Bonfire of the Past

1606

The first anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. Bonfires in all parts of the country, including one on Cliffe Hill, not far from where the Martyrs Memorial now stands.

1679

Following Titus Oates’ ‘exposure’ of a Popish plot to kill the King, anti-catholic processions similar to those held in London were seen in Lewes on November 5th. Carrying banners proclaiming the corruptions of the Roman Church, people attired in clerical regalia paraded an effigy of the Pope through the streets, finally late at night, to commit it to the flames.

1723

An old churchwarden’s account book has an entry as follows: ‘Nov. ye 5th. Item: Pd. ye ringers being ye day of Deliverance from ye powder plott . . 2/6d.”

1795

The ‘Sussex Weekly Advertiser’ of November 9th, reported at fire at the Star Inn, caused, it stated, ‘by the indifference of some thoughtless persons who had amused themselves by letting serpents and crackers in the great parlour of the Inn.’

1813

The Diary of the late John Holman (High Constable of Lewes) gives us our first glimpse of things to come in the following entry: ‘Nov. 5th Gunpowder plot observed by the Boys, a fire on Gallows Bank, passed off without any particular Accident.’

1829

The dragging of lighted tar barrels through the streets was introduced.

1838

Great rioting; several arrests were made and fines up to E15 imposed. A local magistrate, the late Mr. Whitfield, JP, had a sharp encounter with the “Boys” on Cliffe Bridge (origin of the custom of throwing a blazing tar-barrel into the river).

1841

Special constables were sworn in for another attempt to stop the celebrations. The Bonfire Boys armed themselves, and Superintendent Flanigan and some of his men were roughly treated. At the following Assizes, more than twenty of the rioters were sent to prison for terms of up to two months.

1842

Bands were introduced in the Processions.

1843

The Sussex Express stated that ‘Since O’Connell and the Irish priesthood had denounced their fellow-subjects, the English as Saxon tyrants, the desire for celebrating the fifth of November in this town was increased among many of its respectable inhabitants.

1847

One hundred and seventy ‘of the principal tradesmen and other respectable inhabitants’ were summoned to be sworn in as special constables. On their way to a meeting on the night of November 4th, they were attacked by Bonfire Boys in the High Street. Tar-barrels were lighted and several incidents occurred. The police fastened a chain across the road near Keere Street and ambushed some of the ‘Boys’, who were arrested.The next day, 100 of the ‘A! Division of the Metropolitan Constabulary arrived, and great was the excitement in Lewes that evening. It was an incident involving the mail-gig from Brighton which brought things to a head. Lord Chichester read the Riot Act from the steps of the County Hall and gave the crowd five minutes in which to depart. In the free fight that ensued, many of the Metropolitan Police were injured, but the streets were eventually cleared.

1848

A committee of local tradesmen was formed, and arrangements were made to carry out the celebrations on the Wallands Fields.

1850

Pope Pius IX re-established the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England. This led the townspeople to allow the Bonfire Boys back in the streets, and two great bonfires were lighted, one in front of the County Hall and one in front of Cliffe Church.

1853

Bonfire Boys organise themselves into processions. The first societies thus formed were those of the’Cliffe’and’Town’.

1856

A feature of the demonstrations introduced by the Cliffe was the ‘Lord Bishop’who ‘officiated’.  He wore full clerical uniform and gave a ‘sermon’ before the effigies were burnt.

1858

The Society was unfortunate when one of its members made off with the money box.  He was commemorated the following year by being burnt in effigy along with the Pope.

1874

An epidemic of typhoid in Lewes.  The postponed celebration was carried out on the night of December 31st, after a fall of snow which greatly added to the effect.

1904

A large fire in the town a month before the fifth showed the inhabitants the danger of fire, and consequently the famous Lewes Rouser firework was prohibited.

1906

Fires in the Streets and the dragging of lighted tar barrels through the streets suppressed. 130 police were on duty in the town and many people were arrested including four leading Bonfire Boys.  In the ensuing court case they were acquitted of instigating the forming of a bonfire in Commercial Square.

1914-
1918

Activities suspended during World War I.

1919

The Cliffe Society resumes the Demonstrations, the only Society in the town to do so.

1931

Cliffe resign from the Bonfire Council as the only Society maintaining the tradition of burning a papal effigy.

1939-
1945

Activities suspended during World War II.

1960

Celebrations suspended owing to severe flooding in the town.

1964

The Society took an active part in the town celebrations to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Lewes.

1972

Cliffe rejoins the Bonfire Council.

1973

Cliffe goes into Europe. The Society took part in celebrations in the twin town of Blois, France.

1974

The Bonfire Societies stage a Pageant of Bonfire History as part of the Festival of Lewes.

1977

The Bonfire Societies organise processions and fireworks to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

1978

Lewes Bonfire televised – some television coverage in most subsequent years.

1980

The Society leases some land and builds its own workshops and storage facilities.
Adverse publicity concerning the burning of the Effigy of Pope Paul V forces Ministry of Defence to ban Military Bands from Cliffe processions.

1981

The Bonfire Societies stage a firework display for the Lewes Mayoral centenary.

1983

The Cliffe successfully applies to the Registry of Friendly Societies to become CLIFFE BONFIRE SOCIETY LIMITED.

1988

The Lewes Societies stage a firework display on the battlements of Lewes Castle to celebrate anniversary of Spanish Armada. After nearly 40 years at their Mill Road Firesite, the Society were forced to find a new site at Brooks Road, Lewes.

1989

Mr Bob Allen, a Life Member since 1969, and Secretary of the Society for 25 years, passed away in December. The Society purchased a seat in his memory for the new shopping precinct in Cliffe High Street.

1990

The Cliffe charges admission to the Firesite for the first time.

2000

The Lewes Bonfire societies and East Hoathly organise a Millennium Firework Display on 1st January. Owing to severe floods the Cliffe is forced to move its’ firesite only a week before the 5th.

2003

The Cliffe secures its future with the purchase of its own firesite.