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Origins and History of the Lewes Guy Fawkes Night Celebrations

Following the capture of Guy Fawkes on 5th November 1605 and the arrest of his fellow conspirators the Government responded immediately to this attempt to blow up the King and Parliament. 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 Remembrance’ and that the day be ‘a holiday for ever in thankfulness to God for the deliverance and detestation of the Papists’. This annual ‘remembrance’ was to be marked by a morning service in every parish church at which a special prayer of thanksgiving was to be offered up.

The origin of today’s Lewes ‘Bonfire Night’ celebrations is undoubtedly rooted in this Act and many would like to believe that the Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot has been commemorated each 5th November since 1606. However insufficient documentary evidence supports this and it seems likely that the ‘holiday’ was discontinued during Cromwell’s Commonwealth when entertainments of the common people were suppressed, reflecting the Puritanical outlook of that period. The restoration of monarchy probably saw the reintroduction of the commemoration, but whether it was more than a church service has to remain conjecture.

It is not until 1679 before Benjamin Harris, in the Domestick Intelligence, records an isolated account of events in Lewes. He provides a detailed description of an anti-papal procession parading through the streets of Lewes, participants attired in mock religious regalia and carrying a papal effigy. However whether this was an annual occurrence is uncertain as in that year Titus Oates falsely claimed the existence of a Popish Plot. Such was the paranoiac fear of Roman Catholicism that Oates’ revelations provoked large anti-papal demonstrations in London and which may have similarly influenced events in Lewes.

During the 18th century events in Lewes on the ‘Fifth’ were occasionally reported in the local press. These suggest no established form of celebration until towards the end of the century when a fire was beginning to be regularly lit at the top of School Hill, often accompanied by disturbances and arrests. Following riotous events in 1806 the firesite was moved to the safety of Gallows Bank. The celebrations subsequently went into decline leading the press to comment in 1814 that ‘we scarcely remember our streets to have been so free from annoyance of squibs, rockets and other fireworks’.

Enthusiasm for the ‘Fifth’ was rekindled during the 1820’s and from that time the local press has reported the annual celebrations. These reports graphically describe very lively, if not riotous, proceedings with a large bonfire being built in the High Street between the White Hart and County Hall (now the Law Courts) attended by large crowds. Fireballs and squibs were thrown and an increasing number of blazing tar barrels being dragged through the streets. The magistrates, supported by local people sworn in as special constables, attempted to curtail the more unruly elements and in 1847, following an attack on a local magistrate the previous year, London police were drafted into Lewes in an attempt to suppress the bonfire boys’ activities.

Such was the support for the celebrations in the town that this attempt failed, but the bonfire boys were compelled to hold their celebrations in Wallands Park, away from the High Street, until 1850. In that year the reintroduction of the Catholic hierarchy into Britain led the town authorities to permit the celebrations to return to the High Street. However this return to the streets of Lewes was marked by a significant change in the celebration’s character and heralded the formation of the Cliffe Bonfire Society. Recognising that riotous proceedings would no longer be tolerated the bonfire boys formed themselves into Bonfire Societies and set about organising military style torchlight processions efficiently marshalled by members resplendent in various titles including Commander-in-Chief, Staff Officer and Inspector General.

© 2003 Jim Etherington

 

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A Brief History of Cliffe Bonfire Society

Although the ‘Fifth’ had been commemorated before 1853 in Cliffe it is generally accepted that the Cliffe Bonfire Society was formed in that year. The Society adopted the ‘Guernsey’ costume for its members and, accompanied by a band, its torchlight processions paraded through the streets of the Cliffe area dragging blazing tar barrels, displaying banners proclaiming ‘No Popery’ and carrying papal and political effigies. With the procession’s arrival at the firesite at Cliffe Corner the proceedings were then conducted by the Society’s ‘Bishop’ who, standing on a raised platform, lambasted the crowd with an anti-catholic and patriotic tirade before condemning the effigies to the fire.

Banner Depicting Lewes Protestant Martyrs   No Popery Banner
   
Best wishes to Cliffe Subscribers Banner 150th anniversary Banner
© Clare Brown


The remainder of the century witnessed an increasingly better organised and elaborate celebration in Cliffe. As the need for disguise declined the striped jerseys of the ‘Smugglers’ gave way to a range of costumes. Initially worn by Society officers to distinguish them, by 1861 costumes included Bedouin Arabs, highwaymen, soldiers, sailors, clowns and North American Indians. During the 1870’s Pioneer groups became a regular feature, the first group to lead the Cliffe’s processions being members of the Cliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade. Reflecting Britain’s expanding Empire, firemen were superseded by Squads of Bengal Lancers and, leading up to World War One, by Indian Princes.

Until 1906, when street fires were banned, Cliffe Corner continued as the firesite, and here the Cliffe’s display increased in size and ingenuity. The traditional effigies of Pope and Fawkes were frequently accompanied into the fire by local notorieties or opponents of Britain’s imperialist ambitions. Elaborate tableaux, three-dimensional structures mounted on a cart, depicting some aspect of current political or local significance became an integral feature of the firesite firework display, becoming increasingly more spectacular as the pyrotechnic artistry of the Society’s ‘tab builders’ improved.

Following World War One Cliffe resurrected its celebrations retaining all the traditional elements including the ‘No Popery’ banner and the burning of a papal effigy. During the 1920’s Cliffe withstood constant criticism for this practice and when, in 1933, the then Mayor, J.C.Kenward, wrote to the Society requesting the discontinuation of the offending effigy, the Cliffe declined.

This determination to maintain the true Bonfire traditions of the ‘Fifth’ led to the Society being ostracised by the other Lewes bonfire societies. In the 1950’s the Bonfire Council attached pre-conditions to Cliffe’s participation in the United Grand Procession, the Society being permitted to join only if the ‘No Popery’ banner was not carried. Cliffe rejected this offer, and while it now plays a full part in the Lewes Bonfire Council’s activities the Society has maintained its independence by refusing to join the ‘United’ procession.  
© Clare Brown 

The Cliffe continues to march alone on the ‘Fifth’, taking the view that the Society is ‘Strong enough to Stand Alone’.

However Cliffe has frequently had to overcome ‘behind the scenes’ difficulties. Premises to use for fundraising activities and preparing for the ‘Fifth’ became more difficult to find and the long-time firesite on Malling Hill ceased to meet increasingly stringent firework safety regulations. More recently new firework legislation and concern for crowd safety has prompted Cliffe to form its own firework company, increase co-operation with the police and emergency services and seek a permanent safe firesite.

Since the 1970’s successive committees have worked strenuously, not only to raise the necessary funds to put on the best celebrations in the town, but also to accumulate sufficient funds to secure the long term future of the Society. In 1980 land and buildings were acquired to provide permanent premises, in 1983 the Society became legally constituted, becoming Cliffe Bonfire Society Limited and in 2003 Cliffe’s celebrations have been made secure by the purchase of its own firesite.

Cliffe has relished the notoriety surrounding its controversial activities. It has drawn strength from this and as the 20th century came to a close Cliffe was growing ever stronger, with a membership heading towards a thousand. With its future now secure, Cliffe will continue to mount ever more spectacular celebrations that are the envy of the rest of Lewes.


© 2003 Jim Etherington

For further reading about the history of the Lewes Guy Fawkes Night celebration see 'Lewes Bonfire Night' by Jim Etherington, published by SB Publications available at local bookshops, priced £5.99, or direct from the author, 56 South Way, Lewes, Sussex, BN7 1LY, priced £6.75 including p&p.

 

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Bonfire Prayers

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes 'twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow

By God's providence he was catch'd
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, ring bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God Save the King!

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o'cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him

Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we'll say old Pope is dead

Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!
Hip Hip Hoorah!

Traditional

 

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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.

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Life Members

The Cliffe Bonfire Society awards Life Membership to members whom it considers have offered an outstanding contribution and continued support to the Society throughout their membership. Below is a list of those members. (*) indicates the person is deceased.

1961

Bill Penfold *

1987

Ron Wright *

2004

Andy Freeman

1969

W Hewlett *

1988

Norman Funnell *

2004

Brent Smithers

1969

Bob Allen *

1988

Tony McDermott *

2006

Bryan Parrott

1971

C Funnell *

1991

Ken Funnell

2006

Jim Smith

1974

Harry Muggeridge *

1991

Peter Martin

2007

Tim Knight

1976

Aubrey Taylor

1992

Keith Austin *

2007

Paul Mockford

1978

Reg Yarrow MBE *

1992

Frank Philp

2008

Steve Bland

1979

Clifford Best *

1992

Meldrum Smith *

2008

Peter Varnham

1987

Jim Etherington

1993

Ann Martin

2009

Terry Cornwell

1987

Bob Gibbs *

1993

Gilbert Smith

2009

Sally Wootton

1987

Eric Hewlett *

1993

Les Wootton

2010

Andy Roberts

1987

Elsie Larkin *

1996

Joyce Funnell

2011

Christine Muscato

1987

Pete Penfold *

1999

John Cross

2013

Martin Keogh

1987

Betty Saxe

2000

Christine Lawrence

2014

Stephen Mockford

1987

Pat White *

2000

Angela Brinkhurst

 

 

1987

Peter White *

2004

Roger Crouch

   

 

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