Tag Archives: 5th Nov

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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THE BURNING TAR BARREL EVENT AT OTTERY ST MARY

WHAT: TAR BARRELS OF OTTERY ST MARY’S
WHERE: TOWN CENTRE, OTTERY ST MARY, DEVON, EX11 1BZ
WHEN: MONDAY 5TH NOVEMBER 2018
COST: FREE ADMISSION

‘Goodness Gracious Great Barrels of Fire’

The exact origins of the celebration are unknown but there are various reasons and myths of why it began. The only thing that is known is that it started after the gunpowder plot in 1605 and is now over 400 years old.

The West Country has always had a history of torchlit processions and burning of barrels as well as following the annual tradition of rolling lit barrels down the streets on November the 5th. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that the rolling of the barrels was a little too tame and that there was way much more fun in carrying them through the streets, and therein the new tradition was born. Whilst this practice was initially followed by everyone, it soon fizzled out and now Ottery is the only town in the country that still carry these blazing barrels on the streets celebrating Nov the 5th in a slightly different way to the rest of us.

Each of the 17 local public houses sponsor a barrel to be lit and carried to the river. The day begins with a women’s and children’s event, but the main attraction is the responsibility of the men. Only those men who have been born in the town or who have lived there most of their lives can carry the barrel. Generations of the same families compete against each other in a battle of nerve, strength, and stamina, fighting to remove the 30-kilo barrel from the runner. The crowds also try to join in the action to get near enough to feel the warmth of the barrels flame.

During this incredible fire festival, the population of the town doubles as people from all over the world come to witness the festivities. As the men carry the last of the barrels down to the River Otter they all then join making one of the biggest bonfires to be seen in the region. On one side of the river is the bonfire and on the other reflecting in the water are the flashing neon lights as the annual funfair starts up to entertain everyone in the family.

An amazing fireworks display is on offer that will mark the end of the day’s celebrations for another year and certainly end the evening with a bang.

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Sussex Bonfire Societies

The Sussex Bonfire Societies are responsible for a series of Bonfire Festivals around Central and Eastern Sussex along with Surrey and Kent between September and November.

The societies hold celebrations to mark both Bonfire Night for Guy Fawkes’ capture and in recognition of the deaths of the 17 protestant martyrs who were burned in front of the Star Inn between 1555 and 1557, some 48+ years before Guy and his co-conspirators tried to take the lives of King James and the whole of the British parliament and supporting advisors including Judges and any number of Lords. The original structure still stands to this day and is now used as the Town Hall. Sadly, this is not the first or last death in the name of religion or ‘faith’ but let’s hope that there are lessons learned.

The societies are dotted about the region but by far the biggest celebrations take part in Lewes where they have 7 separate Bonfire Societies including Cliffe, Commercial Square, Lewes Borough, South Street, Waterloo, Neville Juvenile and Southover. Most of the members of the Lewes Societies hold their events on the 5 th November as is tradition other than the Neville Juvenile Society who hold theirs the Saturday a couple of weeks before hand.

The Lewes Bonfire Societies origins can be traced back an act declared by the King, thankful for the foiling of the plot to take his life declared that from henceforth, an Act entitled ‘An Acte for a publique Thancksgiving to Almighty God everie yeere of the Fifte day of November’ was passed in January 1606 that proclaimed the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot should ‘be held in a perpetual emembrance’ which the societies continue to celebrate to this day.

Now don’t be under any illusion that the Bonfire Society events are anything less than spectacular but they are certainly not a family night out. They burn an effigy of the Pope rather controversially and of course, a Guy Fawkes who was an ardent follower of the Catholic faith as seen in his attempts to kill of the representative of the Church of England, King James. The celebrations include huge parades through the streets carrying all manner of things including torches, burning crosses, letters spelling out the initials of their particular organisation, skull and crossbones and the Cliffe society carries massive flags saying ‘no popery’ which incidentally ‘the establishment’ tried to prevent in the 1920’s and again in 1933 the Mayor of the town wrote a very nice letter asking the society to stop such practice. Needless to say the society wrote back declining the request and again in 1950’s the other societies attempted to stop them in continuing this practice and to this day, they march alone on the ‘fifth’.

For anyone with a taste for fireworks and excitement, based around the Gunpowder Plot and the history of the Sussex area, these societies offer a fascinating insight and a never before seen way of celebrating life and long may it continue.

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