Sussex Bonfires talk

Review of the talk about the Sussex Bonfires given by Keith & Heather Leech on 7th March 2021.

by Denise Allen:

“Keith and Heather Leech gave and interesting and entertaining talk about the history of Sussex Bonfires, how they came about and why they are so big in the county of East Sussex in particular, compared with elsewhere.

Sussex Bonfire“Keith Leech is a Founder of the Hastings Borough Bonfire Society, their President and a member of the Sussex Bonfire Council. Heather Leech is the current Chairman of the Hastings Borough Bonfire Society.

“Keith started the zoom session with some personal background information.  Keith moved to Sussex for work, and in his spare time continued research that he had started in London about 40 years ago, into local custome.  He stumbled on Bonfires but it is not just a folk/morris domain.  Keith was persuaded to revive Hastings Bonfires and it has been running for about 25 years.

“Keith & Heather both do research into Bonfires. There are 40 different Bonfire Societies and they take place every Saturday starting in September until the end of November.   Keith mentioned Bonfires go back along way before Guy Fawkes and sees Bonfires as an excuse for a party where the best place was on the street dancing round fires.  Heather views the Bonfires as political.

“Keith gave a quick history lesson starting with Henry VIII, the Reformation, Mary, Elizabeth and James I.  At this time the religion of England switched between Roman Catholics and Protestants with martyrs on both sides being burnt at the stake.

“Having said that Hastings Borough Bonfire Society celebrates the discovery of the Gun Powder Plot by Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and other men to overthrow the English Monarchy.  The plot happened on Tuesday 5 November 1605.  A tunnel was dug under the House of Lords where 36 barrels of gun powder was hidden with the intention to blow up James I and parliament so that Catholicism would be the main religion in England.  The majority of English people did not support this.

“In 1606 James I passed the Observance of 5th November Act or Thanksgiving Act to celebrated the failure of the Catholic plot. People celebrated with bonfires, fireworks, bell ringing church services and sermons. It remained a law to celebrate the failure of the plot until March 1859.  Pepys documented Bonfires.  Oliver Cromwell having banned most forms of celebration carried on the Bonfire tradition as proof God was on the side of the Puritans and because there was nothing else to celebrate at that time Bonfires proved popular.

“Effigies are burnt including the Pope to remind people that it was a Catholic plot but this only happens in two towns now since the end of the Great War.  The effigies although political in context are also tongue in cheek.  There have been effigies of 3 pigs, traffic wardens and Keith Leech as been blown up and see it as an honour and a celebration.

“After the French Revolution nationwide edicts came through in 1840 banning bonfires and fireworks in the street.  Most places stopped except for 3 towns.  In Lewis the riot act was read but the locals carried on all disguised the same and the town came out in defiant.  The authorities could not stop the town celebrating and the following year more towns took part.  Most members now wear fancy dress.  The societies are arranged along military lines.  One year the authorities of Battle decided there would not be a bonfire on the green and no firework.  The society turned up, marched up the street and dropped their flaming torches on the green and started a fire and the locals let off fireworks in their gardens.  Over the years the societies have had to fight to maintain their tradition.

“Hastings is famous for their giant Guy.  Battle has the oldest Guy or at least the head is which is never burnt.  Battle was the centre for gun powder.

“Burning crosses are important as symbols that English people have religious freedom. In England people may believe in any religion or none without being persecuted. 17 Protestants were killed in Lewes between 1555 and 1557; the burning crosses began as a way of remembering them. Now they are carried to remember anyone who has died because of their religion and to celebrate England’s religious freedom.

“The bonfire tradition near stopped in WW2 due to the blackout but was revived in the 1950s and has gone on strength to strength.

“Keith and Heather showed a video of the Hastings Bonfire from 2019 the last time it happened and photos of past events.

“The Bonfire evening ends with the Bonfire Prayer:

Remember Remember the fifth of November

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 King and parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below

to prove old England’s overthrow.

By God’s mercy he was catched

with a dark lantern and burning match.

Holler boys, Holler boys, let the bells ring

Holler boys Holler boys God save the King.

Hip Hip Hoorah!

Hip Hip Hoorah!

Hip Hip Hoorah!

review by Denise Allen of Rockhopper Morris in Buckinghamshire

Donations from participants raised money for the Hastings Borough Bonfire Society

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