Category Archives: Bonfire Societies

YE OLDE SUSSEX BONFIRE SOCIETIES

The UK has it’s fair share of associations and groups but few can trace their origins back quite as far as the Sussex Bonfire Societies (including parts of Kent).  There are currently 35 operational Bonfire Societies; some are for the whole family whereas some are exclusively an ‘adult’ affair which has been running since the early 19th century.

In the early days, following the actions of Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby, King James created an Act detailed as ‘An Acte for a publique Thanksgiving to God Almighty ever year of the fifth day of November’  in remembrance of the close escape from annihilation of him, his Lords and close relations who were gathered for the opening of Parliament.

In the early days, celebrations were very low key and subdued but became increasingly riotous and were eventually banned by Oliver Cromwell on the creation of the Commonwealth but re-established years later during the reign of Charles II but again, the celebrations were more hit and miss.

Bonfire Societies started initially in response to the burning of 17 protestant martyrs during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary Tudor.  They were originally just a bunch of men who went through the village at leaner times of the year (late autumn and winter) begging for food and where available, alcohol.  However, begging was a criminal offence and as such, to avoid detection, they would dress up as pirates or black up their faces leaving them free to do as they wished.  Hence the reason that today’s Bonfire Societies adopt a specific colour and type of costume ranging from monks and Saxons to jailbirds and Zulu warriors – the list is long and varied.

The members are fiercely proud and work tirelessly from one year to the next in preparation.  The events usually feature an effigy- once upon a time this would have been a very simple ‘guy’ but over the years, this has transformed into something a whole lot more thought-provoking.  Some of the effigies burnt have been controversial including several complaints about burning ‘The Pope’ and the numerous ‘No Popery’ signs carried by the revellers on their respective processions.

Last year some of the societies gained national recognition as they were featured on the BBC News.  Edenbridge B/S (Bonfire Society) burned an 11 foot effigy of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson with his infamous mop of unruly hair, cycling helmet, Hawaiian shorts and a couple of red buses for shoes holding aloft an EU cake – the message being that you can’t have your cake and eat it – it seems that this message was not taken to heart as he steams forward with the UK’s plans to leave Europe.

Bonfire Societies across Sussex and Kent have had the proverbial ‘tilt’ at numerous high-profile individuals over the years including premiership footballer Wayne Rooney, outspoken former apprentice participant (and completely hateful woman) Katie Hopkins and even US President Donald Trump.

This year, there will be events from each of the remaining societies starting on 7th September to 16th November.  Here is a list of the dates of each:

  • 7/9/2019 UCKFIELD
  • 14/9/2019 CROWBOROUGH
  • 21/9/2019 MAYFIELD
  • 28/9/2019 BURGESS HILL
  • 5/10/2019 EASTBOURNE
  • 12/10/2019 NINFIELD
  • 19/10/2019 HASTINGS, HAILSHAM AND SEAFORD
  • 25/10/2019 ISFIELD AND LITTLE HORSTED
  • 26/10/2019 EWHURST & STAPLE CROSS, LITTLEHAMPTON, FIRLE, HEATHFIELD
  • 2/11/2019 NEWICK, BATTLE, EDENBRIDGE
  • 3/11/2019 ROBIN HOOD
  • 5/11/2019 LEWES, LINDFIELD
  • 9/11/2019 EAST HOATHLY & HALLAND, CHAILEY, SOUTH HEIGHTON AND RYE
  • 16/11/2019 ROBERTSBRIDGE, BARCOMBE AND NEVILLE

If you do get the opportunity to get to one of the dates, please remember that there are hot tar barrels being corralled up and down the street, fireworks and a torchlit procession and as such may not be suitable for young children.  Furthermore, as a result of their notoriety, particularly since the arrival of social media, these events are getting bigger every year and as they are held in small towns, the crowds can bring about traffic issues so be aware of this before you go along.

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BONFIRE SOCIETIES FIREWORK CHAMPIONSHIPS 2019

WHAT: BONFIRE SOCIETIES FIREWORK CHAMPIONSHIPS 2019
WHY: FIREWORK COMPETITION
WHERE: WISTON PARK, STEYNING, WEST SUSSEX (GROUNDS OF WISTON HOUSE)
WHEN: SATURDAY 10TH AUGUST 2019
COST: SEE WEBSITE

Over the last few years, here in the UK, we have been fortunate enough to be a party to some of the most beautiful fireworks in the World and last year, one of the longest established groups created a new event – The Bonfire Societies Firework Championships. During this event, 3 Bonfire Societies compete to be crowned champion.

Last year, the Battle Bonfire Boyes Bonfire Society lifted the trophy after battling it out against Neville Juvenile Bonfire Society and Lewes Borough Bonfire Society.

As well as watching the performances you can also take part and do your bit by entering the

Audience vote and texting your preferred winner of the three. The 3 teams are judged not only by the audience but a panel of professional judges. They are marked on:

  • use of material (10%)
  • the rhythm of the display (10%)
  • use of colour and effects (10%)
  • overall artistic impression (10%)
  • compliance with the rules (10%)

Tickets for the show will be available to buy on the night but to avoid disappointment you are better booking them in advance. The doors open at 4pm with the fireworks beginning at sundown (around 9pm) all the shows will be completed by 10:30 and then the judging and winner announced shortly after.

2019 Competitors

Cliffe Bonfire Society

Hastings Borough Bonfire Society

Hawkhurst Gang Bonfire Society

**The firing order of the teams is drawn nearer to the time and announced on the day of the event.**

The crowds will be entertained by a fourth show of the evening as the professional firing team from Phoenix fireworks take to the stage and put on a display whilst the judging commences. There is another pyro delight with a Maltese wheel demonstration, and along with this plenty of family entertainment, a funfair and food and drink stalls on site. Why not make it a full family evening out, bring along a picnic blanket or chairs grab a spot early and watch the sunset and join in the fun before the show begins relighting the skies above the beautiful grounds of Wiston Park.

Last year’s winners were Battel Bonfire Society with 71.05% of the vote. Check out their video to see what this year competitors are up against.

Some of the Bonfire Societies, and currently there are around 30 which are still fully active, have been operational since before the Gunpowder Plot. The winners of last year’s event; The Battle Bonfire Boyes is said to be one of the longest established of those remaining which has documentation about the Battle Boyes organisation dating back to 1646.

The Bonfire Societies were initially established in defiance of the actions of Mary Tudor who had systematically tried to eradicate the Protestant faith which had been established by her father Henry VIII.  He established the Church of England in defiance of the Catholic Church as they would not grant him a divorce from Anne Boleyn.  He then demanded that everyone change to his way of thinking and turn their backs on Rome. Unfortunately, it was an especially difficult time as the support of the church changed from protestant to catholic depending on which royal was on the throne.

Get along and show your support and keep the history alive.  The funds from these shows all go to the upkeep of the societies and local charity.

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SUSSEX BONFIRE SOCIETIES TAKE IT UP A NOTCH OR TWO

Every year, a tradition which goes back to the mid-sixteenth century continues to this day in and around the Sussex and Kent regions where processions of people take to the streets to celebrate Bonfire Night.

Six Bonfire Societies congregate in the small town of Lewes in defiance of the impact that political/royal factions had on the people back in the reign of Henry Tudor and his family.

Bonfire societies originally formed in protest of the torture and deaths of some of the local people who just wanted to follow their chosen religion in peace with one another and yet, Queen Mary 1st had other ideas.

Martin Luther was a Priest and German professor of Theology and he was intrinsic in the reformation. Despite being a priest, he completely refuted the churches right to offer indulgencies which were essentially get out of jail free offers for the Catholic’s in higher society who paid their way into heaven and out of trouble, particularly given that two of the recent popes had both had children out of wedlock (and given that they should be celibate, it’s not a good start!). Luther did not support this stance, being of the belief that the Pope was never given the right to offer pardons on this earth or in heaven/purgatory – that would remain gods holy ordinance.

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Despite all the religious ramifications, Henry stood his ground and made the decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon and go on to create the Church of England which in turn would have its own bible (which was written in English so that the common man could enjoy the writings as it was thought that the common folk could not read Latin) of course, this doctrine was brought into effect when there was no such thing as a printing press and every bible or document had to be handwritten.

It was strange to think that the general populace simply accepted what they were told about the writings in the bible and were unable to challenge it as Martin Luther pointed out that he had never seen a full copy of the bible for himself.

As someone who was brought up a devout Catholic, when her father decided to become the ruling religious power in the UK, following on from the teachings of Martin Luther (not the black activist from the US) things changed dramatically for Mary. Henry VIII daughter by his first wife Catherine of Aragon continued to follow her Catholicism and despite his several marriages he had two daughters; Mary and Elizabeth before Jane Seymour produced a boy; Edward VI. On Henry’s death, the succession automatically passed to Edward aged just  9 but he was a sickly child and never actually took over the reigns as he died aged just 15 but before his death, he tried to stop Mary returning to the throne as he believed that the country should remain Protestant – to this she was quoted as saying that she would rather lay her head on the block (for beheading purposes) than forsake her faith. He put his cousin, Lady Jane Grey to the throne but Mary managed to oust her in just 9 days and she followed this by riding into London on horseback alongside her sister and over 800 noblemen to take it back. Lady Jane and the first Duke of Northumberland, Lord Dudley were both taken to the tower before being beheaded – adding more to Mary’s list of victims.

Following her death in 1558, her half sister Elizabeth took the throne and reigned for the next 45 years in relative peace and without the need to change religion yet again.

Today, the people of Lewes use the opportunity to gather as a community in support of their own and remain part of something which has gone on for literally hundreds of years after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 and the Marian Persecutions of the middle of the 1500’s. They do it with a certain amount of ‘tongue in cheek’ particularly when poking fun at the politics of the day. This year for example, crowds of tens of thousands were in attendance to see Boris Johnson holding an axe in his left hand and the head of Theresa May in the other. There was a cacophony of jeers amongst the gathered crowds calling for Boris to be thrown onto the pyre.

Lewes Bonfire Night 2018

The Sussex Bonfire Societies are not the only ones who were using good old Boris as the centre for fun as Edenbridge Bonfire Society burnt an effigy of him at their event on Saturday 3rd November. In this case it was a 36-foot tall effigy of Boris holding an EU cake with mis-matched socks, a cycle helmet and slippers with the caption ‘Having your cake and eating it’.

There was also a bit of a dig at the train timetable related issues which massively impacted on the area in the Summer as the Lewes Ghost Train highlighted their experiences with re-scheduling, missing stations off routes and last-minute cancellations of services.

The one thing which causes more ooohhs and aaahhhs than anything else are the flaming tar barrels which were said to have been used to fumigate homes and to indicate the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

The Lewes Bonfire event brings together the community in a fascinating way and also brings in 30,000 spectators to witness first-hand the amount of effort which goes into creating the parade, the effigies, costumes and of course the beautiful fireworks at the end of the procession.

The Lewes Bonfire is the biggest of them all and has always been held on the 5th. This year once again they were supported by other local societies including Waterloo. South Street, Southover, Commercial Square and Cliffe Bonfire Societies. The streets were packed with people holding flaming torches aloft dragging flaming tar barrels and each have their own bonfire set up at the end of their parade.

Unlike ANY other event in the UK it continues to show support for residents who have lost their lives from the martyrs of the 16th century to the men and women fighting to keep our shores safe at home so I think that political correctness has gone mad and this is one of the few ways left open to show your despair at the state of the country and the impact on local communities.

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