Category Archives: Bonfire Societies


This weekend, Saturday 16th November, see’s the last of the public holidays by the famous Bonfire Societies taking place (the final ones for Robertsbridge, Barcombe, and Hawkhurst are ‘invitation only’ events).

The Nevill Juvenile Bonfire Society has over 400 members and they continue the tradition of torchlit processions which began with just two men, who had suffered the indignity of having their Bonfires destroyed before the 5th 1967.  They decided that they would band together, create a new bigger Bonfire and invited 40 friends and family to take part in the first torchlit processions.

Each of the SBS (Sussex Bonfire Societies) has its own set of ‘costumes’.  The Nevill Juvenile societies are Suffragettes, early 20th century military uniforms and medieval dress.

Although the Nevill society is termed as a ‘juvenile’ society, the members are of all ages and backgrounds.  Their ethos is to build on the community spirit and primarily to get the youngsters away from their electronic devices into the fresh air, learn skills that have been taught from father and grandfather to son and daughter through the years as well as having a good time.

The most famous (or infamous as the case might be!) of the SBS is Lewes Borough.  They ALWAYS hold their event on the 5th November and are generally joined by the representatives from Commercial Square, Cliffe, South Street, Southover and Waterloo societies.

Each of them creates a Guy Fawkes with a difference that is more of an effigy, usually representing something in the media which has caused some drama along the way.  Previous examples have been Wayne Rooney (amid allegations about his private life and of course his U-turn on his football contract), Katie Hopkins (the very opinionated woman who spouts drivel in the press at every given opportunity) and even Donald Trump has come under fire (or on top of the fire, depending on your viewpoint).  This year’s effigy of note was of the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson urinating on newspapers aboard a Brexit rollercoaster and one about the charge for the TV licence fee re-introduction for the over 75’s.

Firecrackers, torches, burning tar barrels, a huge bonfire, and spectacular fireworks are the order of the day.  Over at Edenbridge Bonfire Society, they are set to set fire to an effigy of the speaker of the House John Bercow.

It is not as over-crowded as the more publicised one at Lewes but it certainly gets you out of the house to celebrate an event which has been taking place since the introduction of the Act of Parliament in the earliest part of the 17th century.  Indeed, the Bonfire Societies, whilst indelibly connected to the occurrences of the 5th November 1605, were actually set up in the middle of the 16th century, as a result of the slaying of several local men (and women) who were accused of heresy because of the ever-changing Catholic-Church of England power struggle at the hands of Queen Mary I.



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
  • 3/11/2019 ROBIN HOOD
  • 5/11/2019 LEWES, LINDFIELD

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.




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.