hood, Roman centurions, Yeomen of the Guard, Elizabethans, George III, fat momen, Amazons, cowboys, natives, buccaneers, sailors, Australian squatters, American planters, men in nightshirts carrying lighted candles, Sinbad, A be-feathered nose-ringed Indian, Chinamen, pioneers, backwoodsmen, highlanders, clowns, Mummers, jesters, policemen and men and women in full-dress and half-dress’. It is clear that the policemen and women in full costume were all bonfire boys in disguise.

At Alfriston in 1859 the local ‘urchins’ dressed in a variety of costumes and began to parade through the village at an early hour singing the bonfire prayers and shouting ‘Bonfire Boys Bonfire Boys - Come Out Tonight!’. At 7pm a large fire was built in the centre of the village with fireworks and squibs flying in all directions. A parade set off half an hour later from the Market Cross with a blazing tar-barrel rolled through the narrow streets. A tableaux represented Guy Fawkes cocking his hat followed and was soon cast onto the fire with huge cheers.

Two years later, the bonfire was built in front of the Star Inn and the landlord provided the bonfire boys with jugs of stingo (local beer). The parades through the village were accompanied by bands and many villagers, the local constables being on hand to ensure there was no disorder. It appears that these celebrations, mirrored across East Sussex, were patriotic affairs. ‘Rule Britannia’ was heartily sung but it appears that the religious side of the matter was down-played (although at Alfriston the crowd gave ‘Three groans for the Pope’).

Down in Eastbourne, my great grandfather, Ebenezer Roberts was a staunch Protestant and a committed Bonfire Boy. He was a member of the St Mary’s Bonfire Society and by the 1880s had become their leader. Dressed in a lawyer’s gown and wig he would lead the Eastbourne Bonfire Boys through the streets to Paradise Road where a huge bonfire had been constructed.

Every year he would climb atop a wagon and call the crowds to order before delivering his speech. I am lucky to still have his original bonfire speeches from the late 1890s and he certainly let his bigotry about the Catholic Church be known. Today I suspect he would be arrested!

The ‘Bishop’ of the Seaford Bonfire Society kept his speech to more mundane matters. While my great grandfather was ranting about Catholics, in Seaford there was mention of the new sea-wall, the bell-ringers and the uniforms of the town band. 100 years ago there was a huge decline in bonfire societies thanks to DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act) which forbade the building of bonfires near the coast.

The Eastbourne and Seaford bonfire societies folded only to be rekindled in the last few years. Today the religious aspects of bonfire are not so prominent but Bonfire Night is as popular as ever - Long may it continue!