Tag Archives: Sussex Bonfire Societies


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.


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.



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.


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.