Tag Archives: 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
  • 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.



Bonfire Night is not limited to one day for these flamboyant historians but rather a way of life. Annually, 35 Bonfire Societies, some of which can trace their origins back hundreds of years, even to before the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 take part in celebrations around Bonfire Night and particularly in recognition of the loss of life of some of their own townspeople during the Marian Persecutions of the mid 16th century.

who's got the marshmallows?

The people of the town of Lewes were incensed by the actions of Mary Tudor, Mary I of England who refused most emphatically to accept the Church of England or Protestant faith as her own and proceeded to put to death any non-catholic’s as punishment. Married to Philip II of Spain, a devout Catholic and widower, she was unstoppable. Having taken the crown from Lady Jane Grey, who only managed to keep the throne for a matter of days, she wanted to quickly and resolutely return England to Catholicism by any means necessary.

By the end of 1554, the Marian Persecutions had begun in earnest and anyone found to be non-catholic was thrown into jail and kept in appalling conditions. Bearing in mind that the prisons were already packed to the rafters, the women, children and Protestant clergy were all treated disgracefully but she paid them no regard. The biggest name amongst those who persecuted the Protestants was Bishop Bonner who eventually met a richly deserved end as a prisoner of Elizabeth I.

Anyone caught reading the Holy Bible, not in Latin were immediately seized. Sadly, one such group of men were having one such meeting when they were caught taking part in Bible study. They were detained and transferred to Newgate Prison in London to await the hearing. When they appeared before the courts, their fate was already sealed and sentence was passed; the four men would be burned outside the Old Star Inn in Lewes, before their friends and families to make them even more fearful than before.

Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations : A Raging Fire At The Cliffe Bonfire Society (CBS) Firesite

On 22 July 1555, Dirick Carver, John Launder, Thomas Iveson and William Veisey went to the place of execution. Dirick Carver was clutching his Bible when the executioner grabbed the bible and thew it into one of the tar barrels on the fire before the men were also dragged onto the pyre. Carver retrieved his bible and launched it into the crowd. His last words were defiantly in praise of God. The bible was hidden and remains preserved to this day in the Lewes Museum still bearing the blood of Dirick Carver.

These were just a handful of the hundreds of men, women, and children who died at her hand during her reign of a mere 5 years but whilst it was literally hundreds of years ago, these souls are still remembered with an annual torchlit parade which attracts up to 80 thousand people to the area annually on 5th November. I would add that this is not a family event as there are flaming torches and barrels of tar all around but if you want to learn a little more about the historical impact of this period to all of the area, it is certainly worth adding to your bucket list.

Today, whilst still remembered and acknowledged, the Bonfire Society’s main aim is to bring about forgiveness, acceptance and of course freedom to everyone whatever their religious or political standpoint. That said, the Bonfire Societies take no prisoners when it comes to their anti papism stance and indeed over the years, they have had more than a few digs at the pope and other political figures. But as the law states that the country should all be Protestants, they stand their ground that freedom of expression and the choice of which religion to follow should be a human right and not as allowed by the ruling factions.

The Bonfire Night tradition started in earnest in 1606 upon the first anniversary of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot when King James I decreed that Bonfires should be lit in every part of the country in celebration of it.

Whilst Lewes may be one of the better knowns of the Bonfire Societies, there are as mentioned currently 35 of them which vary from the adult only to the family-friendly Carnival Societies. Originally there were almost 100 societies but today, wholly dependent on fundraising and local community support, this number has seen some improvement since the numbers were below 20 at one point.

All of the societies have their own traditional fancy-dress theme and these are integral to the event. In fact, in some cases, if the fancy dress is not quite in meeting the requirements, the wearer may not be given the opportunity to join in the festivities.

Some of the themes are:


There used to be a crowd of the Lewes crowd who were Zulu warriors which had been using the theme since the mid 1940’s but they were asked a couple of years ago, in the interests of political correctness to stop this practice as it was causing offence to the dance group performing alongside them, who were all of African descent. They may instead go with green face paint instead as the message remains the same ‘express yourself safely and without retribution’.

Bonfire View #17

If you do live in the Sussex or Kent areas, and would be interested in joining in, get in touch with your local Bonfire Society (details are available online for anyone with a yearning to set fire to stuff) and I am sure that they would welcome the help.

The events are planned almost on an annual rolling basis with a Bonfire Night being held almost every week from mid-September onwards but again, we recommend that you check out the Sussex and Kent Bonfire Society’s website for more details.