Category Archives: November 5th

HISTORY OF THE SMUGGLERS

As Bonfire Night approaches thoughts turn to the people of the County of Sussex turn to forthcoming firework events which will tickle your fancy if you live in the region.

Brace Yourself - Bonfire Night Is Coming

As some of you may be aware, the area has a close connection with Bonfire night following the death of a number of protestant locals who were killed in the town square for their faith by then Queen Mary 1st. Although the tradition of the Sussex Bonfire societies goes back to before Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby’s era, the majority of them were created to celebrate the lives of the Marian Martyrs and around the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a great many Bonfire Societies were formed to celebrate their community and the Church of England faith.

Firle Bonfire 2012

Most of the societies today have continued to work all year around to ensure that the community has something to brighten up those cold November evenings just before Christmas to get rid of the detritus that has been collected throughout the year and of course to entertain young and old in a controlled environment. Annually they raise huge amounts of money for local and national charities – despite the fact that these massive events cost upwards of £5000.00 each to cover the cost of the first aid helpers, insurance, safety equipment and support staff. Of course, some of the Bonfire Societies are adult only but for the majority, it is about children and the youth of today having something interesting, historical and entertaining to do.

Most of the events start with a fancy dress competition before they hold a torch-lit march through the town with band accompaniment. Each of the Bonfire Societies have their own smuggler colours and stripes (hoops actually … but who’s picking!) which also makes them identifiable by their own in a sea of stripes – unless of course you are colour blind in which case you are stuffed! The smuggler references back to the actual smuggling habits of some of the gangs of men who brought in contraband (usually from ships) without paying taxes. Like your local ‘chav’ flogging ‘ciggies’ in the pub today. The biggest ‘gang’ in the area was the infamous ‘Cut-back Gang’ who started out selling the wool from local farmers in exchange for Brandy and silks from France. The smugglers dealt in liquor, guns and gunpowder, tea, coffee and other sundry items but each of the areas had their own gangs. The head of the Mayfield Gang was one Gabriel Tomkins; who was a bit of a lad but not even in the same league as the Hawkhurst Gang who were real bad uns. Unlike the Hawkhurst boys, the Cut-back Gang only used violence against those who tried to double cross them or tried to take them over and most of their cheap booze was sold to the public houses and bordellos in their own area.

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The trade in illicit goods was rife in the early 1700s and the smugglers covered all the beaches from Lydd to the most popular landing site at Fairlight, where a great many trades took place.

The smugglers however were understandably under constant pressure and historical evidence (from written court/arrest reports) show that the Ridings Officers were a force to be reckoned with and they are known to have captured some of the members periodically, only to find themselves under attack from raiding parties who freed their ‘brethren’ before they could be brought to justice.

During one such attempt to free their friends, Gabriel was caught and injured in the ensuing melee. Upon capture, Gabriel was questioned extensively about his activities but he only gave up the shop keepers and grocers from the London and Home Counties regions and importantly, brought into question the integrity of some of the Ridings Officers implying that corruption was rife, resulting in the dismissal of 30 officers from their ranks.

Leaving a large number of important roles available left the law short-handed. As he knew most of the bad lads and had a wide knowledge of the area, the local governing officer appointed Gabriel to the role of Ridings Officer. Not too shabby for a man who had shifted 15 – 20,000 pounds of tea and coffee at approximately 5 shillings a pound over a 3 year period (and that’s only what he admitted to in court) it was nothing if not lucrative! However, the life of security and living within the law was not for him so being the rogue he was, he soon reverted to type and went back to smuggling until he was eventually caught, convicted and sentenced to hang. He met his end on Friday 23rd March 1750 at the gallows in Bedford’s Gallows Corner.

Whilst no-one is supporting theft and taking goods by use of menaces, the taxes being levied at the time were extortionate and as far as Gabriel was concerned, he just wanted everyone to be able to enjoy a cup of tea … not just the hoi poloi!

Here is a list of all the Sussex Bonfire Society events throughout the Bonfire Season. Please remember that some of these are NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN. They are raucous with much drinking, tar barrels and torches (not the battery operated ones) – check out for the ones with * – these are suitable for families:

Saturday 5th September 2015 Uckfield *

Saturday 12th September 2015 Crowborough *

Saturday 19th September 2015 Mayfield *

Saturday 26th September 2015 Burgess Hill *

Saturday 3rd October 2015 Eastborne & Rotherfield

Saturday 10th October 2015 Ninfield

Saturday 17th October 2015 Hastings, Seaford, Halsham and Nevill*

Saturday 24th October 2015 Fletching, Northam

Saturday 31st October 2015 Ewhurst, Staplecross, Kingston* & Littlehampton*

Thursday 5th November 2015 Lewes, Lindfield, Robin Hood

Saturday 7th November 2015 Battle, South Heighton, Edenbridge, Chailey*, East Hoathley*

Friday 13th November 2015 Isfield, Little Horsted

Saturday 14th November 2015 Rye

Saturday 21st November 2015 Robertsbridge

Saturday 28th November 2015 Hawkhurst

Of the above, the biggest and most famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) is Lewes, acknowledged as the granddaddy of them all. Lewes is definitely not suitable for children and is packed with tens of thousands of spectators.

All of the events are to keep the community spirit alive and to raise much-needed funds for the events and of course for charity. In most cases, the evening ends with a grand finale fireworks display and prayers of thanks for those who have fallen in service of the defence of this country.

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The Guy Fawkes Story

I can still remember vividly the first lesson in Infant School with Mrs Glover about Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes and all the shenanigans relating to the Gunpowder Plot. I was a very naïve 5-year old and was absolutely distraught to learn of this man trying to blow up the King. Then, my father showed me the fireworks for the evening celebrations and I was utterly convinced that fireworks were actually sticks of dynamite which was not much of a stretch considering the ‘plain’ packaging on actual fireworks in the sixties

Today, 400 years after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, we still celebrate Bonfire Night but has some of the ‘legend’ become a bit of an afterthought as I believe that the conspirators, under the tutelage of Guy Fawkes, have become the hero of BFN when in fact we are meant to be celebrating the king’s reprieve!

There were five main plotters at the heart of the Gunpowder Plot:

Robert Catesby – The main man and the mastermind behind the plot. Intelligent and charismatic.

Thomas Wintour – A wheeler dealer and ‘a bit of a lad’. Good to have around as he could source just about anything.

Thomas Percy – Had ‘family’ connections which could get him closer to the Lords at the time.

John Wright – Reputed to be one of the finest swordsmen in the country.

Guy Fawkes – Soldier and explosives expert who had just returned from Spain.

In the very early 17th century, there were two primary types of gunpowder used; the faster burning musket gunpowder and secondly the slower burning cannon gunpowder but scientists today proved that due to the sheer volume of explosives they proposed to use, it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway.

Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570 and was baptized into the Christian church just a few days old in the shadow of the imposing but exceptionally beautiful York Minster at the little St Michael’s le Belfry the local Parish Church. Sadly, following the death of his father when he was just 8 years old his mum married again but to a catholic and Guy and his mother converted to the new faith.

Years passed, and the young lad was incensed at the desperate plight of fellow Catholics in the Eighty Years War and determined that he would garner help for his fight to reinstall the Catholic Church in England with their help. Unfortunately, the anticipated help was never forthcoming so Guy (known then as Guido) returned to England with his friend Thomas Wintour.

Religious discrimination was still rife and was mainly thanks King Henry VIII and his split from Rome (in the name of the love of Anne Boleyn) and then Queen Elizabeth 1st (Henry and Anne’s daughter) continued if only out of need to protect herself as the majority of her ‘court’ were Catholic and the Recusancy Act was introduced whereby all Catholics were forced to worships in the Anglican faith. There were people being killed left right and centre in the name of faith and this was to continue for sometime to come. On the succession of King James, as a practicing Catholic and now head of the Country, the Papists quite innocently believed that things would improve dramatically and they would be able to return to supporting the faith of their choice. However, King James I was a very weak-willed man who wanted to please all of the people all of the time. He demanded that everyone take an oath denying the Catholic church (in particular the Pope) authority over the King of England and provided that everyone ‘outwardly’ were in support of the Monarchy and in particular the Church of England, they could tick along quite nicely. However, he was just one of a long line of monarchs who took it upon themselves to rid themselves of the faithful be that the Protestant’s as in the cast of the Marian Persecutions or the Catholics in the case of the Elizabethan ‘riddances’.

Guy Fawkes was of course born and grew to manhood during Elizabeth’s reign and he was so incensed about the persecutions and what he saw as senseless deaths of the Catholic faithful he left England and went to fight with the Spanish Catholic army where he stayed for 10 long years honing his skills as a soldier and gunpowder specialist.

Queen Elizabeth I died childless and the crown passed to her cousin James I who was described as ‘the most conceited man on earth’ by his courtiers who brought into question his ability to rule effectively but needs must and he took the throne in March 1603. He tried to keep the peace but ultimately the cost of the upkeep of the royal court and their properties came from the Church of England’s wealthy protestants, who demanded he denounce the Catholic faith and his speech outraged Guy and his co-conspirators to such a degree that they decided to ‘return him straight to hell from whence he came!’ and so, the plot to kill the king and his parliament was afoot.

The plan took shape and it was determined that the plotters should tunnel under the Houses of Lords and fill it with gunpowder before blowing it all to kingdom come.

However, London was an incredibly busy place and the idea to tunnel under was thrown out. However, whilst actually attempting to dig the tunnel, there was a noise from the very room they needed to gain access to and further checks showed that the under-croft in question was being cleared by the previous tenant, leaving it empty. Thomas Percy, a man with many ‘connections’ quickly arranged to rent it giving them the freedom to move about at leisure.

In the early 1600’s, everything was transferred in barrels so no-one would have thought anything strange about barrels being taken into a cellar for storage. They obtained the 36 barrels of gunpowder and everything was ready to go. Unfortunately, the best laid plans and all that malarkey, the conspirators received news that the state opening was to be delayed due the ever-increasing threat of the Plague from the original date in February to 3rd October to 5th November 1605. In light of this and to keep out of harms way, Guy is known to have left the country for a while returning to London in late August to discover that the gunpowder was spoilt or decayed so it once again had to be replaced. Oddly enough, tests today by scientists and historians have proven that whilst ‘spoilt’ gunpowder would not perhaps have worked in a musket, it would still have been effective as an explosive.

Obviously, the cost of replacing the gunpowder was cause for concern to such a degree that it became necessary to add another to the list of conspirators, Francis Tresham (Robert Catesby’s cousin) who could help gain funding for ‘the cause’.
Unfortunately, the more people you add into a conspiracy the higher the likelihood of discovery and it was this very man who is thought to have brought the whole thing to a dramatic end.

A letter was received by Lord Monteagle basically advising him against attending Parliament and recommending he retire to the Country out of harms way. The correspondence was received on 26th October and was shown to the Chief Minister, Robert Cecil, which later resulted in the search of all of the parliament buildings.

On 4th November, the replacement gunpowder was in place and they were set for the next day. Whilst doing some last-minute checks to the barrels, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the under-croft with a pile of firewood (hiding the gunpowder at that point!). He told the men leading the search that the firewood belonged to his master Thomas Percy and they left with this information to report back to their superiors. Unfortunately, the name Percy was cause for concern to the authorities as he was a known Catholic supporter so they returned to the undercroft later the same evening where once again, they came upon Guy who gave his name as John Johnson. He was searched and found to have in his possession a watch, touchwood and slow burning matches and subsequently, they moved the coal and wood to discover 36 barrels of explosives. The plot was discovered and it marked the beginning of the end for all involved.

Guy Fawkes was captured and questioned and in fact the King almost admired his resilience. But, despite constant questioning, it was eventually necessary for the King to offer permission for further torture of increasing intensity until the facts were known and the conspirators details gained. So to the rack – the worst device of its kind in England and the only one in existence in the country was in the Tower of London at the Lord Lieutenant’s lodge. Although we have to admire his fortitude, on 7th November his resolve was utterly broken and he confessed.

Of course, by this time, news about the plot was widely known and having secured property in the Midlands the remaining conspirators set out there to hide. However, with a couple of hundred kings-men after them, it was not to be long before they were discovered, having reached Holbeche House. Wright, Rookwood, Catesby and Percy were all killed in the ensuing fire fight and the remainder were injured and taken captive before being taken to the Tower.

Once the executions started, there was no stopping them. The men who had died in the battle at Holbeche were actually exhumed so that they could be beheaded and their heads displayed on spikes outside of the Houses of Lords.

In the end, they were all sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered but both Guy and Keyes are known to have outsmart the hangman by leaping from the gallows. Guy died from his broken neck before being emasculated, disembowelled and beheaded and then for good measure (just to be sure you know) chopped into four pieces! Unfortunately, Keyes survived the fall just long enough to be brought to the quartering table.

After the executions, Parliament met later in January 1606 and passed a new law which was simply The Thanksgiving Act ensuring that services and sermons would be a regular feature over the coming years, remembering how close they were to Regicide. For the next 200 years, bells were rung and fires lit in thanks for the safe deliverance of the King which in years to come was to include effigies depicting the Pope or the Devil before they decided to have a ‘Guy’.

Here we are over 400 years later and it still seems a little odd that to this day, we use fireworks which contain black powder, which is virtually the same as gunpowder, in celebration of the foiling of the plot to kill the king.

Bonfire Night has certainly stood the test of time and the introduction of fireworks has just made us even more thankful that firstly, the celebration exists and secondly, that however well-intentioned, terrorism will never win.

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