Sussex bonfire celebration will be burning a boat tonight as part of a long standing tradition
Rye is one of the ancient Cinque Port Towns, charged with protecting the coats from French invaders and it is thought this is where the town’s tradition of seizing and burning boats originated from.
In the 18th Century, the boat burning continued – although without any threat from the French. For one night a year a reign of terror swept through the town. If there was a shortage of worn out boats for the boat burning, the men of the town would supplement the supply with boats moored at The Strand.
One story tells of a gentleman from Icklesham who, whilst cheering the successive groups of men dragging blazing ships through the town, noticed that one very fine yacht had a very familiar look about it. He realised too late, that he had been cheering the destruction of his own boat!
In 1875 the Head Constable, Parker Butcher, attempted to stop the procession and was hurled into a burning boat, top hat and all, and was only rescued with some difficulty.
A century ago, the night of ‘The Fifth’ was an occasion if the respectable towns people to stay indoors and barricade their houses. Bonfire night signalled mob rule with bonfire boys taking over the town and doing exactly as they liked.
By the 1880s the town was notorious throughout Sussex for being unable to control ‘the annual demonstration by the roughs of Rye’ In one year a crowd of 400 gathered in Military Road, armed with swords, cutlasses, bludgeons as well as casks of tar and oil which they had pilfered previously and hidden on the outskirts of Rye. They moved off through Landgate and High Street, led by Rye Town Band. Suddenly caught in a torrential downpour, the banners and band were dispensed with, ‘and the mob then had possession of the town. Several boats, freighted with blazing tar and barrels, were hauled through the street, the flames lapping the housetops in several narrow thoroughfares.’
Traditionally, it was a time for settling old scores and there were several cases of unpopular officials and shopkeepers being tarred and feathered, or for the people to have their boats seized by the bonfire boys and burned.
These vessels had been stolen while their owners were treated with derision.
The tradition was carried on well into the 19th Century. The celebrations of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were memorable for their Grand Processions, with decorated floats and lorries transformed into all manner of weird and wonderful creations including the ‘Dragon of Rye’ beloved of all Ryers, and a source of wonderment to visitors.
Pictures of the boat being prepared for today’s bonfire celebrations by Rye Bonfire Society.
Have you read? Everything you need to know about Rye bonfire celebrations